News (USA)

Influence of churches, once dominant, now waning in South

And while race divides many things in the South, the trend is evident among blacks, whites and Hispanic adults, she said.

“We’ve seen this sort of broader shift throughout the country as a whole with fewer people identifying as being part of the religious base,” she said. “In the South you see a pattern very similar to what we are seeing in other regions.”

Thomas Fuller, a religion professor at Baptist-affiliated Samford University near Birmingham, said there’s no single reason churches are losing the cultural wallop they once packed. Migration into the region and the Internet are but two factors chipping away at a society that seemed much more isolated just a generation ago, he said.

“The South is not nearly as homogeneous, is far more diverse culturally now than it’s ever been,” said Fuller. “In a way you’re a little hard-pressed now to talk about Southern culture in a singular fashion. It’s not nearly as one-dimensional anymore or easy to describe.”

In Sylacauga, 45 miles southeast of Birmingham, Mayor Doug Murphree said the push for Sunday alcohol sales was linked to attracting new businesses.

“We’re not really trying to promote drinking in Sylacauga. But if you look at a big chain restaurant like Ruby Tuesday or O’Charley’s, they’re open on Sunday and a big part of their business is alcohol,” said the mayor.

Murphree, who attends a Baptist church, said he met with members of the local ministerial association before the citywide vote to explain the city’s economic situation and the need for Sunday alcohol sales. Pastors listened, and by and large they didn’t preach against it.

“They said they were not going to try to block us,” he said.

So now, Marble City Grill can sell alcohol after 1 p.m. on Sunday just two blocks up North Broadway Avenue from the white-columned First Baptist Church of Sylacauga.

“Things have changed,” said Julie Smith, who owns the restaurant with her husband. “We’ve been open 10 years and at first we had people who wouldn’t come because we sold alcohol. They come now.”

Around corner from the restaurant, Dee Walker said he’s attracting a larger crowd every Sunday afternoon at his craft beer and wine shop, The Fermenter’s Market at The Rex, named for the old hotel in which it is located.

Walker grew up in neighboring Clay County, the last dry county in Alabama, and recalls the petition drives and fire-and-brimstone sermons anytime someone mentioned legalizing alcohol sales. Southern churches no longer have that kind of influence in many places, Walker said.

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