Despite the amped up rhetoric from the Religious Right, religious belief is on the downswing in this country. Jay Reeves of the Associated Press recently took a look at the impact of that trend in the South, and his points are encouraging:
[In addition to failing to stop alcohol sales on Sundays,] Church-based crusaders against gambling also are on a losing streak as all but two Southern states, Alabama and Mississippi, have lotteries. And, perhaps most tellingly, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed 19 percent of Southerners don’t identify with any organized religion. That’s fewer “nones” than in other regions, but the number is up 6 percentage points in the South since 2007.
The South is still the Bible Belt, and that same Pew survey found that church affiliation remains stronger in the states of the old Confederacy than anywhere else in the United States. Seventy-six percent of Southerners call themselves Christians, and political advertisements often show candidates in or near church. Religious conservatives remain a powerful force in many Southern statehouses.
Still, the same South that often holds itself apart from the rest of the country is becoming more like other U.S. regions when it comes to organized religion, said Jessica Martinez, a senior researcher in religion and public life at Pew.
And while race divides many things in the South, the trend is evident among blacks, whites and Hispanic adults, she said.
Certainly, the church is not without power in the South (or anywhere else in the country, for that matter) — the percentages give a pretty clear indication of that — but the example Reeves’ article explores at length of an Alabama city’s recent vote to start allowing alcohol purchases on Sunday, which went largely unopposed by local churches, shows that even in decline, church influence is nothing to scoff at. Though the churches didn’t end up putting up much of a fight, the mayor made a point to pitch the idea to local pastors to get them onboard.
In Sylacauga, 45 miles southeast of Birmingham, Mayor Doug Murphree said the push for Sunday alcohol sales was linked to attracting new businesses.
“We’re not really trying to promote drinking in Sylacauga. But if you look at a big chain restaurant like Ruby Tuesday or O’Charley’s, they’re open on Sunday and a big part of their business is alcohol,” said the mayor.
Murphree, who attends a Baptist church, said he met with members of the local ministerial association before the citywide vote to explain the city’s economic situation and the need for Sunday alcohol sales. Pastors listened, and by and large they didn’t preach against it.
“They said they were not going to try to block us,” he said.
This may well have been a matter of the pastors choosing their battles wisely. While the Bible reminds Christians to “first cast out the beam out of thine own eye,” let’s face it: focusing on the motes in other peoples’ eyes is big business for religion. (How many ministries have been sustained primarily due to their opposition to same sex marriage and abortion?) Not only that, but reminding Christians of the rules they’re supposed to follow, and what they can’t do on certain days, isn’t likely to be well received.
And that is progress, at least. Church influence isn’t about to disappear, but we may be seeing the first steps of the thousand mile journey.