I’m never surprised when secularists bash the Bible Belt. I’m sure the good folks from up north realize quickly they are in a different kind of place when they drive by giant crosses erected as purposeful reminders beside truck stop porn shops on their way to the beach. I’ve often heard snide comments about there being “a church on every corner” from out-of-towners. If you’re from the Bible Belt, you probably notice it as much as a fish notices water. But if you’re not from around here, the Bible Belt probably feels like a strange place.
The roots of the Bible Belt go deep. As the southwestern part of the continent gradually opened for settlers, it wasn’t the wealthy and the elite who were motivated to settle these lands. Those who began crossing the Appalachian Mountains after the Revolution were opportunists. They prided themselves on hard work and were willing to risk it all for a chance to make a new life. They were Baptists and Methodists, farmers and hunters, often uneducated and usually disdainful of elites from up north who looked down on them.
Beginning around 1800, revival broke out in the region, resulting in the conversion of thousands. New churches sprung up wherever two or three gathered in the name of Jesus. In 1776, the New England colonies were the most religious in America, and there only about one in five citizens had religious affiliation. By 1850, nearly one third of the entire United States population belonged to churches. Most of that growth took place in the Bible Belt among Baptists, Methodists, and other similar bodies.
History lesson aside, it’s inarguable that there’s something different about the region of earth that roughly corresponds to the Southeastern Conference, even including the upcoming additions of the Sooners and Longhorns. In the words of southern novelist, Flannery O’Connor, “I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.”
While secularists and progressives have made sport of bashing Bible Belt culture for a long time, the newest criticisms come from a surprising source. It is now fashionable in certain evangelical corners to bash it. Evangelicals are increasingly ashamed of their own, turning red in embarrassment as homeschool families unload their brood from conversion vans in Chick-fil-a parking lots.
I get the criticisms. Bible Belt Christianity isn’t necessarily Jesus’ Christianity. You can wear a tee shirt with a Bible verse on it and not be a Christian. You can salute the giant cross on Interstate 75 and not know the Savior who died on it. Pastors like me who minister in Bible Belt contexts must carefully navigate the pitfalls of cultural Christianity. I’ve spoken to many who falsely assume they are in good spiritual health with salvation assured all because of some vague association with the church at an early point in life. No one is saved by association.
But let’s be careful in our criticisms. Bible Belt Christianity may provide cover for fake Christianity, but it also has its advantages. In fact, I sometimes wonder where I would be without the Bible Belt. I didn’t come to Christ until I was twenty, but I grew up in South Alabama, and I heard the gospel of God’s saving grace through Christ often. I didn’t go to one Vacation Bible School per summer; I went to several. I remember prayers before high school football games. I may not have been following Jesus, but I knew many people who were. The gospel sometimes seemed omnipresent to me. I was haunted by Christ. I couldn’t forget about him.
The alternative to the Bible Belt is not a void. It’s another ideology. It’s secularism. The alternative to a porn shop with a giant cross across the street is a porn shop without a giant cross across the street. I’m glad Christ still haunts the South. I pray that the churches on every corner would serve as perpetual reminders to every passerby that Jesus has come and is coming in his Kingdom. May the Bible Belt grow stronger.