Southern cities owe Bible devotion to hillbillies

by Keith Miller
Posted 1/29/14, 09:00 am

The American Bible Society and the Barna: Cities project are out with an updated ranking of the “Bible-mindedness” of the 100 largest American metropolitan areas. Chattanooga, Tenn., leads the way this year, snatching the top spot from its Volunteer State neighbor, Knoxville. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the top 10 cities are also located in traditional Bible Belt states. On the other end of the spectrum, most of the bottom 10 are in the Northeast.

The Barna Group counts someone as “Bible-minded” if they both report weekly Bible reading and regard the Bible to be accurate in the principles it teaches. This question should measure the concentration of committed evangelical Protestants while also capturing some portion of what George Weigel calls evangelical Catholicism, Roman Catholic laymen inspired to take up regular Bible study by Vatican II reforms.

Some observers noticed that most of the markets at the top of this list host sizable Christian colleges and propose that this could be a cause of the cities’ increased Bible-mindedness. But that speculation doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. While it is true that the Chattanooga area hosts Covenant College, Birmingham has Samford, and Springfield has Evangel, important Christian colleges thrive in markets on the bottom of the list as well. Gordon College and Houghton College are located in cities—Boston and Buffalo, respectively—that display very little Bible-mindedness. 

Rather than religious colleges, the ancestral culture of the Scotch-Irish may be a better explanation for the shape of this list. With the exception of Tim Tebow’s Jacksonville, every other top 20 market is located in the region demographers refer to as the Upland South, a geographical area stretching from the southern Appalachians to the Ozark plateau, or from Billy Graham’s western North Carolina to Oral Roberts’ eastern Oklahoma. 

The South, that is states of the Confederacy or the SEC, can be divided into two very distinct regions: the Upland South and the Deep South. David Hackett Fischer’s Albion's Seed traces the original settlers of these two areas to separate parts of Great Britain. While the lowlands were settled by Cavaliers and adopted their aristocratic culture, the highlands were settled by Scotch-Irish and developed a much less hierarchical culture. Think hillbillies and baldknobbers. 

Political guru Sean Trende describes the cultural norms of these backcountry hicks:

"The Scotch-Irish were viscerally anti-establishment, an attitude that still pervades many aspects of their descendants’ outlook: anti-big religion, anti-big government, anti-big banks, and anti-big business. These were the people that Andrew Jackson—our first Scotch-Irish president—invited to his first inauguration, and who proceeded to get drunk and trash the White House."

While inhabitants of today’s Bible-minded cities may be much less likely to throw a White House rager, they still possess an anti-establishment streak.

Which brings us back to why these historically Scotch-Irish cities are so Bible-minded. The trait Trende identified as “anti-big religion” is a cultural suspicion of established religious authorities. Yet at the same time, the founders of this Upland South civilization were very religious and very firm in their commitments to the Bible. They built independent Bible churches throughout the region and, as noted above, founded Bible colleges there as well.

The sustained Bible-mindedness of this region is a testament to the faithfulness of these Bible-believers as well as an endorsement of their anti-establishment religious culture. 

Keith Miller

Keith, a graduate of Columbia Law School, works in the administration at Hillsdale College. He is fascinated with cities, suburbs, and the idea of place. Follow Keith on Twitter @Keith_J_Miller.

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