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Why Catholics are flocking to the Bible Belt

There are few Catholics in South Carolina, the reddest of red states, but that is changing fast

By on Thursday, 16 February 2012

Catholics and Evangelicals make strange bedfellows. So it was unexpected here in South Carolina that Newt Gingrich, a hopeful Republican candidate and a Catholic convert, won the state’s presidential primary. In this region in the heart of the Bible Belt where people wear their religion on their sleeves, it was a surprise that a man who boasts that he is a devout Catholic should pull off a decisive victory.

Interestingly, it was 52 years ago that John F Kennedy, another proud Catholic, won the state’s Democratic primary to go on to become the first Catholic president of the United States. Back in 1960, here in the reddest of red states, known for its Evangelical zeal and conservatism, Kennedy’s opponents used the strategy that the pope would be guiding presidential decision-making. Then, as everyone knows, these fear tactics exploiting religious prejudice were ineffective and Kennedy won.

Religion was again used in the present pre-election campaign. The faith of Gingrich’s main opponent, Mitt Romney, a Mormon, became the target of public relations and media. Gingrich seemed to be able to sway voters by telling them that the Mormon religion, which bans drinking and dancing, is a cult and does not espouse the traditions normally associated with “conservative” American values.

It is not to be forgotten that South Carolina is the state which fired the first salvos that started the American Civil War, the 150th anniversary of which is presently being commemorated.

Evangelicals may have the most vocal presence in America, but Catholics, make up 25 per cent of the population, still outnumber them. Indeed, Catholics make up the largest denomination of any religion in the United States. Yet here in South Carolina, where Gingrich won the primary, Fr Gregory Wilson, who runs the Catholic church in Aiken, the large town often known as “the horse capital of America”, where I am staying, was also surprised by Gingrich’s victory. Stressing that the percentage of Catholics in South Carolina was extremely low compared to the national average, he commented: “In this state Catholics only make up 4.3 per cent of the population. But we are growing fast.”

Although the numbers of Catholics in South Carolina are dramatically below the national average the increase in numbers is impressive. As recently as 1990, before the influx of northern retirees, Catholics comprised only 1.7 per cent of the population in South Carolina. In Aiken, church-attending Catholics are expanding at such a rate that some Masses are held in the church hall with as many as 700 present. Despite the national economic downturn, in just a few years the congregation have raised well over half the $7m (£4.4m) needed to build a much larger church.

Fr Gregory spoke about of the outward emblems of faith which I, like other visitors, have also noticed here in the Bible Belt. These include car bumper stickers with Jesus messages, the fish emblem representing Jesus, pro-life messages and roadside Crosses, the numerous mega-churches sprouting up across the landscape and religious messages merged into people’s gardens. Other explicit statements of faith are the common sight of people praying before a meal in restaurants and men, as well as women, wearing crosses.

They are not alone. Anyone watching the Australian Open tennis championship on television will have noticed that the man who won, Novak Djokovic, a Serbian Orthodox Christian, apart from displaying a relatively large gold cross around his neck during matches, also wears a black prayer bracelet.

  • Sessenheimer

    As an American Catholic, I must say that I never, and would never, think of John F. Kennedy as a “proud” Catholic. Maybe just “baptized” Catholic would be closer to the truth.

  • theroadmaster

    Catholicism seems to be retreating in terms of influence and numbers from the traditional heartlands in    the Mid-West and N.E portion of the United States.  It has been noticed that Catholicism is growing exponentially in the South and South-Western parts of the United States, due to a big influx of Hispanic immigrants and sun-worshipers from the North who are moving residence after retirement or having to relocate due to the reality of firms moving jobs to another geographical area.  The South was once a bastion of low-church calvinism, which regarded any hint of Catholicism as suspect.  Presently, evangelicals and Catholics alike are increasingly finding themselves firmly on the same side of arguments which are effecting Faith, and are co-operating more than ever in it’s preservation against secular encroachments.

  • Adiutricem

    If it weren’t for the influx of immigrants, the demographic trends of the Catholic Church would be flat as a pancake.

  • Mal

    Like the rest of the country

  • Maryp

    Here in Illinois my traditional parish is packed to capacity each Sunday. Long confessional queues form before each Mass. There are plenty of young people in attendance – I believe they now have five youth choirs. 
    Americans are more open to the idea of God, and more ready to soul-search and ultimately convert to Catholicism. They have not been indoctrinated by the BBC for generations. Catholic radio is also responsible for conversions – from within and without. Would Catholic radio even be allowed in the UK in these sad days of extreme political correctness? It is a wonderful tool for evangelism – and what an antidote to the Beeb it would be!

  • Magisterial Roman Catholic

    Agree wholeheartedly with Sessenheimer.

  • Ex Mormon Catholic

    “Gingrich seemed to be able to sway voters by telling them that the Mormon religion, which bans drinking and dancing”
    The last part is incorrect. The LDS religion does not ban dancing.

  • Gjsly

    The Baptists ban both:  drinking and dancing.

  • Gjsly

    Bad news for you”  soul searching and being open to the idea of God does NOT ultimately lead to converting to Catholicism for all Americans.  Thousands of Catholics are leaving that church every year.

  • Fr Thomas Poovathinkal

    WHY CARRY ON HISTORICAL WRONGS (ADDRESSING THE PEOPLE BY THEIR STINKING

    POLITICAL NAMES OF THE PAST: CATHOLICS VERSUS PROTESTANTS; CATHOLIC VERSUS

    EVENGELICALS; CATHOLICS VERSUS…THIS…..THAT) TO DIVIDE AND RULE OVER  OUR

    PEOPLE IN THE LIVING MOMENT AND THUS TEMPT THEM  TO KEEP DIVIDING CHRIST

    AND DESTROY HIM  AND HIS CAUSE LIKE THE CHIEFPRIESTS AND THE REST (THE

    PHARISEES, THE SCRIBES, THE HERODIANS, THE ELDERS ETS.) WHO WERE WITH THEM?

    LEADERS WHO ARE SPIRITUAL IDIOTS  ARE BASICALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS.

    NO WONDER JESUS HAD  SAID, “WILL THERE BE FAITH LEFT ON EARTH WHEN THE SON

    OF MAN COMES?”.

    THOSE WHO WANT TO LIVE THEIR LIFE IN CHRIST JESUS AND PROCLAIM HIS

    GOODNEWS OF SALVATION CAN’T AFFORT TO TOLERATE SUCH EVIL LEADERS WHO

    KEEP DIVIDING AND RULING OVER GOD’S PEOPLE.

    Thomas Poovathinkal

  • Parasum

    In addition to that: the notion of a “proud” Christian of any kind is absurd – pride is not a virtue, in any sense, but the worst of sins. Or used to be. What next – avaricious Christians ? Envious Christians ? Wrathful Christians ? Slothful Christians ? Gluttonous Christians ? Lustful Christians ? When will these be christened as virtues :( ?

  • John

    Those leaving had a weak faith to begin with
    or some pet peeve because of pride whereas those coming in are searching for the truth which is contained in the church Jesus established under Peter.  The Catholic Church will be present till the end of time, as Jesus promised, which is truly maddening to all of its many detractors.