East-West Travelblog: From ‘atheist’ to ‘Christian’ over breakfast

Megan Barry gets a layong on of hands. Photo from The Tennessean

Travelblog is a series of occasional posts by RNS national correspondent Kimberly Winston, who is on the road with in Washington, D.C., Nashville, Tenn., Honolulu, Kuala Lumpur, Lahore and Islamabad, Pakistan with the 2015 Senior Journalists Seminar, sponsored by the East-West Center in conjunction with the U.S. State Department.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) The single largest community of Iraqi Kurds in the U.S. is right here in Music City, the buckle of the Bible Belt.

They are joined by significant numbers of Somalis, Bhutanese, Egyptians, Latinos and Asians. There are so many international newcomers to Nashville that in just five more years, non-whites will make up the majority of the population.

Yet all of Middle Tennessee’s diverse voices are singing together in harmony, Karl Dean, the outgoing Democratic mayor, told our group of 17 international journalists traveling with on a fellowship organized by the East-West Center, 

“Our city is changing rapidly and in my opinion that is a good thing,” Dean said as he addressed us at the Mayor’s Office in downtown Nashville. “I think the city’s increase in immigration has gone hand-in-hand with its rise in economic prominence and as an important city in the U.S. I have always taken the viewpoint that when an immigrant comes to the U.S. and chooses to live in Nashville to see out their dream that is the highest compliment they can give us.”

That’s one way of looking at the situation. But the newspapers tell a little bit of a different story. In 2008, a group of skinheads burned a mosque to the ground. One year later, the city tried to pass an English-only ordinance that was ultimately defeated. And when a Muslim family moved into a house next door to the one-time “Saturday Night Live” actress Victoria Jackson, she took to the blogosphere in an anti-Islamic, pro-Jesus rant.

And then there’s this figure — Tennessee has 29 hate groups, the seventh-most in the nation. The largest chapter of Act for America, the hate group Dylan Roof is known to have encountered online prior to shooting nine people in a Charleston church, is in Tennessee.

Not so harmonic. Yet at our next stop, we saw what the city has done to promote cooperation and reconciliation among its diverse groups. At the Metro Human Relations Commission a few blocks from the mayor’s office, Melody Fowler-Green coordinates 17 volunteer commissioners from the city’s different communities who work to iron out the wrinkles in the fabric of the city’s life.

The commission works to make Nashville’s civic life more inclusive, promotes multicultural education, has a “Teaching Tolerance” program for schools and operates a host of other pro-diversity programs and events.

“I think it’s been a rough road for us here in Middle Tennessee,” Fowler-Green said. “But I think you will hear matters have improved. We have to make this a priority — to build bridges.”

Not only outsiders have faced discrimination here. In the afternoon we met with a group of editors, opinion writers and reporters from The Tennessean, the storied local paper where Al Gore was once a cub reporter, and the Associated Press.

Duane Gang, The Tennessean’s “content strategist” — sounded like he was its metro editor to me — told us the paper was running a story on the day of our visit about a “whisper campaign” against Megan Barry, a front-runner in the current race for mayor. There were rumors circulating on the internet that Barry  is an atheist. That’s still a bad thing in a city with 700 churches — more than the larger city of Atlanta — and where The United Methodist Church, the Free Will Baptists, Lifeway Christian stores and Thomas Nelson, the giant Christian publisher, maintain their headquarters.

And Tennessee is one of eight states that still have laws requiring anyone who holds public office be a religious believer — laws that are unconstitutional but somehow remain on the books.

So Barry tried to dispel the atheist rumors by going to a prayer breakfast with a group of local clergy. They prayed together, there was a laying on of hands by the clergy on the candidate and she felt she had to declare herself. “I am a Christian,” she told them.

Megan Barry gets a layong on of hands. Photo from The Tennessean

Megan Barry gets a layong on of hands. Photo from The Tennessean

“Nashville is changing,” said Bob Smietana, the paper’s former religion reporter and current news editor at Christianity Today. “We have more people who don’t believe and more people who believe different things.”

ANOTHER VIEW: Kim Lawton’s fellowship blog at Religion & Ethics Newsweekly


POST 3: Walking through God’s doors

POST 2: Terrorism, blashphemy — and cookies

POST 1: A wake-up call in Washington

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • If this article were any more anti Christian it would have been written by Sat_n himself.

    But quite to be expected now that I’ve gotten to know what RNS is all about.

  • So what is anti-Christian about drawing attention to organized bigotry and violence against minorities?

  • Be Brave, I understand what you mean. But RNS is what it is. God is needed on RNS. There is a lot of talk about God but how many people here really know Him? That is amazing isn’t it? For those of us who do know Him, we have a chance to help others learn of Him and possible to receive Him into their lives. For those who do NOT know yet, Jesus is The Way, the Truth and the Life, and NO ONE comes to the Father but by Him. Receive Him as Lord and Savior. Turn away from sin. Abide in Him through His Word and His Holy Spirit. Then you can truly tell others of your personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe. How awesome is that? God Bless

  • Mark, I’ve accepted reason as my personal savior. No more allowing ancient writings by ignorant Bronze Age men rule my life. No more waging war on science. I can now allow the concepts of evidence, logic, and reason to be relevant in my life. And no more having to go through life walking on eggshells. You should try it.

    Now, if you will excuse me, I going to climb into bed with my husband.

  • Richard

    I respect your view, but for some of us “Life is chaos” (Steve Jobs quote)

    Reason is the best tool we have, and is often wondeful, but most of the time it seems like stuff just happens.

    best wishes

  • How is the remark, “climb into bed with my husband,” even remotely relevant to the discussion? Marital and sexual status are not at issue here. As for Reason being a “personal savior,” the appeal to Rationality over Faith led directly to the “Reign of Terror” in late 18th century France. It is but a short step from Reason to Insane Irrationality. As for Bronze Age ignorance, those folks came a long way from zero, and are no more ignorant than many today who live shallow lives of Hedonism; unlettered libertines who can scarcely string together a grammatically correct declarative sentence, nor think in critically constructive ways, but merely repeat the mindless pap they’ve been spoon fed by the highly compromised Public Education System and the vagaries of the Internet.

  • Actually “reason” is why most people come to Christianity. But for someone on the outside looking in, it must be very confusing: i.e., which one is right??? Unless Christians can reunite, it looks like a scandal in the making for those who are considering it.

  • At least you got your contractions correct, Pete. So your calling your self dumb me, should be reviewed.

  • You’re right, lots of stuff just happens. And responding to such stuff with reason is much more productive than responses grounded fallacies, myths, and superstition.

  • Blaming the concept of reason for the Reign of Terror is nonsense. That isn’t to say that reason cannot be corrupted in to promote preconceived objectives. I’d say it’s the inverse of religion. While reason/evidence/logic are the forces that brought humanity out of the Dark Ages, religion has tried mightily to keep us there and is still trying to return us to the Dark Ages. And while religion can occasionally motivate people to do good things, reason can occasionally do the inverse.

    I would never defend the violence used in the efforts to Dechristianize France during the Reign of Terror, but maybe it would not have happened if the Catholic Church had not been in bed with the oppressive French monarchy and nobility. And I understand that the Church had taxing authority in France!

    While I agree that Bronze Age people were a long way from zero with respect to ignorance, the fact is that humans today are light-years beyond that, and the mountains of evidence are all around us.

  • If I’m not mistaken, so called “rationality” was also the impetus behind communist philosophy which lead to the death of (conservatively) 70 millions of people in the 20th century. I don’t fault the legitimate processes of “reason,” I object to “Reason” exalted over “Faith” as a means of coordinating and establishing a proper social order. And I’m not ashamed to declare that Christianity is the transcendent and exclusive development of the faith process. Charges of Bronze Age thinking, notwithstanding.

  • RNS is a service that reports religious news. It is not a proselytization tool or an echo chamber for conservative, right wing Christians. If BB is so seriously upset by the variety of religious views expressed herein, perhaps you want to find another place to post is diatribes against people he doesn’t know it knows nothing about. You could do the same.

  • That’s a whole load of nonsense. It wasn’t reason that led to the reign of terror, it was some peoples fascistic tendencies that led to it. All the enlightenment did was bring an end to authoritarian divine right of kings. Just like it wasn’t reason That led to the inquisition, and the burning of witchs, it was religion.

  • “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean NOT on your own understanding.”…Solomon Why would the wisest man who ever lived (aside from Jesus Christ of course) say such a thing? Solomon understood that man has a very limited perspective. Whereas God’s perspective is unlimited. He sees well beyond what we see. It is very reasonable (from a Biblical perspective) to trust God. Just as child trusts his father or mother more than himself, so it is with us. In fact Jesus told us, unless we come to Him like children, we cannot inherit the kingdom of God. When the rebellious atheist speak of “reason” thats really not what they are talking about.. They are just showing their self-will against God. Their hostility towards Him. Their refusal to submit to Him. We must come to God on His terms not our own. Turn away from such attitudes.. Turn away from sin an rebellion. Receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and know God’s peace and blessings in this life, and in the life to come.

  • Gee, Ben, if you confess the Reign of Terror was the result of “people with fascistic tendencies,” why don’t you likewise attribute the Inquisition and witch burning to “people with fascistic tendencies” who happened act in the name of religion? Seems only fair and reasonable not to blame all religion for the acts of a
    some zealots.