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Why Are Most Americans 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 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 saturates 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 beat the shit out of one another and then thank the Christian God for the strength to do what they do. Prayers are uttered at sporting events, players give testimonies 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 does not matter 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 encounters 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 tribe; and so it is in America.

It is culture and tribe, 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 regularly go to the Conoco gas station 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 a Baptist church in Southeast Ohio for eleven years. Appalachian culture dominates the area. I found a huge cultural difference between Northwest 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? A mango is a 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 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, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen 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.

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1 Comment

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    My stepdad was from northeast Ohio (Youngstown area), and we were in Nashville, TN. Poor guy had a hard time not saying “pop” where we all said “coke”. His cornbread was sweet and yellow, while ours was savory and white.

    When I moved from Nashville to northeastern NJ, I had to learn a lot of words! Our “buggy” was “wagon” (shopping cart); “grocery shopping” was “food shopping”: standing “in line” was standing “on line”; “house shoes” were “slippers”. One thing that caused some confusion was that where I grew up “supper” was the evening meal; “dinner” meant fancy midday meal, or a formal celebratory event. So when I would talk about cooking Christmas dinner with the intent to serve it around 1 or 2 pm, it was confusing to my husband’s Connecticut and New York relatives. 😀

    It’s been pretty cool to travel to other countries to see how religion is a cultural thing. In Japan, there are little Shinto shrines everywhere, sometimes with a Buddhist temple nearby but often alone. In United Arab Emirates there’s a mosque on every other street corner. In Malaysia, there were a good number of mosques, but also Buddhist temples and Hindu temples. One’s religious choice is most often based on their own family. It isn’t some special gift or knowledge like many religious people like to think. And some of us just don’t want it.

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