Southern Catholics, long ago the target of Klansman, are today the fastest growing religious group in the South. Southern Baptists still dominate, but all the growth is with Catholicism. One in eight southerners profess Catholicism as their choice of religion. What attributes to this sudden, rapid growth?
Cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina have seen a huge influx of northerners attracted to jobs in a Sunbelt of technology, coupled with a surge of newly immigrated Hispanics. Another sign of a population in transformation was the election of Patrick McHenry, pointedly noted for being the first Catholic congressman from Charlotte.
There is something different about the new southern Catholics. In all probability they are speedily modifying the face of American Catholicism as a whole for three reasons:
• The continuing influence of the dominant Southern Baptist culture.
• The conservative Catholicism of Hispanics.
• The long traditional cooperation between a minority population of Catholics and their more numerous Protestant southern neighbors.
These three factors account for a new southern Catholicism, much more conservative than its northern members, and more palatable to the tastes of Rome and the Pope. Knowing the South to always be in a perpetual blend of past and present as well as plodding change, the Catholic Church will dominate the growth of new members in the foreseeable future.
In the diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, over 95% of its Catholics were not born in the state. The intermix of different but conservative beliefs, along with the traditional right leanings of old political affiliations, almost guarantees the flourishing growth of Catholics in the South.
For evidence, note the build-up of vocal admonitions against pro-choice candidates by a parish priest in South Carolina, Father Jay Scott Newman, who told his parishioners they shouldn't accept Communion in the event they had cast their vote for Obama. This was indicative of Southern parishes finding a new strength in numbers as they gave braver call to religious, albeit political, statements.
In the 2008 elections, more Bishops spoke out against pro-abortion candidates than in the 2004 election. A few Bishops and conservative Catholics did publicly complain against Kerry in 2004, saying he should refrain from receiving Holy Communion. The increase in the number of protesting priests in the recent national election is significant.
Consider the uproar at Notre Dame over the invitation of Obama to speak at its graduation ceremony. Though the University doesn't sit in the middle of the southern Bible Belt, it does reveal the growing voice of conservative Catholics upset with Obama's decision to federally fund embryonic stem cell research along with financially backing international family planning. No longer is the Southern Catholic fearful of voicing their religious convictions, having been so long a minority dominated by northern Catholic democrats.
The religious changes in the South may be a source of dismay to many institutes of southern liberal studies that populate the Internet. The frustration of those who attempt to change the "new" South into a northern, cultural mirror of the old Rustbelt, find that the South is enigmatic, romantically frustrating, and only to be understood and changed by those who have a sense of place and a true love for all of its perplexities.