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Religious Belief in Mississippi (Part A)
In the United States, the 16th annual Bible reading marathon ended on Thursday at the Capitol building in Washington DC. The event, which involved dozens of volunteers reading the Bible aloud from Genesis to Revelation, culminated in a nationwide day of prayer, led by President Bush himself. Religious belief has always played an important part in American life but a lively debate is now under way about whether religion has seeped into areas which should be kept secular. Justin Webb travelled to the most religious state in the union and was surprised by what he found:
From the air Mississippi has the colour and texture of fresh broccoli -- at a distance the trees look tightly coiled -- rich green in the sunlight, purple patches in the shade. Mississippi is home to millions of trees, and not many millions of people. It is a verdant, sweaty place. As your plane comes down to land there are glints all around of sunlight on still water, meandering rivers, reservoirs and swamps, where the line between the still brown liquid and the vegetation is blurred. The state is mostly rural and poor -- shacks and mobile homes nestling under the canopy of the forest, rusting pick-up trucks bouncing down dirt roads.
And churches -- everywhere churches. Pristine Catholic cathedrals with long pointy towers -- cool and confident looking with wide lawns and copious car parks -- Baptist houses of worship, with those vaguely threatening messages on billboards outside -- Jesus is coming -- where are you going? And in the denser undergrowth, the deeper heart of the State, tiny little brick buildings some not much bigger than a garage. There are more churches per head of population in Mississippi than in any other state and, historically, you could argue, more bigotry, more cruelty, more unchristian behaviour, racial prejudice, more unchristian behaviour.