Living as a Catholic in the Bible Belt

Buffalo River Area, Ozark Mountains, Northern Arkansas

The Ozark Mountains are firmly situated within the Bible Belt of the United States. In fact, the northern frontier of the Bible Belt begins on the western border of Missouri, right at the foothills of the Ozarks. I remember driving back and forth to Kansas a few times for some professional seminars. I found the cultural shift very profound right at the Missouri-Kansas border. On the Missouri side, the dominate churches were Baptist and Pentecostal. On the Kansas side it was Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist. I've found a similar cultural shift within Missouri too, while driving north and crossing the invisible Mason-Dixon line approaching St. Louis. Everything north of it is Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist. Everything south of it is Baptist and Pentecostal. Now to be sure, all of these churches exist on both sides of these borders, but what I'm talking about here is concentration. The Ozarks represent the northern frontier of the Bible Belt on the West side of the Mississippi River, and here, Evangelicalism (Baptist, Pentecostal and nondenominational) are considered the "norm" of Christian faith.

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I've used this map many times to illustrate what I'm talking about. The map is from the U.S. Census Bureau and illustrates the dominate religious denomination in each county of the United States. Those areas shaded red represent the Southern Baptist Convention, and this also happens to outline the area commonly referred to as the "Bible Belt" of the United States. Here Evangelicalism (Baptist, Pentecostal, nondenominational) is considered "normal" Christianity. In fact, people who have lived in this area all their lives have difficulty imagining a Christianity any different than the Evangelical model. For example; when speaking with various types of Evangelicals in the Ozarks, they'll often tell me that they really don't know anything about Catholicism, and have absolutely no knowledge of what it is. They've seen it on television, and in the movies, but it's really kind of strange and foreign to them. I can't tell you how many times I've revealed that I'm Catholic and the response I get is something along the lines of: "Oh wait, I once had a friend who was Catholic a long time ago." This statement is of course an attempt to show a sense of familiarity and kindness toward somebody who's religious faith is completely foreign to them. I once had a person say to me: "Oh you're Catholic? Well, Haaaaaill Maaaarry!" She yelled it with an Ozarkian twang, sounding a lot like Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) from The Andy Griffith Show. I chuckled a bit, and said "thank you" quietly, understanding that this was an attempt at neighbourly kindness. Like most people around here, she went on to tell me she once knew somebody who was Catholic. I've learnt that we should never misinterpret such things as mockery or animosity of any sort. Most of the time these people are just trying to be kind and friendly. They only have the best of intentions. It's not their fault that they happen to live in an area where Catholicism is so rare that they have almost no familiarity with it. It's best to graciously accept their little acts of kindness and politely continue the conversation as if nothing is awkward or out of the ordinary.

What I also run into is something even more fascinating. You see, I was raised as an Evangelical (Baptist) Protestant too, but that was in Southern California, wherein we were surrounded by Catholicism. All but two of my childhood friends were Catholic. In fact, Catholicism was such a regular part of my childhood that I often found myself at mass on Sunday mornings whenever I spent the night at a friend's house. So as an Evangelical boy, I was extremely familiar with liturgy, vestments, incense, candles, bells, etc. I didn't believe in any of that stuff at the time, and I was very proud to be raised in a Baptist church, but I at least had a clue when it came to Catholicism. Where I grew up in California, the divide was about 60/40. By that I mean 60% Catholic and 40% Protestant (of various denominations). So I had an advantage the good folks here in the Bible Belt don't have. I was always familiar with Catholicism, and it was never foreign to me, simply because I was surrounded by it. This is not the case here in the Ozark Mountains of the Bible Belt. Most Evangelical Protestants in this area are raised with the notion that Evangelical Protestantism is the "normal" kind of Christianity, and everything else is foreign. As a result, not only do folks around here have little knowledge about Catholicism, but many of them are not even sure if it's Christian. I'll often get such questions as...
  • So, do you Catholics believe in Jesus?
  • Are you Christians?
  • How many gods do you worship?
  • Do you believe the pope is a god?
  • Do you worship Mary as God (big "G") or as a separate goddess (little "g")?
  • Do you read the Bible?
  • How many Bibles do you have?
  • Is the pope above the Bible?
Now you have to understand, these questions are usually asked in sincerity and not in an argumentative way. They genuinely don't know, and are operating only on what they see in the movies, on television, or what they may have heard in their own churches. In my experience, about 80% of the time here in the Ozarks, it's an honest and sincere kind of ignorance. From experience, I know this is not the case in Southern California. When Evangelicals ask such questions there, it's usually in an accusatory kind of way, with the intent of starting a debate. Evangelicals in California know perfectly well what Catholics believe. Here in the Bible Belt, however, where Catholicism is so rare, Evangelicals often genuinely don't know, and are asking in sincerity. I've seen some of my fellow Catholics rudely shut down some of my local Evangelical friends, simply for asking honest and sincere questions. Why? Because my fellow Catholics thought they were behaving as California Evangelicals, and failed to recognise that people here in the Ozarks genuinely don't know.

Here's another phenomenon I've run into. Because Evangelicalism is the norm in the Bible Belt, I have found that most people (even a lot of local Catholics) think it's the norm all over the world. I used to lecture Catholic teenagers years ago, and one of the things I noticed is that a lot of them believed Catholicism was a minority religion everywhere you go around the world. These kids grew up right here in the Ozarks. So you can imagine, if being a minority is all they've ever known, many of them just assume it's that way everywhere. Most of them were shocked when I told them that Catholics make up the majority of Christians in the world. They're even more shocked when I tell them the Catholic Church is the largest grouping of Christians in America, bigger than any other type, with a membership of some 60 million people. When I tell them the Southern Baptist Convention rates a distant second place at just 16 million people, their jaws would drop. "How is that possible!" They would ask. You see, these kids were raised in such a thick Protestant environment, that all their lives they were condition to think they were the minority around the world. 

The same goes for a lot of Evangelical Protestants in this area. A large number of them believe everything is the same everywhere else you go. They have no idea, that worldwide, THEY are the minority, not Catholics. There are an estimated number of about 325 million Evangelicals on planet earth. That's a whole lot of people to be sure! This includes Baptists, Pentecostals, nondenominations, etc. All of them are divided among various denominations and sects, each having their own unique doctrines and practises. Now in comparison, there are about 1.3 billion Catholics! (That's billion with a "b.") That means, worldwide, Catholics outnumber Evangelicals by about 4 to 1. Here in the United States, while Protestantism is the dominate religion, these Protestants are divided into multiple sects and denominations. A lot of those denominations still retain many Catholic characteristics too. In America, Catholics only make up about 21% of the U.S. population, but we have the largest unified Church at 60 million members, dwarfing the second largest unified denomination (Southern Baptist Convention) at just 16 million members. It's just in the Bible Belt that Evangelicalism is concentrated. Those who live here are living in another world, so to speak, much like an "alternate universe" where Catholics are the tiny minority while Evangelical Protestantism reigns supreme. If you've never lived outside of the area, or if you've never bothered to study the issue, it's easy to get confused.


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of '' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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