South's religious diversity growing

Opposition to school-organized prayers before football games.

A ban on Bible-verse high school banners.

Resistance to a proposed mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

All these recent incidents are just signs that the South is catching up to what already has happened in other parts of the country -- religious diversity -- a local religion expert says.

"Probably part of the reason is the South has had the image of being much more evangelically Protestant and Christian in its culture ... so folks simply assume a kind of religious style is commonly accepted," said Charles Lippy, a retired religious studies professor from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

"Now that we are becoming in this part of the country as diverse and pluralistic as other parts of the country, we can't have that assumption anymore," he said.

Although the top denomination continues to be Baptist, there are more faiths represented in the region now than in the past.

The most recent available statistics from the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies show that in 2000 there were more than 100,000 Southern Baptists and 196 congregations in the metro area, which includes Hamilton and Marion counties in Tennessee and Catoosa, Dade and Walker counties in Georgia.

In that year there were about 2,000 Muslims and two mosques in the metro area. There are four mosques today.

Kabah Raheem, a prayer leader at the Chattanooga Islamic Center on Central Avenue, moved here from Chicago in 1971. At that time he knew of only two Muslim families in Chattanooga, although he said there probably were more.

He estimates the number of Muslims in the area has increased by 1,000 percent since the '70s. He attributes the increase to several factors: people, like himself, who converted to Islam; immigrants; and students or professionals moving to the Scenic City.

There are no local estimates on the number of Hindus, but Sheila Boyington, a practicing Hindu, said Indian residents bought an old church building in the Washington Hills neighborhood at least 15 years ago and turned it into the Gurjari Samaj of East Tennessee. A second, smaller temple recently opened near the North Georgia border, she said.

In the beginning, she said, her family celebrated Diwali, the Hindu equivalent of Christmas, with about 100 people. Now more than 500 attend, she said, and that doesn't include everyone in the community.

Beyond Islam and Hindu, there are many others of different faiths such as Buddhism who worship privately at home, Lippy said.

religion and immigration

The changing face of religion is in great part a result of immigration trends, experts say.

"People are simply doing what our ancestors did. They bring their own religion with them," said Lippy.

Religion is a major part of societies around the world, said Deborah Levine, a Chattanooga resident and editor of the American Diversity Report, a website that focuses on cultural diversity.

"Religion is something parents pass on to their children," Levine said.

"That means that conflicts, events, issues that arrive around religion are going to be highly emotional and, since we have a shrinking world, my prediction is we are going to see more interaction around religious groups in the future."

The ability to accept religious diversity is integral to Chattanooga's future growth, she said.

"We have, as a city, ambitions to be part of the international global economy," she said. "Knowing about different cultures is vital to the success of being an international player. Religion is a major part of the way people do things, think, do business, the way they structure their days and years ... that's why people need to be aware of that to be successful."

But the initial product of such interaction and growth may be fear.

Boyington said when she moved to Chattanooga, there wasn't as much acceptance for other religions, but that changed over the years -- except immediately after 9/11.

Second Missionary Baptist Church pastor Paul McDaniel, who came to town in 1966, said there was an initial resistance to accept Catholics and Jews when those communities started to grow.

"We were not as conscious [of] diversity within the community," McDaniel said. "Most of us were Christians, as such, and most Christians were Protestants.

"Later on, a larger Catholic community came and got some recognition; there was some negativism toward that," he said. "When the Jewish community blossomed more, there was still more negativism to that."

People often are more willing to accept other groups if they know someone who belongs to that group, said David Campbell, co-author of the book "American Grace," which examines religion in America.

"The reason in general that Americans are comfortable with people of other religions is because most Americans have close friends, family members, [or] their spouse who are of other faiths," he said.

The resistance to Muslims that the country has seen -- for instance, opposition to construction of a mosque in Rutherford County, northwest of Chattanooga -- is partly because Muslims still are only a small part of the U.S. population, he said.

"People are aware of them, generally, not through personal contact, but rather through what you see in the news media," he said.


Campbell said the numbers of religious conservatives and people who profess no faith have grown in the last generation. That leaves fewer people in the religious center, he said.

"The reason we are seeing these tensions and frictions is partly because of this polarization," he said.

"Religion matters a lot to some people because they themselves are religious, and it matters a lot to another group of people because they are not religious and therefore are not terribly warm to a religious society."

Prayer in school has been fought over since 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled organized prayer led by school officials is unconstitutional, Campbell said.

"Basically, the way these battles get fought out is somebody, some school administrator, decides to have a prayer at a football game or a graduation ceremony. It's fought in courts, goes to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court says you can't do that, and it starts all over again," he said.

"As to why people continue to do it, it's because people care a lot about religion," he added.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jim Scales recently banned prayers at football games and graduation ceremonies after receiving a letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation. A group of Soddy-Daisy students contacted the foundation after complaining about the practice to school officials.

Last year, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School cheerleaders were banned from creating Bible-verse banners for school football games after a local resident questioned the constitutionality of the practice.

While these incidents get a lot of media attention and generate controversy in the community, they are not common, Campbell said.

"I think it is important to know those types of disputes are still relatively rare and quite muted compared to what we might have expected in the United States, given how religiously diverse we are as a country combined with our high level of religious devotion," he said.

Despite the occasional argument about prayer in school or some perceived unease with new kinds of religion in Chattanooga, Second Missionary's McDaniel thinks the city is moving in the right direction.

"I think we have tended to be more acceptable to different faiths to a measurable degree," McDaniel said. "We are not there certainly yet ... but we have moved a long ways toward that goal."

And Levine said there's a greater interest in interfaith conversations and religious diversity in general.

"While people may think we are isolated, in fact, we are not," she said. "These are our neighbors, our professionals, our friends, young people who go to school with us."