Why Most Americans are Christian

american jesus

The Jesus of Millions of Americans

Ask a Christian for the reason most Americans are Christian 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 everywhere  we look.

Second, there is a cultural form of Christianity that permeates virtually every aspect of our society. Country singers win awards for songs about cheating on  a spouse 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  people say 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’s all that matters.

It is this Christian world  into which every American child is born. 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?

Practicing 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 belief in the Christian God.

Why are most people in Muslim countries Muslim? Why are most people in Buddhist countries Buddhist? Simple. People generally embrace the dominant religion and practice of their culture, and so it is in America.

It is culture, and not a conversion experience, that determines a person’s religious affiliation. The conversion experiences are the eggs the Christian chicken lays. 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, it can be seen that a culture’s dominant religion affects which religion a person embraces more than any other factor.

Over the course of my life, I have lived in Ohio, Michigan, Texas, Arizona, and California. Every place I lived had its 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 their coolers. Pepsi and Coke are the dominate brands. When I lived in Elmendorf, Texas, just 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 and Coke. Big Red was another favorite pop and it also had more space in the cooler than Pepsi. Why? Culture.

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 dominate the culture. There are no stores here with the foods, vegetables, and fresh tortillas that Hispanics in San Antonio can easily buy at the local HEB grocery store. 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 the two 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.

mango tree

Cambodian Mango Tree

I pastored in SE Ohio for eleven years. Appalachian culture dominates the area. I found that there is a huge cultural 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 fruit that grows on trees. I thought, why is this guy calling green peppers “mangos?”  A short time later, we went to the grocery store in Zanesville, Ohio. As we strolled through the produce section we noticed the green peppers. The sign above them said “mangos.” Why? Culture.

Culture affects how we live, how we talk, what we eat, and what we do for entertainment. It 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 in which I grew up. I have no problem admitting that some of my moral beliefs come from my Christian upbringing. Growing up in a poor family shaped how I view things such as 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 now a godless heathen, I still like some of trappings of my Christian past. I love listening to southern gospel music. I  enjoy listening to Third Day and some of the other Christian rock groups. I don’t believe one word of the lyrics, but there is something about the music that appeals to me. It is familiar to me, as are many of the other cultural peculiarities by which I am surrounded.

How about you? What cultural peculiarities do you see where you live? How has the Christian culture of America shaped and affected your life?

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5 Comments

  1. Alice

    When I was a kid, we always called them “mangos” too.

    Reply
  2. Robt

    I love learning new things … Re: “Mangoes” from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mango) :

    When mangoes were first imported to the American colonies in the 17th century, they had to be pickled due to lack of refrigeration. Other fruits were also pickled and came to be called “mangoes”, especially bell peppers, and by the 18th century, the word “mango” became a verb meaning “to pickle”.)

    Being originally from NE Ohio (hence my love for the Browns) I had never heard of Green peppers referred to as “mangoes”, In fact, I had never heard of mangoes until I saw the movie “Apocalypse Now”.

    Reply
  3. Angiep

    I was not raised as a Christian. I became converted in my mind teens — well after my personal moral code was developed. To this day I am at least as moral as any Christian. I don’t attribute morality to religion at all…in fact I find that concept offensive as well as inaccurate.

    Reply
  4. Becky Wiren

    I lived in New England for several years as a young adult. I had to consciously say “soda” instead of “pop.” And “ahnt” instead of “ant” for “aunt.” When my husband and I moved to Minnesota, their culture was more like Ohio than New England. I could go back to saying “pop.” However, they did use the cultured “ahnt” there. Also, in Ohio old people usually retire to Florida. In Minnesota they retire to Texas. In New England, they went to Florida or North Carolina.

    Reply
  5. Vol-E

    I grew up in New York in the 1960’s, then moved to the south in the eighties. By that time, Reagan has completely transformed American culture. It was a shock and a letdown, but I also converted temporarily to Christianity at the same time. It was easier to feel like I fit in. No idea where to start comparing north & south, but since the 80s, it’s been a real stretch to describe this country as “united.”

    As for the pervasive Christian mindset, it’s something I have to work hard at resisting. The notion that clergy are inherently good or even holy; the judgmental attitudes that rear their ugly heads when I hear someone got pregnant before being married, etc. I so wish we could banish religion once and for all: IMO, it really is a mental illness. A subcategory of delusional disorder.

    Reply

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