Davis Hammet isn’t sure how to define the Bible Belt – he just knows he grew up in it.
Growing up in north Florida meant everyone went to church and there was a strong sense of “cultural” Christianity, said Hammet, who is the founder of Loud Light, an organization that works to increase youth civic participation in Kansas.
But what defines the Bible Belt isn’t always clear cut, and not everyone agrees whether a Midwestern state like Kansas meets the criteria.
Several experts say the state hasn’t always been a part of the Bible Belt, but has now become so, while others disagree with the premise that the phrase applies to Kansas.
Hammet said while he always considered Kansas a religious state, he wouldn’t have called Kansas a part of the Bible Belt before moving here in 2013 to found the rainbow-painted Equality House in Topeka.
He still feels the same way, but adds that perhaps Kansas is “a lighter shade of the Bible Belt.”
Merriam-Webster defines the Bible Belt as “an area chiefly in the southern U.S. whose inhabitants are believed to hold uncritical allegiance to the literal accuracy of the Bible.” A second definition offered is “an area characterized by ardent religious fundamentalism,” with fundamentalism defined as “a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching” and the adherence to these beliefs.
On maps, the Bible Belt usually stretches from Texas to North Carolina. As for how far the area expands to the north, that seems to be up for interpretation.
“While I personally would not call Kansas the Bible Belt, I can understand why other people might,” said James Shortridge, retired professor of geography from the University of Kansas, in an email interview.
If evangelical Protestantism – the type of Christianity that emphasizes a personal relationship with Christ and the inerrancy of the Bible – is a marker of the Bible Belt, then Kansas may fit the bill.
According to Pew, 31 percent of Kansans identify as evangelical Protestant, surpassing the number of either mainline Protestants (24 percent) or Catholics (18 percent).
Yet mainline Protestantism, while decreasing, still has a strong presence in Kansas, one reason why Shortridge doesn’t classify the state as in the Bible Belt.
Jay Price, professor of local and community history at Wichita State University, said that in the 1970s, the phrase Bible Belt largely meant the South.
“In the 1970s Wichita looked like any other Midwestern city. Now you look and self-identified evangelicals are the largest single group in Wichita,” Price said. “The reality that evangelical religion, regardless of southern, northern or activism, that is the norm, that is the standard model of worship today.”
The Rev. Roosevelt DeShazer Sr., pastor of Progressive Missionary Baptist Church and head of the Greater Wichita Ministerial League, says he does consider Kansas a part of the Bible Belt because of people’s commitment and passion for the Bible.
Wichita and Hutchinson are both listed among a study of the most “Bible-minded” cities conducted by Barna Group, a company that researches faith, and the American Bible Society. The two Kansas cities tied for 18th place in the study, with 39 percent of the population ranking as “Bible-minded,” over southern cities like Mobile, Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee.
“Bible-mindedness” was determined through questioning participants about the regularity of Bible reading and their beliefs about the Bible’s accuracy.
DeShazer has lived in Wichita since 1989 and previously lived in Mississippi.
“I am finding more people in Kansas that are not only full of prayer, but full of faith – full of faith,” DeShazer said. “I think the Bible Belt – Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma – I think they are really keeping this country turning because of the faith and the prayers.”
But the Bible Belt label isn’t just about religion: It’s also about the conservative politics that often come with evangelical Protestantism.
Ben Davis, pastor of discipleship at City Life Church, initially said that Kansas is a Bible Belt state. Later, he said that Kansas does have political differences from its more conservative neighbors in the South. While people in both regions may care about conservative issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, Kansans might focus more on issues like health care and education, Davis said.
“It’s kind of assumed automatically that you hold those type of values (in the South),” Davis said.
In Kansas, 36 percent of respondents in a 2016 report from the Public Religion Research Institute identified as conservative – compared with 44 percent in Tennessee and 47 percent in Louisiana, both Bible Belt states.
Davis pointed out that Kansas is mostly conservative in its politics when it comes to national elections. Yet when it comes to gubernatorial races, Kansas has been more mixed, often alternating between Democrat and Republican governors.
And although Kansans most recently voted for conservative Republican Sam Brownback as governor, they are not happy about his performance. Brownback is the country’s second most unpopular governor (surpassed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie), according to Morning Consult.
Brownback has consistently supported several conservative causes, including opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Although Kansans do care about those causes, they may care more strongly about other issues that aren’t a part of the “culture wars,” Davis said.
“If this was really strongly Bible Belt, I think Brownback’s approval ratings would probably be a little higher than they are,” Davis said.
Robert Wuthnow, author of “Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland” and director of Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion, said the defining characteristics of the Bible Belt are high levels of church attendance, conservative theology and conservative social and political orientations.
A shift in Kansas came after Roe v. Wade recognized a constitutional right to abortion, as Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, conservative Methodists and conservative Catholics rallied around the anti-abortion movement and more conservative Republicans, Wuthnow said.
A matter of degree
Kansas has a strong emphasis on the social gospel, with a history of Christian abolitionists and suffragettes, Hammet said.
In Kansas, Hammett said there’s less pressure to attend a church and more churches welcome LGBT members.
“That felt very different from the South,” said Hammet, who is bisexual. “Everyone considers Kansas so conservative, but from my experience of coming from a deep red, conservative area, Kansas feels very forward thinking to me.”
Others agreed that if Kansas does fall in the Bible Belt, that doesn’t make it the same as its southern neighbors.
Polls by Gallup and Pew Research Center put Kansas at 18th or 19th for the most religious state. In the Pew study, 55 percent of the population ranked “highly religious.” The majority of the states in the top 10 were southern, topped by Alabama and Mississippi with 77 percent of the population ranked “highly religious.”
“Today, Kansas could accurately be termed part of the Bible Belt, although not everyone would agree,” said Wuthnow. “In terms of conservative religious beliefs and levels of regular church attendance, Kansas is similar to many of its southern neighbors.”