Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

I have been in and out of Nashville since the mid-1980s and I have heard that great city called many things.

Of course, it is the “Music City,” but I am more fond of the nickname “Guitar Town.”

Southern Baptists used to refer to the national convention’s large, strategically located headquarters as the “Baptist Vatican.” Then again, the United Methodist corporate presence in Nashville is also important.

This points to another reality: The historic synergy between the country music industry and the world of gospel music, in a wide variety of forms (including Contemporary Christian Music). Nashville is also home to a hub of Christian publishing companies that has global clout. All of that contributes to another well-known Nashville label: “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”

It’s an amazing town, with a stunning mix of churches and honky-tonks. As country legend Naomi Judd once told me, in Nashville artists can sing about Saturday night and Sunday morning in the same show and no one will blink.

This brings me to a massive New York Times feature that ran with this sprawling double-decker headline:

Nashville’s Star Rises as Midsize Cities Break Into Winners and Losers

Nashville and others are thriving thanks to a mix of luck, astute political choices and well-timed investments, while cities like Birmingham, Ala., fall behind.

That tells you the basic thrust of the story. What interested me is that the Times covered the rapidly changing face of Nashville — many Tennesseans moan that it’s the new Atlanta — without making a single reference to the role that religious institutions have played in the city’s past and, yes, its present.

That’s really, really hard to do. But the Times team managed to pull that off. Here’s the overture:

NASHVILLE — Forty years ago, Nashville and Birmingham, Ala., were peers. Two hundred miles apart, the cities anchored metropolitan areas of just under one million people each and had a similar number of jobs paying similar wages.

Not anymore. The population of the Nashville area has roughly doubled, and young people have flocked there, drawn by high-paying jobs as much as its hip “Music City” reputation. Last month, the city won an important consolation prize in the competition for Amazon’s second headquarters: an operations center that will eventually employ 5,000 people at salaries averaging $150,000 a year.

Birmingham, by comparison, has steadily lost population, and while its suburbs have expanded, their growth has lagged the Nashville area’s. Once-narrow gaps in education and income have widened, and important employers like SouthTrust and Saks have moved their headquarters. Birmingham tried to lure Amazon, too, but all it is getting from the online retail giant is a warehouse and a distribution center where many jobs will pay about $15 an hour. …

Nashville and the other Amazon also-rans, like Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis, are thriving because of a combination of luck, astute political choices and well-timed investments.

Let me stress that it is absolute true that today’s Nashville is a much more secular and pluralistic place than the city I first started visiting in the 1970s. I TOTALLY get that, and Tennesseans from the mountains to the Mississippi River know that, too. Some like the changes. Many don’t. And we’re not just talking about the traffic.

However, that Bible Belt past is part of the story, it’s part of the tensions that now define Nashville and what the city is becoming.

The bottom line: It’s really, really hard to ignore the role that religious faith has played in building Nashville. Talk about an obvious “religion ghost.” This story is haunted, big time.

Here is a chunk of the Times piece that — just for a second — points to a crucial fact about Nashville culture.

Ask Ralph Schulz, president of Nashville’s Chamber of Commerce, why this city has done so well and he begins with the Civil War. Nashville surrendered early, allowing it to avoid the destruction that befell many Southern cities. Union troops used the city as a logistics hub, which laid the groundwork for its postwar economy.

Nashville stood apart in other ways, too. The city was less dependent on manufacturing, in part because being Tennessee’s capital brought lucrative — and relatively recession-proof — public investments. Its colleges and universities, anchored by Vanderbilt University, earned it a reputation as the “Athens of the South.”

The music business, which grew out of a 19th-century publishing industry, gave the city an international reputation, while the growth of Hospital Corporation of America in the 20th century turned the city into a health care hub.

As a result, Nashville had a diversified economy and an educated work force that left it well positioned for the 21st century. But success wasn’t inevitable. As recently as the 1990s, the city was portrayed as a backwater on the variety show “Hee Haw.”

Forget the whole self-aware “Hee Haw” thang.

No, I am referring to yet another nickname for Nashville — the “Athens of the South.” It’s amazing how many colleges, universities and seminaries are located in the greater Nashville area (the number depends on how you define the metro area).

Click here for a Nashville Chamber of Commerce list that includes 25, including several branch offices of schools located elsewhere. However, it’s hard not to come up with 10-plus core institutions that have played a major role in Nashville history.

Let’s take a few of those in alphabetical order. American Baptist College. Aquinas College. Belmont University. Fisk University. Lipscomb University. Trevecca Nazarene University. Vanderbilt University. I could go on.

See any trends? Any faith ties that bind?

Yes, even Vanderbilt, a school that — today — seems more and more like a hub promoting a fusion of progressive secularism and the doctrines of United Methodist liberalism.

So, if the “Athens of the South” reputation is part of the package that is helping Nashville grow, might that have something to do with the city’s large and still powerful heritage as a center for Christian life, thought, culture and, yes, business? You see, I do realize that the Times piece is a business-angle feature.

How, pray tell, do you write about the booming future of Nashville while ignoring the Bible Belt angle of its past and present?

Just asking.

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