Living Here Guide

Charlotte: A city of religious influence

Charlotte: Banking center, NASCAR hotspot … and one of the most religious cities in America.

Believe it. The Queen City’s spiritual side is as much a part of its national profile as its affinity for fast money and cars.

Founded by Scots-Irish Presbyterians in the 1750s – they built the area’s first seven churches – the Charlotte area now has more than 700 houses of worship.

The American Bible Society ranks Charlotte No. 6 on its list of the country’s “Most Bible-Minded Cities.” (It’s also the largest city on the list, way ahead of Nashville and Dallas).

And this should tell you something: The road most visitors take after they fly into Charlotte is Billy Graham Parkway – named for the world-famous Protestant preacher and the city’s most favored native son.

National public radio host Garrison Keillor captured the churchy spirit of the place a few years ago when he penned a musical ditty about Charlotte for his traveling “Prairie Home Companion” show. “Charlottte aims for perfection,” he sang. “There’s a church at every intersection.”

And as the city’s religious landscape changes, you’ll also find more synagogues, mosques and temples. Charlotte’s galloping religious diversity also makes it a leader among New South cities.

So, what are Charlotte’s claims to national fame, spiritually speaking?

• It’s home to the

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

, led by Graham’s son, Franklin. The BGEA holds crusades around the world and sends chaplains to U.S. cities and other countries reeling from natural and man-made disasters.

• Christian tourists are drawn to the

Billy Graham Library

, a presidential-like museum that opened in Charlotte in 2007 with a ceremony that featured not only Billy Graham, now 95, but also three former U.S. presidents – Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Since then, the library has hosted book signings by, among others, former president George W. Bush, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and World War II hero/Olympic runner Louie Zamperini, whose story, including his conversion at a 1949 Billy Graham crusade, is told in the best-selling “Unbroken.”

• The historic

AME Zion Church

, a major African American denomination with beginnings in the late 18th century, is headquartered in Charlotte. Part of the Methodist tradition – AME stands for African Methodist Episcopal – it now has more than 1.4 million members and sends missionaries to Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas. Among its prominent Charlotte churches:

Little Rock AME Zion,

pastored by the Rev. Dwayne Walker.

• Founded just eight years ago, Elevation Church is one of the fastest-growing evangelical megachurches in the United States. It’s currently building its 10th Charlotte area site and has nearly 15,000 worshipers every weekend. The church’s Christian rock music and state-of-the-art media are popular with young believers. Ditto Pastor Steven Furtick’s sermons, though his decision to build a 16,000-square-foot home generated unflattering local and national headlines.

• Once considered mission territory by the Catholic Church, the Diocese of Charlotte now claims one of the biggest Catholic churches in America.

St. Matthew Catholic

in Ballantyne, named for the patron saint of bankers, launched 28 years ago in a movie theater. Monsignor John McSweeney’s flock now numbers 9,800 families, or 38,000 members.

• The 54-acre

Shalom Park

is the center of Jewish life in Charlotte. It’s also heralded around the country as a unique hub for worship, education and community. The campus, which has been growing since 1986, includes

Temple Beth El

, a Reform congregation led by Rabbi Judy Schindler;

Temple Israel

, a Conservative congregation led by Rabbi Murray Ezring; the

Levine Jewish Community Center

; the

Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte

; the

Charlotte Jewish Day School

; the

Levine-Sklut Judaic Library and Resource Center .

• Leading players in major religious denominations reside in Charlotte. The Rev. Clint Pressley, senior pastor at

Hickory Grove Baptist Church

, is the new vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Rev. Clifford Jones Sr., senior pastor at

Friendship Missionary Baptist Church

, ran for president of the National Baptist Convention. And the Rev. Talbot Davis, who leads

Good Shepherd United Methodist Church

, is among a group of conservative pastors arguing that Methodists should formalize a split that already exists because of longstanding theological disputes about homosexuality and church doctrine.

• Charlotte is noted in the South – long a bastion of Protestantism – as a leading exemplar of the region’s growing religious diversity. Muslims in and around Charlotte now worship at a dozen mosques, including the

Islamic Center

of Charlotte and the

Muslim American Society of Charlotte

. There are Vietnamese, Chinese and Cambodian Buddhist temples here. And the

Hindu Center of Charlotte

, which serves about 4,000 families, is building a grand temple that will measure nearly 20,000 square feet and rise to a height of 81 feet. The center is even importing sandstone from India to dress the grand temple’s concrete walls.