How Do You Spell Lust? M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I

Las Vegas may be known as “Sin City,” but when it comes to transgressions per capita, parts of the Bible Belt may burn much hotter, suggests a new study by Kansas State University geographers.

The project, conducted by four graduate students in the university’s department of geography, maps out “hot spots” for Christianity’s seven deadly sins — lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.

The hot-spot data is based on federal statistics such as sexually transmitted disease rates for lust, theft rates for envy and violent crime rates for wrath.

Researcher Ryan Bergstrom emphasizes the project was intended as a secular mapping exercise, but faith leaders have been gradually discovering it through word of mouth.

Many express surprise and disbelief at findings that show America’s deep South as suffering from more overall sinfulness than southern Nevada.

The Rev. Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Fla., speculated the results could mean that regional stereotypes about morality have been greatly exaggerated.

“Perhaps Las Vegas is known for its tourist industry but the residents are in reality more sedate and conservative,” he said. “And perhaps Florida is known for its retirees but our residents are more `out there’ with our appetites.”

The Rev. Craig Gross of XXXChurch, a national anti-pornography mission, said the project’s findings were consistent with his own experiences, both as a Las Vegas resident and a pastor frequently asked to speak at evangelical churches in the southeastern United States.

“Every city is Sin City nowadays, with the availability of everything online and the world we live in,” he said. “It’s on display more here in Las Vegas, but the temptations are everywhere. It doesn’t surprise me that in the Bible Belt, where you’re keeping it more from other people, that it’s going on more than people think.”

But most experts, including the researchers themselves, advise people not to take the study seriously as a reliable measure of saintliness to wickedness, given the difficulty of findings ways to accurately quantify each of the sins.

Sloth, the sin of not realizing one’s potential and perhaps therefore the hardest of the seven to quantify, was mapped as the total expenditures on arts, entertainment and recreational activities compared to employment per capita. That’s a particularly dubious method, said Mark Biddle, a professor at Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., and author of “Missing the Mark: Sin and Its Consequences in Biblical Theology.”

“You certainly wouldn’t measure (sloth) by trips to the theater; it has more to do with, let’s say, someone who had a musical talent or a bright kid who just didn’t work in school,” he said. “I would have measured it more by high school dropout rates or college completion rates, but even that would have been incomplete.”

The concept of the deadly sins is less prevalent in Jewish tradition, but the definitions — and critiques of the study’s weaknesses — are basically the same, said Solomon Schimmel, professor of Jewish education and psychology at Hebrew College in Massachusetts and author of “The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian, and Classical Reflections on Human Nature.”

He agrees with Biddle that the study’s “wrath” manifestation — incidents of violent crime — comes closest to the source, but falls short by overlooking all the uncontrollable anger that doesn’t culminate in bloodshed, such as road rage.

“Someone can lose his temper without hitting anyone,” Schimmel said, adding that measuring lust as a reflection of sexually transmitted disease cases also overlooks a large segment of sinners.

“This could also reflect a lack of sexual education, or someone who is a devout Catholic and still has sexual impulses but doesn’t believe in using a condom,” he said, adding that the calculation also ignores all the sinners who keep their lustful impulses to themselves or turn to the Internet and other disease-free outlets.

Ultimately, no map could accurately pinpoint America’s modern-day equivalents of Sodom and Gomorrah, Biddle said, unless researchers someday develop mind-reading capabilities.

He concluded, “Jesus says that it doesn’t matter if you act on it or not for it to be a sin.”

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