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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy