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Nashville now buckle of the Bible Belt

Published Oct. 2, 2005

Every day, 100,000 or more people traveling on Interstate 40 see the 11-story Southern Baptist Convention tower, with its trademark cross dominating much of one side.

In a community known for guitars and grits, nothing may be more symbolic of Nashville's link with religion than the building and its huge cross. Name the denomination, it's here. Predominant are Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Pentecostal and Assemblies of God.

"This is as much the buckle (of the Bible Belt) as any place," says the Rev. Bill Sherman of the 1,400-member Woodmont Baptist Church.

While most outside Nashville might believe country music is the top industry in Music City, it's actually publishing, due mainly to religious publications.

Besides the Southern Baptist Convention, the city is home to the United Methodist Publishing House, the National Baptist Convention USA, the Gospel Music Association, the Gideons International, the National Association of Free Will Baptists, the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, the National Baptist Publishing Board and Thomas Nelson Bible publishing.

But it's the churches _ more than 800 strong _ that are the most visible sign of the city's religious underpinnings.

"Everywhere you look, there's a church," says Nashville newcomer Matt Newton, who's lived in the city eight months.

And they're not just tiny neighborhood congregations. Christ Church Pentecostal claims a membership of 6,800. Two Rivers Baptist lists 6,500 members. Several others have memberships of 3,000 or more.

There is a Baptist church across from the Grand Ole Opry House and the state Capitol _ the city's most enduring landmarks.

There also are Baptist Hospital, Baptist Book Store, the Baptist World Center, Baptist Pharmacy, the Baptist Sunday School Board and Baptist Children's Homes Inc.

A Baptist minister, the Rev. Paul Durham, may run for mayor next year.

There is even a nightclub called the Church, open from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. (It doesn't serve liquor, but patrons may bring their own.)

And there's the non-denominational Cowboy Church, meeting at the Texas Troubadour nightclub, where worshipers are encouraged to wear jeans and boots.

"Nashville is such a Bible-based, religious-based city," says Newton, a singer at Opryland USA theme park who has lived in five cities during the past five years. "A lot more people here have had more of a church upbringing, and that means more Christian living."

Restaurants notice increased business on Wednesday evenings _ church night. Shoney's Inc. of Nashville estimates the number of customers increases about 25 percent in its 23 Nashville restaurants.

"We attribute it primarily to the church crowd that's out moving around," says Bob Langford, Shoney's chief operating officer and the son of an Assembly of God minister. "They can move the tables and chairs around at Shoney's to accommodate church parties."

Robert E. Hooper, professor of history at David Lipscomb University in Nashville, says Nashville is "without any question" the centerpiece of the Bible Belt.

Large numbers of Baptists, Methodists and others settled in Nashville in the 1800s, and denominational businesses followed.

"I think it just happened," Hooper says.