Squishy religion terms

ihmpittsburgh1The Pittsburgh Tribune published an interesting perspective on its region’s religious communities, stating in the headline that the city’s “Bible Belt rivals South’s, scholars say.” Overall the story is an interesting feature on the religious communities in the amazingly diverse city that is Pittsburgh, but the comparison with the South and the use of the term “Bible Belt” raise too many unnecessary issues that could cloud the story’s purpose for some.

America’s Bible Belt refers generally to the large swath of what is generally considered to be the American south, but the term has other meanings. For example, various communities in Indiana, particularly south of I-70, are certainly members of the Bible Belt, or could be considered Indiana’s Bible Belt along with area regions. What qualifies an area as a Bible Belt in my view is a place where a socially conservative view of religion dominates the culture. But I am willing to accept other definitions, which is the problem with using this term without a good definition.

As this article makes clear, Pittsburgh’s “Bible Belt” is broader than my perspective on the team:

A strong work ethic and conservative religious bent, the legacy of early settlers from Scotland and Ireland, has created a Bible Belt here as strong as that in the South and Midwest, theologians say, but with a personality of its own because Pittsburgh, with its many faiths and nationalities, has a deep religious commitment that spans church spectrums.

“God has done something very special here,” said Anglican Bishop Robert Duncan.

Western Pennsylvania has been the epicenter of splits within two Protestant denominations because local clerics took exception to the more liberal positions of their churches. Duncan led a group of conservative Pittsburgh-area parishes that split from the national Episcopal church over theological issues and the ordination of gay clergy. He serves as head of the Anglican Church in North America, a church formed by conservative congregations.

Part of this story of Pittsburgh’s religious diversity, and intensity, has to do with some of the wonderful features Pittsburgh provides that are absent in most other American cities of its size. In part, the story reflected that:

Geographically, Western Pennsylvania is the meeting point for northeastern, southern and Midwestern cultures.

“I see a confluence of all three cultures here, particularly when it comes to religious issues. It’s not southern, but it’s not Boston, either,” said Barr, who came here 20 years ago from a small church in a town of 3,000 people in North Carolina.

Churches here tend to focus on the New Testament, while Bible Belt churches concentrate on the Old Testament, said Duncan, who served in North Carolina.

I really don’t know how you can pigeon-hole churches in broad regions of the country. Churches and their various religious denominations are simply too diverse to categorize the manner in which they focus on the Bible. I would be interested in hearing an elaboration on that stereotype.

Another factor that makes Pittsburgh unique, and I am certain that most local readers of this story are aware of this fact, is that the city has a history of wealthy business leaders funding nonprofit organizations and using their millions to establish educational and cultural institutions. Pittsburgh stands out for its rich art and cultural communities, and I wonder how this influences the city’s religious institutions.

Overall the article is very strong in capturing the religious diversity of one of America’s great cities. I just would have avoided squirmy words such as “Bible Belt” and comparing the religious traditions with the South before rightly qualifying and withdrawing those comparisons.

Image of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church and old Emma Kaufmann Clinic in Polish Hill Pittsburgh, Pa., used under a public domain license.

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  • Andy

    Apart from a few oddities, like that quote from Bishop Duncan that was left hanging in midair (“Churches here tend to focus on the New Testament…”), this is a creditable effort. There is, however, a glaring (in my opinion) omission here: the link between social conservatism and stable, well defined neighborhoods inhabited by several generations of the same families.

    The 2000 census revealed (as best as I can remember) that the average Pittsburgher had lived in his or her home for 22 years. Couple that with the fact that three generations often live on the same street, and that neighborhoods are isolated from one another by fairly dramatic geography. It’s a local truism, for example, that Pittsburghers won’t cross more than one river.

    Those tight bonds would go some way toward explaining, on the one hand, the conservatism of the local mainline, Catholic, and Orthodox churches on the one hand, and the relative paucity of evangelical “megachurches” on the other.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    I completely agree with you Andy about your theory on the neighborhood factor re: Pittsburgh’s religious communities. The neighborhoods are my favorite aspect of the city and I struggled to figure out what factor they would play in this article. Perhaps Pittsburgh residents and journalists just know that’s a factor and it’d be too obvious to point it out in the article? Thanks for highlighting it.

  • Dave

    So, there are only Catholics and Protestants in Pittsburgh? I happen to know there are several Unitarian Universalist churches in the city, and I would be surprised if there were not a thriving Pagan community, maybe a synagogue or two, perhaps even a mosque! This narrow-gauge mainstrem-media notion of what is the “religious diversity” of a city is what makes me say “amen” to the charge that the press doesn’t get religion.

  • Brian L

    Hey, I grew up in the South. What in tarn’ation is a New Testament?

  • FW Ken

    Sorry, but I thought the article stunk (stank?). For starters, I grew up Baptist in the south (Texas and Louisiana) and it’s simply false to say that religion here focuses on the Old Testament. I remember.

    This about William Hausen:

    Some of the same issues that drove the splits within the Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches caused the excommunication of the Rev. William Hausen from the Roman Catholic Church. The pull and tug between conservative and liberal factions in the church bothered Hausen, so in 2004, he started his own church.

    Well, it turns out that what “caused” the excommunication was his starting his own church because he disagreed with the Catholic doctrine. This quote from Hausen was included without response, despite it being demonstrably false:

    “A group of people who don’t see Vatican II as positive are running the church now,” he said.

    The the writer went on to talk about schizmatic traditionalists as though they were the Catholic alternative to Hausen. In fact, it’s clear from here and here that the Tribune-Review has a distinct POV on matters Catholic.

    Another quote that’s inaccurate, if not really “biased”:

    “Throughout America, conservative religious denominations and strains of denominations are witnessing an increase in membership and participation, while more mainline churches face membership decline,”

    Most analyses of faith community growth points to clarity of doctrine as the salient factor, rather than “conservative” doctrine per se. Thus a liberal community like Glide Memorial in San Francisco or All Saint Episcopal, Pasadena can grow because they are very clear about who they are and why they are there. But now I am, perhaps, picking nits.

    So Dave, I don’t suppose this counts for a “thriving pagan community”? Just kidding, and I think your point is valid, although since they went with the “bible belt” theme, maybe sticking to Christians was to be expected. And they did include the Orthodox!

  • Dale

    The author mentions a “strong work ethic and a conservative religious bent” as the legacy of the early Presbyterian settlers of Western Pennsylvania. He leaves out a third legacy: anti-authoritarianism. The Presbyterians who settled in Western Pennsylvania usually moved there to escape the reach of the Philadelphia authorities, in both government and the church. So while there may be a tradition of doctrinal conservatism, there’s also an instinctive distrust of central (and more specifically, Eastern) authority.

  • Michele Hagerman

    No, there aren’t only Catholics and Protestants in Pittsburgh. Western PA has a large number of Orthodox parishes of various ethnicities.