The South was not always the deeply religious place it is known as today. This was to change after the American Revolution, as evangelists spread out across the region, with great revival meetings making numerous converts. Initially, this was a counter-cultural movement:
Although the American Revolution swept away the institutional structures of the Anglican Church in the South, the itinerant evangelical preachers who subsequently flooded the region at first encountered resistance from southern whites, who were affronted by their opposition to slaveholding and traditional ideals of masculinity, their lack of respect for generational hierarchy, their encouragement of women’s public involvement in church affairs, and their allowance for spiritual intimacy with blacks.
However, in order to become firmly entrenched in the South, the evangelicals eventually shifted from opposition to the status quo to accommodation, thus embedding evangelical Christianity deeply into the life of the region:
[T]hese evangelicals achieved dominance in the region over the course of a century by deliberately changing their own “traditional values” and assimilating the conventional southern understandings of family relationships, masculine prerogatives, classic patriotism, and martial honor. In so doing, religious groups earlier associated with nonviolence and antislavery activity came to the defense of slavery and secession and the holy cause of upholding both by force of arms–and adopted the values we now associate with the “Bible Belt.”
As the Confederacy was formed and the Civil War approached, Christian ministers increasingly presented white supremacy and slavery as being central to God’s plan for the South. The ‘providential trust’ held by the South, stated a South Carolina minister a few weeks before the state seceded, ‘is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing’. As the Civil War raged, another South Carolina minister preached: ‘The triumphs of Christianity rest, this very hour, on slavery; and slavery depends on the triumph of the South’. Slavery and white supremacy, he insisted, were ‘the will of God’. This was fully in line with the ideology of the Confederacy. As Alexander Hamilton Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, stated of the Confederacy in his famous ‘Cornerstone’ speech on March 21 1861:
[I]ts foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
After the Civil War was lost, the myth of the ‘Lost Cause’ started to take hold, with the war being presented as having been fought to preserve a unique ‘Southern way of life’. This ideology presented the South as a God-fearing, agrarian land, which stood in opposition to perceived irreligiosity of the industrialising North:
Defenders of a self-consciously “southern” civilization after the Civil War came to use the term “way of life” to indicate an ideological defense of a peculiar pattern of institutions and attitudes associated with the South. Whites saw their system of paternalistic white supremacy as the essence of a southern civilization, but the “way of life” included countless specific attitudes and customs rooted in cultural beliefs and practices and reified as a constructed social identity. Religious institutions and leaders gave a spiritual gloss on the “southern way of life,” infusing it with transcendent significance and blurring the lines between Christianity and southernism. Above and beyond religion’s defense of a self-consciously southern ideology, religion in the South was indeed distinctive within national patterns of religion, and it was a central part of life for many people.
Key elements of the ideology of a ‘Southern way of life’ included the centrality of fervent religious faith, the notion of Southerners being a people of the land, and a lack of interest in secular education. These features of Southern life continue to be clear today. The ‘agrarian myth’ has always been important to how Americans in general view themselves and their history. As Richard Hofstadter noted: ‘This sentimental attachment to the rural way of life is a kind of homage that Americans have paid to the fancied innocence of their origins’. But perhaps nowhere has this idea been more durable than in the South. David French of National Review, writing in 2018 on ‘What Democrats Don’t Get About the South’, argues that contemporary Southern politics are ‘about the South as it sees itself’. For French:
Southerners love God. They respect the traditions of faith and family–including manners and respect for elders. Southerners are connected to the land.
The majority of the people don’t hunt or fish or farm, but they feel connected to people who do. A Tennessee lawyer may never leave a paved road, but he’ll drive a truck that can haul hay. Even people who don’t own guns value the South’s gun culture.
Yet this notion of Southerners being ‘connected to the land’ is founded in a mythical view of the past, as the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture notes:
Although the romantic mythology of the Old South likes to depict planters and plain folk alike as down-home people rooted in the southern soil while transient and money-grubbing Yankees visited the destructive forces of industrial capitalism on the northern landscape, the environmental havoc wreaked by white southerners of all classes was, if anything, greater than that caused by the industrializing North. Extensive soil exhaustion and erosion, deforestation, the hunting of species to near extinction, ramshackle dwellings that reflected the transience of much of the southern population, the preponderance of destructive feral hogs, the often careless use of fire in agriculture – these were the hallmarks of much of white society in the antebellum South.
Another hallmark of the culture of the Old South that has persisted into the modern era is a lack of emphasis on the importance of education. In the antebellum South:
Southern elites showed little interest in public education and and allowed only limited opportunities for advanced schooling beyond their own ranks… Southern elites also remained indifferent to if not opposed to funding primary educational opportunities for those outside the gentry ranks, even as public schools for children proliferated throughout northern states in the early nineteenth century.
Education was for the wealthy elite and was ‘less practical than ornamental’:
The southern gentry’s determination to use education to groom future patriarchs and affirm class status even shaped the curriculum and rituals of university life… Classical studies remained central to most southern universities’ curricula even as scientific and practical instruction supplanted it in European and northern schools.
Where educational opportunities for the lower ranks did exist, they were often sub-standard. Frederick Law Olmsted was appalled by what he found as he travelled across the South in the 1850s. Writing of the ‘ignorance and torpidity’ of the people of North Carolina, he noted:
The teachers are, generally, totally unfitted for their business; young men, as a clergyman informed me, themselves not only unadvanced beyond the lowest knowledge of the elements of primary school learning, but often coarse, vulgar, and profane in their language and behaviour, who take up teaching as a temporary business, to supply the demand of a neighbourhood of people as ignorant and uncultivated as themselves…
This was very different to the situation in the northern states:
In the 1840s, the growth of state funded public education was blossoming in states from Connecticut to Illinois. However, the Southern states did not have a tradition of public education to build on, as the North did, and in fact, it was well after the Civil War before the South legislated for state supported schools.
Needless to state, educational opportunities for blacks in the South were even more dire.
This poor level of education across the board is arguably a factor that contributed to the intense religiosity of the South, for a lack of education can be seen to correlate with a high degree of religious fundamentalism. Looking at the modern South, Alabama and Mississippi are tied for the most religious state in the US, and they are also found within the bottom ten states for high school graduation and higher education. Likewise, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee all make the bottom 10 list for education and the top 10 list for the percentage of adults who are ‘highly religious’. Outside the South, similar correlations can be seen in Oklahoma and West Virginia, both of which appear in the two lists.
Throughout the antebellum period, then, deep religious commitment was a defining feature of the ‘Southern way of life’, and this continued into the postbellum and contemporary eras. Southern religiosity, of course, was not simply about the maintenance of white supremacy or a worldview that filled the void left by a lack of educational opportunities, as it also served an important communal purpose in a largely rural region:
A church, particularly a Southern church, used to be a community center.
It was where you made friends and kept up with friends, where you ate supper on Wednesday nights, played on a softball team, sent the kids after school, fulfilled your community service duties, made business connections, got your musical fix in the choir and maybe joined a reading or knitting club.
And being a part of a church once was, essentially, a status symbol for many people in the South.
The ‘black church’ in particular had a vital communal purpose, providing an oasis from white racism and a focal point for community activities, as well as playing a key role in the Civil Rights movement.
Identifying as a Christian and attending church have long been central to the life of the South, as has the contention that Southerners, inhabiting a large chunk of the ‘Bible Belt’, are deeply committed to family and to ‘traditional morality’. Indeed, a standard stereotypical image of Southerners holds that they are a bunch of Bible-thumping religious zealots, who advocate strict sexual standards, and spend half their lives in church. Increasingly, however, this picture is starting to look very inaccurate. It is worth examining how much contemporary Southern religiosity is actually about a deep ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, and how much of it is largely rooted in cultural norms and regional identity.
Matt Moore, writing for the Christian Post, recounts his experiences of growing up in Louisiana:
I was born and raised smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt. Almost everyone I knew intellectually assented to the truths of the Bible, had prayed a prayer at some altar in some church as a child, attended worship service regularly, voted Republican, and blessed the food at dinner…
As I continued to see the vast differences between the kind of Christian depicted in the Bible and the kind of Christian I observed in my church-on-every-corner culture, I began to question whether a profession of faith in the Bible Belt really even meant anything…
The lips of these moral, conservative, church-going Southerners knew the Christianese language. Their butts were acquainted with the church pews. They lived in close proximity to the things of God, but their hearts, from my limited perspective, couldn’t have been deader toward the Author of Life.
When Moore came to an evangelical faith himself and started talking to people about Jesus, he found that this did not elicit positive reactions, and that the conservative evangelicals around him ‘seemed utterly disinterested in the actual person of Jesus’.
Moore is far from alone. A 2017 Financial Times article on evangelical support for Donald Trump quotes Wayne Flynt, an Alabaman Baptist minister and emeritus professor of history at Auburn University. The article’s author writes: ‘I wondered how a thrice-married former casino owner — who had been recorded bragging about grabbing women by the genitals — had won over the faithful’:
Flynt’s answer is that his people are changing. The words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, are less central to their thinking and behaviour, he says. Church is less compelling. Marriage is less important. Reading from a severely abridged Bible, their political concerns have narrowed down to abortion and issues involving homosexuality…
Flynt says evangelical Christians are mainly mobilising against the sins they either do not want to commit (homosexual acts) or cannot commit (undergoing an abortion, in the case of men). They turn a blind eye toward temptations such as adultery and divorce that interest them.
A look at statistical data collected by Pew Research seems to bear this out. In Mississippi, 82% of adults say they believe in God with absolute certainty, although the number who attend church weekly (or claim to) is 49%. 54% of adults surveyed believe homosexuality ‘should be discouraged’ and 61% oppose or strongly oppose gay marriage. 59% believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. Despite the sizeable number of Mississippians with strong views on homosexuality and abortion, when it comes to morality in general, there seems to be much more flexibility. Asked about their belief in absolute standards for right and wrong, 38% agreed in their existence, but 60% said that ‘right or wrong depends on the situation’. Similarly, 48% of respondents cited non-religious sources for their understanding of right and wrong, such as ‘common sense’ (50% said religion). These are hardly positions we would generally associate with a strict religious worldview, suggesting the high level of religious identification is not linked to an equally high level of pious behaviour. Mississippi ranks highest out of all the states for births to unmarried mothers, second for states with high rates of pregnancy among women aged 15–19, and third lowest for number of married people. It is also the tenth most violent state in the US, and ranks fifth highest for incarceration rate. So, while Mississippi ranks highly for belief in God, and for church attendance, the majority of Mississippians hold morality to be situational, rather than absolute (except when it comes to homosexuality and abortion), and almost half do not cite Christianity as the primary source of their understanding of right and wrong. Heterosexual sex outside marriage, and not being married at all, are clearly seen by many Mississippians as acceptable behaviour, even though this violates the ‘traditional values’ they profess to uphold, and the violence and large prison population stand in contradiction to the notion that Mississippi is a deeply religious place in terms of people living in accordance with Christian moral standards (the long history of religion being used to justify slavery and then segregation also calls into question the notion that Mississippi was even historically especially Christian, except in name).
The statistics follow a similar pattern in neighbouring Alabama (joint most religious state) and Louisiana, with high levels of belief in God, high levels of church attendance, and high levels of commitment to ‘traditional values’ existing side-by-side with a belief that morality is situational, not absolute, high rates of teenage pregnancies and unmarried mothers, high rates of violence, and very large prison populations.
What all of this suggests is that the supposed deep Christian devotion of the South is in fact more a case of a deeply ingrained cultural identity in which claiming a belief in God and certain narrow moral standards, combined with going to church, are for many Southerners essential components of what it means to be ‘Southern’. As David French put it, ‘Southerners love God’. To be ‘Southern’, then is to be Christian, regardless of whether or not that religious affiliation has any significant impact on the way individuals actually live their lives. To be ‘Southern’ is to attend church (even though many admit they do not do so weekly) and – often – to give money to that church (indeed, the claim that the more religious states are more charitable than the less religious states falls apart once donations to churches and religiously-identified organisations are removed from the equation).
Perhaps, rather than viewing the South – and the Deep South in particular – as being uniquely and deeply Christian, it is more accurate to state that the South is uniquely religious. On the white side, that religion most strongly manifests itself as what might be termed ‘Southernism’. It has a God, it has churches, but it is also fundamentally ideologically grounded in the ‘Southern way of life’. This way of life is not inspired by the Bible and by the teachings of Jesus, but is instead nominally Christian and its primary beliefs are more grounded in ‘tradition’ than in the Bible itself. This is how slavery was able to be seen as being a Christian phenomenon and the ‘will of God’; it is how white preachers could give moral credence and a Christian stamp of approval to segregation, and why white Southerners saw no contradiction between expressing devotion to a Jesus who says “Love your neighbour as yourself,” while at the same time treating black Southerners as a sort of subhuman. And today, it is how large numbers of Southerners who identify as evangelical Christians can express a deep devotion to a President who engages in personal attacks, revels in the accumulation of worldly goods, has boasted of his sexual promiscuity, and is manifestly insincere in regard to his supposed ‘Christian’ beliefs.
Meanwhile, on the black side, Southern Christianity manifests itself as a community support network and political advocacy movement wrapped in the garb of religion. That is not to say black Southerners are not very religious, but rather to suggest that this form of Christianity is more based on black identity, black community, and social justice than it is on Biblical notions of sin and redemption. To give an obvious example, the majority of black children are born out of wedlock and raised in single parent households. So, while the ‘black church’ may have many adherents, it is clearly less interested in traditional notions of Christian morality than it is in offering support to black communities and an outlet for joyous singing and dancing.
Ultimately, then, the notion that the South is deeply Christian is debatable to say the least. The South is – overall – still deeply religious, both in terms of professed belief in God and church attendance, and there are various historical and sociological factors that underpin this, but the notion that the South is a key part of a ‘Bible Belt’ rests on a misunderstanding. Despite outward appearances, religion in the South is not Bible religion – it is Southern religion, and indeed it is religion of the South.