Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Stafford, Texas, has 51 churches - one for every 351 inhabitants. And they're crippling the place

Share

Please, no more churches, we've got too many already." If ever there was a sentiment I thought I'd never hear in the land of God, the faithful and George W Bush, that was it. But I was wrong.

Last week, Leonard Scarcella, the mayor of Stafford, Texas, expressed his exasperation at the seemingly unstoppable march of religion into his modest township in suburban Houston. "Our city," he told the Los Angeles Times, "has an excessive number of churches." And it's hard to argue.

Stafford's population, according to the most recent census, is 17,935. Yet crammed into its seven square miles of territory are no fewer than 51 churches and other religious institutions - one for every 351 inhabitants. They represent Buddhism, Islam, not to mention every brand of Christianity you can imagine (and many more you can't). One quarter-mile stretch alone boasts 17 churches. Everywhere you turn, the Almighty beckons.

Now it is not that Stafford, deep in the heart of the Bible Belt, is losing its faith. The town, incidentally, is next door to the delightfully named city of Sugar Land, represented in Washington by that redoubtable born-again Christian Tom DeLay, the Republican majority leader in the House until his unfortunate indictment on criminal charges earlier this year. But Stafford's apostasy has nothing to do with the downfall of the politician known as "The Hammer". The churches, quite simply, are killing the place financially.

The trouble, you see, is that all these churches are gobbling up land that might otherwise be filled by businesses, shops and ordinary residential areas that provide taxes. Making matters worse, Stafford proudly claims to be the largest town in Texas that doesn't have a property tax, making it even more dependent on business and sales taxes generated by the natural human pursuit of the greenback.

Of itself, a high concentration of churches in an American city is not unusual. This is a ferociously religious country. Some 90 per cent of people believe in God, and 60 per cent of the 300 million-strong population claim to go to church at least once a month. That means a lot of churches - even in a place like Washington DC, far from the traditional Bible Belt.

Most days, I drive to work down 16th Street, which leads ultimately to the White House. Along a two-mile stretch stand no fewer than two dozen churches (not to mention a couple of Freemasons' temples), offering a mix to match that of Stafford.

But Washington is a large city. Why Stafford is such a magnet is a mystery - at least to a layman. Cecil Willis, a city councillor, says he asked the six most recent applicants why they wanted to come. "Every one of them said they prayed about it, and God said to come here," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I can't compete with that."

If the churches were catering to natives of Stafford, that would be one thing. But most worshippers seem to come from elsewhere. The result is a community buckling under ecclesiastical sprawl. The churches, non-political and non-profit, are, of course, tax-exempt. They thus provide no revenue to the municipality in which they have settled, but gobble up land that might be used by others who could. As of now, only 300 acres are left in Stafford for commercial development. That is, if the city can keep the churches at bay.

Think of churches in Britain, and you think of ancient buildings of honeyed stone, of flint, or old brick, mostly locked and empty, as quiet as the small graveyards that surround them. Not so their counterparts in modern American cities. These are sprawling modern structures, busy seven days a week. They tend to have monster parking lots to accommodate the motorised faithful who pack the places on Sundays. They have permanently manned offices and offer an array of services, day care and the rest - as they have to. Religion in America may be tax-exempt, but it's as competitive a business as any. If congregation members are not satisfied with what's on offer, they will go elsewhere (after all, there's no lack of alternatives). And they'll take their regular donations and charitable contributions with them.

All of which is fine, of course - except if you're Stafford. What is the city to do? It can't simply turn them away. This is America, after all, where freedom of religion includes the freedom to set up churches where you please. Leave aside the moral aspect of the problem and future headlines along the lines of "The Town that Hates God". If the council banned churches and let in businesses, a cascade of lawsuits would follow.

Right now, lawyers are looking for a legal means of keeping them out. If not, then Stafford may have to do the unthinkable and introduce a property tax. But then again, aren't those churches tax-exempt?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Opponents of Israel's military operation in Gaza are the real enemies of Middle Eastern peace

Gabriel Sassoon
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

Government hails latest GDP figures, but there is still room for scepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little