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Why Most Americans are Christian

american jesus

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, the United States is a Christian nation. Not a Christian nation like theocrats think we are, but Christian nonetheless. Christianity permeates our being as a people. Christian church buildings 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. We are, indeed, a Christian nation.

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. One need not look very hard in America to find Jesus.

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? most Americans 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. It’s hard for them to accept that their faith is culturally and socially driven.

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 personal salvation 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 Northwest Ohio, local convenience stores have one or two rows of Dr. Pepper in their coolers. Pepsi and Coke are the dominant 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 were 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 lives. Such drastic change is hard, if not impossible.

I pastored in Southeast Ohio for eleven years. Appalachian culture dominates the area. I found that there is a huge cultural difference between Northwest Ohio and Southeast Ohio. While only 200 miles separate them, the cultures are very different from one another.

One day, a church member 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 nearby Zanesville. 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 the 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?

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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13 Comments

  1. Avatar
    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”.

  2. Avatar
    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.

  3. Avatar
    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.

  4. Avatar
    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.

  5. Avatar
    dale m

    My culture is definitely Christian through and through. It’s the familiar. I still am at peace with it despite being an atheist. If Canada and the USA were ever to become truly atheist nations, we would still have to adopt the entire Christian culture. There is no way around it. Proof that this would actually work is the fact that Christianity is actually an adoption of the Roman pagan empire’s culture, in all facets. Only the meanings have changed. We should be so observant. Too busy trying to pull down Christian culture, we should adopt every facet of it. This is what is truly missing in atheism today. No home grown culture. Similarly, if we pursue world atheism, we should not hesitate to adopt EVERY culture. Anything we touch, we should make it ours. So saith the Borg !

  6. Avatar
    BJW

    Bob and I have talked about retiring outside of the country. There are places that you can get access to more medical care and living expenses are lower. But then there is the cultural thing. And of course now, we can’t leave during a world pandemic.

  7. Avatar
    Infidel753

    Having lived most of my life in California and Oregon, and visited Germany, the Middle East, Japan, and Ukraine, I know that cultural differences are very real. But I honestly don’t think Christianity has had much impact on my own cultural values. My parents were from Britain and not at all religious. I know a lot of the common Bible stories and references, the same way I know about Greek or Norse mythology, but that’s about it.

  8. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    I grew up with two Christianities, both Catholic. The one practiced by my conservative Catholic mother and conservative not-terribly-religious Lutheran father focused on personal integrity and respect for authority, engaging with God as a humble supplicant to apologize for sins. The one practiced by the liberal nuns who taught at my schools focused on service to others; personal integrity was only the start for them, and they taught that Christians have the duty of caring for everyone, even (especially?) when that meant bucking authority. They were the social justice warriors of the 1960s and 1970s, especially around the issues of race and poverty. (Abortion and LGBTQ+ issues were not on their radar, at least not publicly, because of course the Catholic Church has ridiculous ideas about them.)

    I rejected the Christianity of my parents long before I rejected theology and magical belief. The Humanist thread in the teachings of my nuns has stayed with me. I believe that I’ve thought through most of my values at this point, but the groundwork was definitely laid by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.

    • Avatar
      Matilda

      Nor me! JWs don’t come round very often, but I was parking outside my house last Christmas when I saw them going door to door in my cul de sac – I just missed them. Our front lawns look so nice, a sea of decorations and lights in the middle of a cold dark winter. I nearly went over to the JWs and asked why they thought Dec 21st was a good day for recruitment…we’d have to give up enjoying Christmas…and those houses with ‘ Santa stop here,’ and excited children….well, no more Santas or birthdays either. Doesn’t seem very appealing to me.

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