The Story Behind the Story: Why There Has Been So Much Press Recently about the South Carolina Bahá’í Community

Since the beginning of June 2014, there has been a flurry of interest in the media about the remarkably large size of the South Carolina Bahá’í community compared to the state’s other non-Christian religions. By one measure, there are more Bahá’ís in South Carolina than Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists. This fact has generated both human interest and controversy. The story behind the news story shows the importance of Bahá’í scholarship, involvement in scholarly and interfaith organizations, persistent efforts to spread the Bahá’í Faith widely and to deepen the resulting flood of new Bahá’ís, and building Bahá’í institutions, such as museums and radio stations, with public credibility.

The story begins with the dedicated effort to spread the Bahá’í Faith door to door in South Carolina in the 1970s and the over 20,000 South Carolinians who responded, an effort the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í Faith, referred to as the process of entry by troops. The patient and persistent effort to deepen the new Bahá’ís brought many Bahá’í teachers to South Carolina and included the establishment of the WLGI radio station in 1984.

In 2003 the growing community of Bahá’ís in South Carolina also established the Louis G. Gregory Museum in Charleston to honor an African American member of the Bahá’í Faith, an attorney and an early champion of the Faith’s principle of the oneness of humankind. The establishment of the museum was partly stimulated by an excellent scholarly biography of Louis Gregory published in 1982—Gayle Morrison’s To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Unity in America.

About 1997 the Research Office of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, the governing body of the Bahá’ís in the forty-eight contiguous United States, was invited to participate in the Cooperative Congregational Studies Project (CCSP), an interfaith scholarly effort to study the vitality of “congregations” (in the Bahá’í case, Bahá’í communities with local Spiritual Assemblies) through a series of surveys.

Three Bahá’ís (out of a group of some sixty-five people) participated in the effort. They arranged for a Bahá’í version of the survey (which replaced questions about the minister and the weekly service with questions about the Spiritual Assembly and the Nineteen-Day Feast) to be sent to every local Spiritual Assembly in the United States. The survey showed that, in spite of the fact that the average size of a Bahá’í community is smaller than the average size of a church congregation, Bahá’í communities were quite vital and strong. The congregational survey was repeated in 2010 and will be repeated again in 2020.

Involvement in CCSP led to involvement in ASARB, the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, which includes the members of the research offices of every major religious organization in the United States. Dr. Robert Stockman, the Director of the National Spiritual Assembly’s Research Office, found himself rubbing shoulders with Mormons, Southern Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Nazarenes, Lutherans, Unitarians, and Muslims as they shared their common concerns about counting members of their groups and statistically measuring their religious needs.

ASARB meets annually in the headquarters of one of the religious groups, from the twenty-five-story skyscraper of the LDS in Salt Lake City to the new Nazarene headquarters outside of Kansas City, Kansas, and the lovely, reconstituted factory complex that serves as the Presbyterian headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky. Dr. Stockman was soon asked to serve on ASARB’s Board of Officers and is currently (2012–14) the organization’s President.

Every ten years, ASARB’s members submit their current membership data to a common, published database that shows how many members they have in every county and state in the United States. The Bahá’í membership data by county was submitted in 2000 and 2010 (and will again be submitted in 2020). That is the data that showed that the Bahá’í Faith was the largest non-Christian religion in South Carolina. ASARB’s Secretary-Treasurer has powerful map-making software that can turn out maps showing various significant aspects of the data. One of the maps he created and uploaded to the web was one showing the second most common religion in every state (Christianity being number one everywhere).

It was that map that prompted a reporter for the Washington Post to write an article titled “The second-largest religion in each state” for its June 4, 2014, issue. It included a map of the second-largest religion in each county, showing the strength of the Bahá’í Faith in various rural areas (not just in the South) and on Indian reservations.

A Google search shows that the article was summarized and commented on at Mental Floss, Director Blue, Outside the Beltway, and a dozen other websites.  An NPR blog, “The Runner-up Religions of America,” interviewed Dr. Louis Venters, a Bahá’í  and Assistant Professor of History at Francis Marion University, about the Bahá’í history of South Carolina, which Dr. Venters had explored in his doctoral dissertation.

Then came the controversy. On June 6 Dr. Mark Silk, Professor of Religion and Public Life at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, in “This map is wrong,” noted that the ASARB data was greatly at variance with the results of various large random telephone surveys of religious adherence. He rightly pointed out that denominational membership data is often inaccurate, as was often demonstrated at ASARB meetings when many highly amusing stories about counting members were shared.

If one telephones 150,000 households to ask them their religion—the number of households often called—and the Bahá’ís are only 1/2000th of the population, you will reach only 75 Bahá’ís, a number too small to be statistically reliable at the national level, let alone at the state level. He specifically questioned the idea that Bahá’ís were the second-largest religion in South Carolina.

Dr. Silk’s blog questioning the accuracy of the ASARB data caused some consternation among ASARB’s officers, but they decided not to respond. Dr. Silk’s curiosity and care for accuracy, however, got the better of him, and he contacted an old friend from graduate school on Facebook—Dr. Robert Stockman—about the South Carolina Bahá’í data. Dr. Stockman explained the nature of the mass teaching that had brought so many people into the Bahá’í Faith in South Carolina—17,000 are still on the list, though only 4,500 still have good mailing addresses—and the fact that many people with bad addresses probably still are Bahá’ís. The result was a second blog by Dr. Silk, “Maybe there ARE more Bahá’ís than Jews in South Carolina!” published on June 26.

Meanwhile, the article stimulated interest among journalists in South Carolina. On June 17, the Charleston City Paper published “How a 19th century Persian faith became the second-most common religion in our state” by Paul Bowers. The article featured a photograph of the Louis G. Gregory Museum and the Bahá’í couple who help run it. On June 21, The Charleston Post and Courier published an article by Jennifer Berry Hawes, “How the Bahá’í Faith Became South Carolina’s second-largest religion,” which interviewed several Bahá’ís about how they accepted the Faith and what it means to them.

On the same day and in the same paper Hawes also published a second article called “Charlestonian Louis G. Gregory a key Baha’i figure.” In it she discussed the Louis G. Gregory Museum in downtown Charleston named in Gregory’s honor and provided a short biography of his life, including his becoming a Bahá’í in 1907, his being elected to the national governing body of the Bahá’ís of the United States in 1912 (and being re-elected fifteen more times), his giving up his law practice to travel the country talking about the Bahá’í principle of race unity, his marrying a white Bahá’í, even though it was illegal in some parts of the country, and his being honored after his death in 1951 by having the Louis G. Gregory Institute in Hemingway, South Carolina named after him.

On July 3, Herb Silverman published a blog about the Bahá’ís in his area, “One of America’s Best Kept Religious Secrets: Could the growing Bahá’í religion revolutionize our political sphere?” in which he summarized the Bahá’í teachings in great detail, noting that when he offered a financial contribution, they declined to accept it. Interest continues, with scnow.com publishing “Bahá’í Faith is second most prevalent religion in South Carolina” on July 19.

An article about the statistical distribution of religions in the United States that appeared in early June in a Washington, D.C. newspaper, is still producing articles about the Bahá’í Faith in South Carolina in late July.

Tagged with: , , , ,