Three Cheers for Cultural Christianity
It is presently in vogue amongst evangelical cultural elites to decry “Cultural Christianity,” or alternatively, “Bible Belt Religion.” Ray Ortlund’s tweet from April 12th encapsulates this mood. “I rejoice at the decline of Bible Belt Religion,” he wrote. “It made bad people worse—in the name of Jesus. Now may we actually believe in Him, so that our churches stand out with both the truth of gospel doctrine and the beauty of gospel culture. To that end, I gladly devote my life.”
The basic idea here is that Bible Belt religion is the broadly Christian culture that characterizes the evangelical stronghold of the South and Southwest United States. In response to his thread he clarified, “By ‘Bible Belt Religion’ I mean a nominal identification with Christianity motivated by social advantage and self-importance. It names Jesus, but not with a true heart. The proof: it mistreats those who really do love Him. I have seen this.” And back in 2016 he tweeted, “We’re losing a Bible Belt religion that held us back anyway. We’ve gained A29, TGC, ERLC, T4G, reformed hip hop and poetry, etc. Great!”
For Ortlund, Bible Belt religion, cultural Christianity, is not simply hollow, unregenerate, and useless, but actually an impediment to true Christianity, and a barrier to the spread of the Gospel. His basic contention is that Christianity only endured in nominal form in the geographic South because it afforded social advantage. This is not an opinion unique to Ortlund. Russell Moore recently posted a similar but lengthier take on his blog. I do not mean to pick too much on either of them here. I am sure he is a kind, earnest, and faithful pastor. It is just that he and his public remarks are representative of the dominant persuasion of evangelical leaders—at least the “Big Eva,” conference circuit-riding, Gospel Coalition-writing types. The prevailing opinion in those circles regarding cultural Christiainty is misguided and full of ironies and contradictions.
Ironically, Ortlund and others chant, “good riddance!” to the very cultural conditions that facilitated evangelical growth and eventual dominance in America—namely, the Southern Baptist Convention, United Methodist Church, and Presbyterian Church in America. It was in the nineteenth century (Second) Great Awakening that all three denominations gained a foothold in the South over and against the Anglican parishes already there and what would come to be referred to as mainline Protestantism in the North. But this does not at all imply that the people of Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia comprised some unreached people group that had never yet heard the name of Christ uttered in their midst.
In fact, looking at America generally, the nineteenth century was the most opportune time for establishing new, distinctly American denominations and seeing them flourish. By 1845, when the SBC was founded, the last state (Massachusetts) had disestablished the Congregational church. Though the establishment clause had not yet been incorporated to the states, historically established churches, for a host of socio-political reasons, had already lost their position. The playing field opened up and religious competition began to be governed by that infamous invisible hand.
Simultaneously, the country was still obviously Christian—increasingly diversified, but Christian, nevertheless. As I have written about elsewhere, the same awakening that benefitted Baptists and Methodists also gave rise to some truly strange and popular, pseudo-religious practices, as well as Christian cults like Christian Science. But even with Mormonism, for example, Christianity (albeit in bastardized form) serves as the infrastructure, and the moral code of Mormonism was even more strict than its counterparts.
More to the point, in the mid-nineteenh century, many state constitutions still contained religious tests for public office, including affirmation of the Trinity, inerrancy of Scripture, etc. Christianity—even the militantly orthodox kind—still afforded one political capital. Blasphemy was still successfully prosecuted. (And Christianity was still believed to be foundational to the common law.) Indeed, Christianity did provide social advantage, or at least, did not detract from it. The staunch-Calvinist Justice John Marshall Harlan, for example, who was not the only Presbyterian on the highest bench at the time, taught Sunday school in Washington and wrote for theological bulletins throughout his tenure. These extracurricular activities, as well as his openness about the influence of his theology on his jurisprudence, inhibited his public life in no way. On the flipside, the trial of J. Gresham Machen in the Presbyterian church then garnered frontpage attention from the New York Times. As Bradley Longfield has shown, Presbyterians were, for a time, culturally and politically dominant (in the right circles) in America. Of course, Woodrow Wilson—son of a Presbyterian minister and ruling elder at Princeton’s Second Church—used to dine with theologians (supposedly B.B. Warfield and others) as president of Princeton, is the exemplar of that era. Presidents Jackson, Cleveland, Buchannan, and Harrison were all Presbyterian.
But Presbyterians had competition from the post-Awakening upstarts. Of the first twelve presidents of the SBC, there was one state supreme court justice, one national presidential candidate, a founder of a major publishing company, two state governors, and two major university presidents. For a denomination that prides itself on local church autonomy, it has never been led by average Joe pastors—the trend toward megachurch pastors as denominational heads over the past fifty years was not an improvement over its more illustrious and connected early presidents. (And, of course, SBCers are probably less excited about their two representatives in the Oval Office.) In any case, the SBC is now the single biggest Protestant denomination in the country, concentrated in the Bible Belt.
More to the point, do Baptist, broadly evangelical ministers like Ortlund really imagine that it was by sheer force of persuasion and conviction that their denomination enjoyed such growth throughout the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries in those areas? Do they envision an alternative past wherein Baptist ministers embarked on a second errand into the wilderness to tend soil unconditioned by Christianity? Did their denominational founders maintain no cultural power which enabled their early and rapid success? And that leads to the second glaring irony. Ortlund’s class of evangelicals have, more than anyone else, perpetuated—if not single handedly created—what they now describe as empty, soulless, Bible Belt, cultural Christianity. How does Ortlund hope to re-evangelize Appalachia and elsewhere within the Belt as he frequently and publicly expresses his disdain for their allegedly folksy religion? On that front, I also do not buy the unsubstantiated, and unsubstantiatable, notion that cultures void of any vestiges of Christian influence are somehow magically easier to evangelize than one that still possess some residue of the same. This seems like a lot of backfilling, like when evangelicals pontificate about why people actually reject Christianity. The exercise lacks utility and seriousness beyond whatever initiative it is meant to justify.
The above notwithstanding, the real question for Ortlundism is, “What is the alternative?” Is an atheistic, thoroughly secularized culture (insofar as that is actually possible) more desirable for Christians? Has the Acts 4 or 25 scenario, for example, been so (mistakenly) elevated that nothing else will suffice? Is martyrdom and any level of true suffering so foreign to Westerners that we now, with no frame of reference to evaluate its horrors, long for it? Do we really feel that guilty about our relative prosperity (religiously and materially)? Or are we just that ill-acquainted with how to justly wield political and economic power? What religious outlook would condition a regime to be sufficiently conducive to 1 Timothy 2:2? Not a hostile one, surely. Does Ortlund prefer his neighbors to attend Drag Queen Story hour on the regular instead of church twice a year? To send their kids to trans camp instead of Vacation Bible School?
Ortlund seems to imagine some form of attainable, pure “gospel culture.” Such a thing is, of course, never defined, but I doubt that Ortlund has what Robert Benne once described as a neo-Augustinian “churchly culture” idea in mind; something like what Robert Louis Wilken has compellingly outlined with reference to the early church. Indeed, that would likely reproduce what Ortlund detests because it cannot be guaranteed. It is in all probability unlikely that every member of any Christian culture would be regenerate. By the standard of Ortlund’s ecclesiology, this prospect is unacceptable, and this is revealing. Ortlundism extends its ecclesiology to the political sphere, despite its insistence to the contrary. This narrow point is actually not a criticism of Ortlund or any of his persuasion; it is simply inevitable and, arguably, desirable.
This brings us to the real crux of the matter: Ortlund, self-consciously or not, is commenting on social order. What he dislikes is actually the social glue, however now melted or decayed, that has held that order together thus far. “Nominal” Christianity, albeit insufficiently orthodox or enthusiastic or pietistic, has provided a shared moral basis for those communities now coming apart before our very eyes. It is no surprise that where religion, even civil Christianity, has declined, drug use, loneliness, suicide, abortion, and all the rest—all the things that Ortlund and others would rightly lament—have increased. Do these present crises really indicate the need for less Christian influence at the social level? A welcomed diminishing of the church’s reach? Are we really willing to sacrifice a generation to Ortlund’s wildfire-like strategy, wherein the soil remaining after the Bible Belt is burned down will supposedly be extra fertile? Let us not say so! The erosion of the broadly cultural influence of Christianity and its concomitant morals, once more fully ingrained in people, is cause for lament, not celebration, and not just for ourselves.
It should be readily admitted that the ultimate aim, our chief goal, is that people in the Bible Belt would fully and truly give themselves to Christ, his church, and his doctrine. But in the interim, whilst all things are not yet consummated under Christ’s rule, we should not recoil from, but rather encourage, the influence of Christianity even amongst those who remain unregenerate. And this especially at the socio-political level—our laws, policies, and shared moral fabric. In a real sense, too, cultural Christianity can be preparatory for the reception of the Gospel. I am sure some readers might have personal stories to this effect. J.D. Vance recently wrote a lengthy, heartwarming testimony for The Lamp about the influence of his grandmother’s Pentecostal-but-plain, cultural Christianity on his eventual (and recent) induction into the Catholic Church. Obviously, I would have preferred that he had found his way to confessional, Reformed Protestantism.
Nevertheless, that cultural Christianity in Middletown, Ohio, however poorly practiced and (likely) heterodox, influenced Vance (decades later) to take his faith more seriously is a good outcome, and one that contradicts the mood and narrative of Ortlundism. Among other things, Vance’s testimony discusses how his newfound Catholicism is spurring him on to be a committed, loving husband and father, and possibly, soon-to-be public servant. That is a net win for society, especially when his own backstory and humble beginnings are considered. He and I would differ on sacramentology, ecclesiology, and a host of other things, but we would share a certain expectation for public morality and decency. Which is to say, cultural Christianity would provide us with a theological-moral, socio-political vocabulary and framework without which no cooperation could be possible until one of us converted (fully) to the other’s religion. (There is the third irony of Ortlund, et al.’s criticism of cultural Christianity: it does not facilitate ecumenism, but conflict.) The bottom line is this: in Vance’s case, and cases like it, I say, Three Cheers for Cultural Christianity!
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