Often referred to as the “Bible Belt,” the U.S. South boasts a population in which approximately 70 percent of adults identify with some denomination of Christianity. Of the seven included states, several have claimed to be the “buckle” of this notorious belt.
Explore: The U.S. Bible Belt Story Map
Statistics might speak in favor of Tennessee for this nomination. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 80 percent of the Tennessee population alone is Christian, leaving less than 20 percent to fall into some other religious or non-religious category.
While the number of religious and non-religious organizations on the University of Tennessee’s campus is expansive and of a wide variety, only a fraction of them have much presence in the public sphere.
The most accessible database of these groups can be found on the UTK Campus Ministers Council website. However, only one of the organizations listed is not Christian in nature, even though countless other faiths have assembled on campus.
This might be due to the fact that the Campus Ministers Council is not directly affiliated with the university, but perhaps also to a widespread lack of representation for religious and non-religious minorities.
What does this mean for non-Christian religions?
Especially for students like Dena Baker, an officer of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) on campus, this means that her organization has become a family.
“We want to teach people about Muslims and who we really are. We try to put on a good face for everybody,” Baker said. “Also, we just want to help people.”
With such a mindset of cooperation and understanding, students like Baker and her MSA companions are agents of change both on campus and in the world at large. However, it’s uncertain as to how much the world will be willing to change its mind for them.
Since the infamous attacks taken out on the U.S. by Islamic terrorists in 2001, anti-Islamic sentiments have risen as part of a phenomenon commonly known as islamophobia. This islamophobia has taken root in some of the more conservative parts of the country, which makes the Bible Belt a major breeding ground for these hateful sentiments.
Baker confirmed that she has felt very secure in her religious identity in the Knoxville community. Still, she stated that the MSA has experienced prejudice in the past. One of the more shocking examples Baker cited is that of students stepping on the Quran.
“Stuff like that has happened; we just try to be as mature about it as possible and to spread love instead of hate,” she added.
What about those who don’t practice a religion?
Believe it or not, the story is not much different. According to Michael Parker of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) at UT, one advantage is that it’s much harder to ID an atheist who wears no religious garment or visual symbol such as a hijab.
“You’re going to face adversity when you’re different — whether that be race, religion, sexual orientation, or a million other things,” said Parker.
However, similar to Baker, Parker maintained that he feels accepted in his non-religious identity as both a citizen of Knoxville and member of the campus community. He mentioned that this tolerance might be due in part to the open-minded nature of most college campuses.
As he grew up in a smaller and more conservative Tennessee town, Parker still has memories of not being accepted for his beliefs. This fact makes it even more important that he and anyone else can openly express themselves within the SSA.
“We want to give people a place to come in, talk, share opposing values without having to worry about any kind of backlash,” he stated.
Why is Christianity so normalized in the first place?
“What we call the Second Great Awakening was not exclusively centered in the South, but one of its major epicenters was here in this region.”
Dr. Randal Hepner of the Religious Studies department at UT attributes the predominant Christianity of the Bible Belt to a variety of complex historical events, one of which might be the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that took place in the 18th and 19th century United States.
Furthermore, after the Civil War, Tennessee was especially staunch in its beliefs, not solely concerning religion, but also in terms of issues such as slavery.
“There was a role played by evangelical Christianity, white evangelical Christianity specifically, in justifying or legitimating the slave trade,” said Hepner.
Several biblical passages have been debated as to whether or not they indicate pro-slavery ideals as it was a usual facet of the biblical era.
This isn’t to say that Christianity was or is inherently supportive of slavery. It is reasonable to say, however, that the predominance of Christianity did not leave any room for traditional African religions, many of which were squelched in the U.S. South as a result of Christianization.
While modern Christian faiths almost unanimously denounce these institutions of the past, Christianization itself is a trend that has stood the test of time.
Christianity isn’t intrinsically bad, it’s just big
Many Christians assert that this spreading of the gospel is a pivotal facet of practicing the religion. Per this ideology, to be a Christian is to enlighten one’s neighbor with evangelical ideals.
Of the many Christian student organizations at UT, Volunteers for Christ (VFC) is perhaps one of the most notorious. As a campus staff intern with VFC, student Bria Bannister says that her life is defined by both practicing her faith and sharing it with others.
“We want people to be won to Christ because we believe that’s what the Bible teaches. That’s what your life is about— worshipping the Lord,” Bannister explained.
Bannister did agree with the notion that there are both positive and negative results of what she called a predominant “Christian culture.” She said that such a culture sometimes causes people to hide their true religious identities.
Knoxville: setting the standard for interfaith dialogue
“I think that you can find people in Knoxville who are as tolerant as people anywhere else in the United States,” said Hepner.
Eboo Patel, founder of a national youth organization called the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), visited UT in February to inform students about the benefits of a religiously pluralistic society.
“The idea of pluralism is being less of who you are in order to better cooperate with others,” stated Patel during his lecture.
It was this lecture that inspired several students from religious organizations around campus to unite and form the new Interfaith Network at UT. The group has a goal of creating a roundtable for constructive interfaith dialogue.
Leaders like Patel and the driven students behind these organizations are changing the narrative simply by starting conversations such as these. In spite of previous and ongoing tensions sparked by interpersonal differences such as religion, universities like UT are serving as a big orange light in the dark.