When the South Loosens its Bible Belt by RUSSELL MOORE for Christianity Today
A growing breed of unchurched evangelicals is poised to heighten the culture wars.
“If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, I don’t wanna go,” Hank Williams Jr. sang. “If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, I’d just as soon stay home.”
The song was, of course, meant to be more of a praise of the South than a developed eschatology. But after detailing all the things he loved about his home region, Hank Jr. concluded that if these things were missing from eternity, then “just send me to hell or New York City; it would be about the same to me.”
Recent studies show that, increasingly, white Southern evangelicals are deciding that when it comes to the church, if not to heaven, they’d just as soon stay home.
Last week here, I referenced an analysis by historian Daniel K. Williams (no relation to Hank) on studies of a fast-growing trend among white Southern Protestants who seldom or never attend church and yet self-identify as evangelical Christians.
To recap, Williams points to data on how these unchurched evangelicals are not secularizing in the same way as, say, people in Denmark or Germany, or even as folks in Connecticut or Oregon.
Unchurched evangelicals in the South not only keep their politics but also ratchet up to more extreme levels. They maintain the same moral opinions—except on matters that directly affect them (like having premarital sex, smoking marijuana, and getting drunk).
This category of lapsed and non-church-attending evangelicals are now, as Williams points out, the largest religious body in the South. They are also lonelier, more disconnected, angrier, and more suspicious of institutions.
These findings have seismic implications for the church and for the broader culture.