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Geographers Map out Moral Offenses

Tennesseans aren't very lusty and they don't rob their neighbors, but they do get ticked off and want to smack their neighbors around.

That's what a group of geographers found when they mapped out the seven deadly sins in the United States. Tennessee and much of the Bible Belt did all right when it came to greed, gluttony, pride, sloth and envy. West Tennesseans were lustier than East Tennesseans, but not as lusty as residents of Alabama and Mississippi.

But when it came to wrath, most of the state was a hot spot.

That's because Tennessee had a higher rate of murder, aggravated assault and rape than neighboring states, said Mitchel Stimers, one of the creators of the 7 Deadly Sins project.

Stimers and three other graduate students at Kansas State University created the maps this year as an academic exercise. They will be writing articles for four academic journals about their work.

"We thought it'd be a really interesting thing to try and map out," Stimers said. "When you look up the seven deadly sins in a physical brick-and-mortar library or on Google, you get theological interpretations and how they have changed over the year. But you never see how they play out spatially."

For each sin, Stimers and the other mapmakers substituted census data.

For greed, they looked at the number of people living under the poverty line and those in high income brackets in every county of the country. For envy, they used the number of thefts per capita. For lust, they used rates of sexually transmitted diseases — which has proved controversial.

"We've gotten a lot of flak for that," he said. "But it was the best data we could find. Is there a data set out there that says how many times a day that people have sex? If there is, I'd like to get my hands on that."

Greed was most common on the East Coast, including New York City, and in California. Envy was hot in Washington state, along with Florida and other southeast coastal states. Pride, which was rated by adding up all the other sins, was big in the Southeast as well.

The interest in the sin maps is a sign of the times, said Phyllis Tickle, former religion editor at Publishers Weekly and author of "Greed," part of the Oxford University's series on the seven deadly sins.

When the Dow Jones exceeded 14,000 and the economy was booming, there was less interest in sin. Greed was good, and so was envy and gluttony.

But now that the stock market has plummeted, the topic of sin is back in, Tickle says. "It may sound primitive, but when things go bad, we start looking around to see what we did wrong."

Mike Glenn, pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church, agrees. He worries about an overreaction, especially when it comes to greed. "We all knew that banks were taking major risks," he said. "But we are looking for someone to blame."

Robert Parham, executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics, believes that sloth might be the deadliest sin of all. In the past, sloth has been defined as laziness. But Parham calls it moral indifference — knowing the right thing to do but not doing it.

He sees moral indifference in the lack of action on global warming, lack of outrage over genocide in Darfur and lack of protests against proposed state budget cuts that would affect people with developmental disabilities. "I am a lot more concerned about sins of omission than other sins," he said.

Parham said state legislators should have thought more about sin before they approved the guns in bars law. "I think they underestimated the power of wrath," he said, "while they lack the virtue of wisdom."

One sin in particular puzzled Parham and mapmakers. They found few hot spots of gluttony — despite widespread concerns about overeating.

Stimers believes that's because he and other mapmakers picked the wrong proxy for gluttony. They used the number of fast-food restaurants in a county, and it turned out that fast-food restaurants are everywhere.

The mapmakers will revise their gluttony map, along with the sloth map, in coming months.

Geographers defined sinfulness this way:

WRATH: violent crimes committed per capita.
SLOTH: spending on entertainment and recreation.
LUST: Number per capita of sexually transmitted diseases.
GREED: total per capita income compared with residents living below poverty line.
GLUTTONY: number of limited service eating places.
ENVY: total thefts per capita
PRIDE: the aggregation of the previous six sins.

Source: Kansas State University geographers

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