Analyzing Religion in Rome
by: Alexi Bell
ROME, Ga. – Rome, Georgia is deep in what American’s call, “The Bible Belt.”
According to the Webster Dictionary, “The Bible Belt is an area chiefly in the southern U.S. whose inhabitants are believed to hold uncritical allegiance to the literal accuracy of the Bible.”
This is the case for the majority of the south and being in Northwest Georgia, Rome is no exception with its quiet population of 35,997 (as of 2015) community.
Demographically Rome is made up of 48 percent male and 52 percent female. Of those, 52 percent are white while 27 percent are black (See figure 1).
“Most people in Rome are of the view that Christianity is the one true religion but other religions here may have aspects that to them are okay,” Berry College Assistant Professor of Religion Jeffery Lidke said. “We’re in a politically pluralist country so folks have to, for the most part, respect the traditions of other religions.”
According to Sperling’s Best Places (last updated Jan. 2017), 63 percent of the people in Rome are religious, meaning they affiliate with some type of religion. This is significant because it is more than 10 percentage points higher than that of the national average, 49 percent. Rome only trails Macon as the most religious cities in Georgia.
Even though Christianity is the dominant religion in Rome, and in the South in general, other religions are alive and prevalent in the community.
“Both here at Berry and out in Rome, we have tied religion to Americana, to Patriotism, to Southern neighborhood or a community,” Berry College Assistant Chaplain Erin Moniz said. “All these factors, for better or for worse, have sort of blended that grayed area. People aren’t going to throw a bottle at a church or mosque for example, when they walk by it. They are just going to walk by it.”
This respect in Rome for other religions beyond those associated with Christianity has allowed religious affiliates such as the Jewish, Buddhist and Islam to plant their roots in the community according to Moniz.
“I think Berry, as well as Shorter, is a strong influence on the Rome community,” Lidke said. “In the 14 years I’ve taught here, I have seen a lot of growth in regard to increasing peoples understanding of other religious traditions and learning to be okay with them.”
According to Lidke, it was around the same time Berry began to approve non-Christian student groups as officially recognized, that Shorter was going down the path of the strong stance they have now to not recognize non-Christian groups. This has a lasting impact on how the community as a whole perceives those unlike themselves.
Berry and Beyond
On a national level, there are a growing number of atheists and agnostics in the United States and even a larger number of unaffiliated.
Twenty-Seven percent of U.S. adults now say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious, which is 8 percentage points higher than five years ago, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study. This growth has been broad-based: It has occurred among men and women; whites, blacks and Hispanics; people of many different ages and education levels; and among Republicans and Democrats. For instance, the share of whites who identify as spiritual but not religious has also grown by 8 percentage points in the past five years.
“If you put an unaffiliated next to someone affiliated, you may not see much difference,” Moniz said.
You also have this different spectrum occurring at Berry which impacts the community around it: the idea of being spiritual, not religious. This trend is more ordained nationwide. This can be seen in a February 2017 survey collected by the Berry College Chaplain’s Office.
“In the recent survey, we found that even though a lot of our college students don’t have an external representation of their faith, they still very much have an identity,” Moniz said. “From an identity level, faith is still very present and abiding. People have become much more accepting of that ambiguity.”
The Religious Life Survey from the Office of the Chaplain was a voluntary survey with 656 participants including a decent average shown across all four undergrad years. The survey (as shown in Figurative 2) found that 52 percent of participants attend a church or house of worship off campus in Rome.
This does not mean that 48 percent who do not regularly attend a church or house of worship are not religious. That 48 percent could rotate churches seeking a place that fits their preference at that time. Lidke refers to this phenomenon as ‘church shopping.’ This trend is becoming more and more common nationwide, not just in Rome according to Lidke.
“Ultimately, there is a shift in our understanding because there is a shift in how we identify denominationally,” Moniz said. “Every generation has its own beef with a signing a card.”
Berry College senior Anna Walker has attended West Rome for three years while she has been a student.
“Growing up and throughout high school my family and I attended a very modern style church with a rock band that met in an old missile factory,” Walker said. “Once I came to Rome, I was surprised to find that I felt so at home in a more traditional Baptist church, with a choir and pews – even though this was not what I was used too. I think the genuineness of this church made me feel secure during such a transitional time in my life.”
Generationally this is a changing phenomenon even in a little town of Rome. Young people as well as older people are not getting up on Sunday mornings to go to church like they used too.
“I think the biggest trend, and seeing the Berry students coming in I see it, is this continuous movement away from organized religion,” Lidke said. “I think churches are going to gradually shrink and some are going to fade away as we look more towards this trend of spiritual rather than religious.”
Only time will tell if this happens in Rome or not. According to Moniz, religion isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“Religion is still very abiding, very strong, very present and even in your face in the South,” Moniz said. “I wouldn’t put Rome in a box. Rome is a service and advocacy city and it is continuing to change and grow. And that’s encouraging to me.”