Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Religion in Sin City

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Religion in Sin City

Article excerpt

Religion may be the last thing that comes to mind when people think about Las Vegas. Jud Wilhite, a pastor at a large local nondenominational church, recalled his attempt to convince a Virginia woman that churches actually do exist in the city. Her response after he told her what he does for a living was matter-of-fact: "There are no churches in Las Vegas." According to Pastor Wilhite, "Her certainty was absolute. .... Her perception of the church just could not make room for Vegas" (quoted in Wilhite and Ta a fife 2006, 169; emphasis in the original). Other clergymen echo this view. A local imam, Quadir Nassif, said: "When we talk to Muslims around the country, they don't believe us that there are Muslims in Las Vegas" (1) An Orthodox priest, Kent Sharp, a Catholic priest, Frank Green, and a Jewish rabbi, Josef Rothschild, have all been asked whether they have slot machines in their parish halls or synagogues. The stereotype is so strong that it prompts countering jokes. Father Green offered this: "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, especially if you go to confession." Rabbi Rothschild provided the more sarcastic comment: "Yeah, if you get a Torah, Torah, Torah, then the Ark opens up."

Such encounters in the realm of religion echo the popular image of a broader Las Vegas experience and underscore the bifurcated nature of the city's personality. On one hand, it is the "Entertainment Capital of the World," a place of gambling, glitz, and glamour. This is the Las Vegas of the Strip, with its casinos, themed megaresorts, Cirque du Soleil shows, and adult entertainment. It is an escape from a normal life elsewhere, a place where tourists can let their inhibitions go and be someone else, if just for a weekend.

On the other hand, Las Vegas is home to 2 million people who carry out their lives much as they would 111 any other city: They go to work, school, church, and T-ball practice. This Las Vegas is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, whose population has exploded from a few Native Americans, Mormons, and ranchers a little more than a century ago, to just over 10,000 in 1940, to around 250,000 in 1970, to 1 million by the mid-1990s, and to double that today (Paher 1971; Rothman 2002). Almost everyone in the city is from somewhere else; in fact, only 21.2 percent of the people living in southern Nevada in 2009 were born in the state, whereas 58.7 percent of all Americans were born in their state of residence (USCB 2010). Via growth, Las Vegas changes constantly, offers unique employment opportunities, and hosts a rich cultural and ethnic diversity (Gottdiener, Collins, and Dickens 1999; Rothman 2002; Moehring 2005).

Las Vegas epitomizes the classic insider/outsider dichotomy of place, a subject of long-standing interest to geographers (Jackson 1970; Relph 1976; Tuan 1977; Pocock 1981; Ryden 1993; do Wit 2001). Institutional religions--insider entities whose teachings are often contradictory to the tenets of the outsiders Las Vegas--offer a unique view into that binary. Roger Stump, in his book The Geography of Religion, states that "religious belief and practice provide essential insights into ... the complex interactions between culture and place" (2008, 6). Geographers often look to broader contexts of their area of interest--those spatial interactions of cultural or physical phenomena--in order to gain a deeper understanding of such complex interactions, a pattern of equal importance in the study of religion. "[Religious] adherents have simultaneously influenced and been influenced by the specific contexts in which they live," Stump argues, which leads to a "perpetual reworking of religions by communities of believers into distinct local expressions linked to larger traditions" (p. 5). That "reworking" is a function of the "mutability of religion," which is that belief systems "are constantly susceptible to processes of change" (p. 10). This characteristic of religion, akin to R. …

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