A Personal Religion that Goes Public

The religious habits and leanings of Southerners have been a source of multitudinous proclamations, conversations, protestations, discussions, debates, arguments, satires, and jokes over the last fifty years. In the era after the Civil Rights movement, what John Kennedy Toole caricatured in The Neon Bible was on the wane, and a new brand of religion was on the rise. Though the updated version was not a complete overhaul, it moved the South from tent revivals to megachurches, embraced the usefulness of television and screen media, and yielded such byproducts as the “moral majority” in the late 1970s and ’80s.

These changes had definite effects. In an April 2019 article, the polling organization Gallup shared this, which shows how religion had changed in America, not just in the South:

U.S. church membership was 70% or higher from 1937 through 1976, falling modestly to an average of 68% in the 1970s through the 1990s. The past 20 years have seen an acceleration in the drop-off, with a 20-percentage-point decline since 1999 and more than half of that change occurring since the start of the current decade.

Despite that decline, a breakdown of the data presented near the end of the article shows that the South still has the highest rates of church membership, even though those rates did drop from 74% in 1998–2000 to 58% in 2016–2018.

Five years earlier in 2014, another polling organization, the Pew Research Center, published their own study that sheds light on Southern religion more specifically. Pew found that 76% of Southerners claim Christianity as their religion, while the second largest group was “Unaffiliated” at 19%. All other religions hover around 1% or less, meaning that, in the South, any non-Christian is squarely outnumbered. Moving in closer to those numbers, most of that 76% are Protestant; about 15% are Catholic. The center also found that 71% of Southerners believed in God with “absolute certainty” (16% more were fairly certain, for 87% total), and that 62% said religion was “very important” in their lives (21% more said it was “somewhat important,” that’s 83% total). Likewise, 62% of Southerners said they pray every day. What I’m driving at is: the vast majority of Southerners are Christians who take their religion quite seriously.

However, a series of telling details from the Pew Center’s graphs can augment and alter this glance at Southern religion. Most notably, only 41% of respondents said they attend a religious service once a week. That means that about a healthy portion of those folks who believe with “absolutely certainty” and who find religion “very important” don’t make their way to a church on Sunday.  That could presumably be the 33% who go “once or twice a month/a few times a year.” Similarly, 50% said that they “seldom or never” attend Sunday school or some other kind of religious education.  So, while five of eight Southerners pray every day,  half make little to no effort to study their own religion.  That assessment is reinforced by the statistic that 44% read scripture every week, though 36% read it “seldom or never.” It’s staggering to think that, in a region of such notable religious fervor, four out of ten Christians hardly the crack the spine on a Bible. 

Maybe it’s this mixture of strong faith and self-definition that yielded the next set of results. Pew reported that 88% of Southerners feel a sense of “spiritual peace and well-bring” regularly, while barely half feel a “sense of wonder about the universe” regularly.  So, most Southerners feel good about all the cosmic stuff, but far fewer think about it. Which may explain another dead-heat between what is above and what is here on Earth: asked about their source for understanding right or wrong, 40% said religion, while 41% said common sense. That wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if common sense were actually common.

Getting back to the cause for concern in this project – the beliefs, myths, and narratives that drive Southern culture – the numbers illicit some questions. Holding these figures up to the light, fuzzy areas where the numbers don’t line up cause me to wonder: how can religion be very important to a person who rarely opens the Bible, seldom goes to church, and trusts his gut as a moral compass? Perhaps there’s more feeling than thinking going on among a certain swath of the faithful. What is difficult for a conscientious observer to swallow is that those who follow gut-instinct act in the name of their faith just the same as – and sometimes more loudly than – informed, thoughtful adherents. And those actions affect Southern life in ways both large and small: from the outcomes of elections and decisions about public policy to ideas about educating children and the social acceptance of microaggressions.

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To learn more about adding your voice to Nobody’s Home: Modern Southern Folklore, read “A Word from the Editor on Submissions,” or visit the Submissions page.

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