Ask a Christian for the reason most Americans are Christians and you will likely get some sort of theological explanation, complete with a personal testimony of faith in Jesus Christ.
However, is this really the reason most Americans are Christians? Is it really all about theology and relationship?
Perhaps there is another explanation.
First, America is a Christian nation. Not a Christian nation like theocrats think we are, but Christian nonetheless. Christianity permeates our being as a people. Christian churches are everywhere. Our government leaders are overwhelmingly Christian and freely use language that reflects their Christian heritage. Christianity is on full display virtually everywhere you look.
Second, there is a cultural form of Christianity that permeates virtually every aspect of our society. Country singers win an award for a song about cheating on your husband and they thank the Christian God for winning the award. Boxers and MMA fighters brutalize one another and then thank the Christian God for the strength to do what they do. Prayers are uttered at sporting events, players give testimony to faith in Jesus, and the Christian God is given all the credit for their success.
Cultural Christianity is all about what a person says and not what they do. This is the predominant form of Christianity in America. When asked, do you believe in the Christian God?, they will say Yes. It matters not how they live or even if they understand Christian doctrine. They believe and that is all that matters.
It is this Christian world that every American child is born into. While my wife and I can point to the various conversion experiences we had, we still would have been Christians even without the conversion experiences. Our culture was Christian, our families were Christian, everyone around us was Christian, how could we have been anything BUT Christian?
American Christians have a hard time accepting this. They KNOW the place and time Jesus saved them. They KNOW when they were baptized, confirmed, dedicated, saved, or whatever term their sect uses to connote believe in the Christian God.
Why are most most people in Muslim countries Muslim? Why are most people in Buddhist countries Buddhist? Simple. People generally embrace the dominant religion of their culture and so it is in America.
It is culture, rather than a conversion experience that determines a person’s religious affiliation. The conversion experiences are the eggs the Christian chicken lays. I know Christians want it to be otherwise. Evangelicals, in particular, have built their entire house on the foundation of each person having a conversion experience. However, looking at this from a sociological perspective shows that our culture’s dominant religion affects what religion a person embraces more than any other factor. (and yes, I am aware of the exceptions. I am deliberately using generalities in this post)
Over the course of my life I have lived in Ohio, Michigan, Texas, Arizona,, and California. Every place I lived had it own cultural idiosyncrasies. Let me share a couple of stories with you that illustrate this.
Here in NW Ohio local convenience stores have one or two rows of Dr. Pepper in the cooler. Pepsi dominates the rows in the cooler. When I lived in Elmendorf, Texas (outside of San Antonio) I would go down to the Conoco and buy a bottle of pop. The dominant pop in the cooler was Dr. Pepper. There would be numerous rows of Dr. Pepper and only a couple of rows for Pepsi. Big Red was another favorite pop and it also had more space in the cooler than Pepsi.
When I left the church in Elmendorf and moved back to Ohio I kept in touch with a Hispanic family in the church. They eventually moved to Ohio to be a part of the church I was pastoring. I warned them that they were moving to an area where Anglos dominated the culture. There are no HEB’s here with the foods, vegetables, and fresh tortillas that Hispanics in San Antonio can easily buy at the local HEB. I did my best to make certain they understood these things.
With great anticipation and excitement they moved to Ohio and two months later, discouraged and depressed, they moved back to San Antonio. Reason? Culture. The differences between cultures was too great. Even though they convinced themselves they could adapt, the differences were so vast that it would have required them to stop doing things they had done their entire life. Such drastic change is hard.
I pastored in SE Ohio for almost 12 years. Appalachian culture dominates the area. I found that there is a huge culture difference between NW Ohio and SE Ohio.While only 200 miles separate them, the cultures are very different from one another. One day a man in the church brought us a bag of green peppers. He said, here are some mangos for you from my garden. Mangos? Mangos are a fruit that grow on trees. I thought, why is this guy calling green peppers mangos?
One day we went to the grocery store in Zanesville, Ohio. As we strolled through the produce section we noticed the green papers…….the sign above them? Mangos.
Culture affects how we live, how we talk, what we eat, what we do for entertainment….culture affects every aspect of our lives. Why should matters of religion be exempt from the influence of culture?
I am an atheist but I know that my moral and ethical values have been shaped by the culture I grew up in. Growing up in a poor family has shaped how I view things like poverty, welfare, and the place of government in our day to day lives.
Culture and environment have largely made me who I am today. Even though I am a godless heathen today, I still like some of trappings of my Christian past. I love listening to Southern Gospel music. I love listening to Third Day and some of the other Christian rock groups.
How about you? What cultural peculiarities do you see where you live? How has the Christian culture of America shaped and affected your life?