Under the provocative headline “These Are The Most Godless Cities In America” Time magazine reports on a study by the American Bible Society ranking 100 American cities on what it called “Bible-mindedness.”
If you only knew that the ten most “Bible-minded” cities were south of the Mason-Dixon line and the ten least “Bible-minded” cities were north, you could guess the criteria used by the Society.
“Bible-mindedness” was defined as a combination of how often respondents read the Bible and how accurate they think the Bible is. The study’s methodology prescribes, “Respondents who report reading the Bible within the past seven days and who agree strongly in the accuracy of the Bible are classified as ‘Bible-minded.”
Believing the Bible to be “accurate” means interpreting the Good Book literally, i.e. God created the earth in seven days, Adam and Eve were the first humans, the earth is only 6000 years old, etc.
The notion that anyone who interprets the Bible differently is “Godless” is offensive and fails to take into account thousands of years of divergent interpretations.
The most “Bible-minded” were: Chattanooga, Birmingham, Roanoke/Lynchburg, Va., Springfield, Mo., Shreveport, Charlotte, Greenville/Spartanburg, S.C./Asheville, N.C., Little Rock, Jackson, Miss., and Knoxville.
The “Godless” were Providence, R.I, Albany, N.Y., Boston, San Francisco, Cedar Rapids, Buffalo, N.Y., Hartford/New Haven, Phoenix, Burlington, Vt., and Portland, Maine.
A 2011 Gallup poll asked people to choose a statement most closely describing their views of the Bible; (1) “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word;” (2) “the Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally;” or (3) “the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man.”
Responses reflected political party affiliation, education, and income level. Forty-two percent of Republicans but only 27% of Democrats said the Bible was the literal word of God while 51 % of Republicans and 46% of democrats believed it to be inspired by God but not always to be taken literally.
The more education, the less likely they were to believe the Bible should be taken literally. The poll also found significant income differences. Half of lower-income respondents believe the Bible is the actual word of God, compared with 27% of middle-income and 15% of high-income respondents.
David A. Hollinger has written extensively about ecumenical Protestantism. His recent book, “After Cloven Tongues of Fire” chronicles the history of the division of Protestants between “the mainline” or “progressive” churches and evangelicals. Hollinger dates the split to the election of the first Catholic president, arguing that before John Kennedy’s election, anyone with influence in America was a Protestant. Protestants were generally unified in their opposition to Catholicism.
Kennedy’s candidacy required Protestants to reassess. Protestants were confronted with an end to their claim of a “proprietary” relationship with America. Some Protestants embraced diversity, accepting not only Catholics and a broader view of religious tolerance. They became the mainline church.
Others refused to relinquish their claim that America was a Protestant Christian nation. They became the vanguard of what we know today as the evangelicals.
A significant point of departure between the two was Biblical interpretation. The mainline churches reconciled science with the Bible. Fundamentalists held to a strict interpretation, rejecting Darwin and the geologists, astronomers, physicists, and others who questioned the view that the Bible account of creation was anything but myth and metaphor.
The divergence of Protestants on matters of Biblical interpretation and diversity fed into the controversies that followed whether it was the war in Viet Nam, American exclusivity, abortion, or same-sex marriage.
We have experienced these differences in “Bibles and Beer” when Protestants of all backgrounds sit at the table with Catholics, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, and atheists and study the Bible seeking to know just what difference it makes whether we read it literally or not. Most often we find that we end up at the same place as we apply the scripture to our own lives.