“If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, I don’t wanna go,” Hank Williams Jr. sang. “If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, I’d just as soon stay home.”
The song was, of course, meant to be more of a praise of the South than a developed eschatology. But after detailing all the things he loved about his home region, Hank Jr. concluded that if these things were missing from eternity, then “just send me to hell or New York City; it would be about the same to me.”
Recent studies show that, increasingly, white Southern evangelicals are deciding that when it comes to the church, if not to heaven, they’d just as soon stay home.
Last week here, I referenced an analysis by historian Daniel K. Williams (no relation to Hank) on studies of a fast-growing trend among white Southern Protestants who seldom or never attend church and yet self-identify as evangelical Christians.
To recap, Williams points to data on how these unchurched evangelicals are not secularizing in the same way as, say, people in Denmark or Germany, or even as folks in Connecticut or Oregon.
Unchurched evangelicals in the South not only keep their politics but also ratchet up to more extreme levels. They maintain the same moral opinions—except on matters that directly affect them (like having premarital sex, smoking marijuana, and getting drunk).
This category of lapsed and non-church-attending evangelicals are now, as Williams points out, the largest religious body in the South. They are also lonelier, more disconnected, angrier, and more suspicious of institutions.
These findings have seismic implications for the church and for the broader culture.
Years ago, I argued that a kind of cultural Christianity was dying out in the Bible Belt—the kind that required you go to church, or at least to be somehow affiliated with one, if you wanted to be a “normal” person. I often recounted how a friend of mine in college, an atheist, suddenly asked me one day to recommend “a Southern Baptist church to join—but one that’s not too, you know, Southern Baptist-y.”
After giving several recommendations, I asked him how he had become a Christian. Waving away my question, my friend said he didn’t believe in “any of that stuff.” But he wanted to run for office one day, and demographically, there were more Southern Baptists than anything else in his potential constituency.
At that time, most people didn’t have such a blatantly transactional view of the church. That’s why it was expected that kids who wandered away from the faith would eventually be back once they “settled down” to marry and start a family.
In many of these places, to be a grown-up and not a rebel or weirdo meant you attended church. Yet increasingly, I once argued, it was less and less necessary for people to go to church for those cultural reasons.
What I didn’t count on was that cultural Christianity would be infected with a delta variant and morph into something else.
The kind of cultural Christianity we now see often keeps everything about the Religious Right except the religion. These people aren’t in Sunday school, but they might post Bible verses on Facebook (or quote them on TikTok).
Cultural Christianity, as we once knew it, is largely being replaced by a kind of blood-and-soil Christianity. The “Christianity” in such settings is the sense of belonging and obligation not to a church but to a particular brand of white political and cultural identity.
For, say, a front-row choir member to become such a disconnected, culturally combative non-churchgoer is akin to the old God-and-country civil religion morphing into the kinds of Christian nationalism we see emerging around the world.
On one hand, the rise of the unchurched white “evangelicals” should provoke a second thought for secular progressives. Those who assume secularization equals “progress” (liberally defined) may think that people who stop going to church will start discussing NPR at mimosa brunches.
Yet in most cases, the reverse is happening. Going without worship and connection does not end the culture wars—it often heightens them. Almost any disconnection from organic community leads people to extremism and anger, no matter their place on the ideological spectrum.
Consider the evolution of the Left—from the days when leadership was wielded mostly by labor unions of plumbers, teamsters, electricians, and so on, and when civil rights leaders were typically pastors or pillars of local congregations.
To use the most trivial example possible, at almost any other time in Southern Bible Belt churches, older deacons and church ladies would give a stern reprimand to whoever used “Let’s Go Brandon” as a synonym for a vulgarity (even if they agreed with the politics).
As Leon Wieseltier once noted, wherever identity is the thinnest, it is often the loudest.
There’s a world of difference between confident and combative Christianity. Confident Christianity constantly reminds us that this life is less important than the next. It demonstrates something of what it means to forgive and serve one another and to be on mission together within a true, visible local body. Combative “Christianity” tries to differentiate us culturally, politically, or racially from those deemed to be the irredeemable enemies.
This is especially true when people combine a sense of identity as an entitled majority (“We are the real America”) with an identity as a besieged minority (“Elites are out to destroy us”). A blood-and-soil mentality is the way of Cain—who resented his brother because he himself was not recognized.
True Christian worship is the way of Abel—who offered his sacrifice to God even though it cost him his life. Some might say, “See, that’s the problem! Abel ended up dead. Cain at least was a fighter.” That makes sense from one point of view. The problem is that this isn’t the perspective of Jesus, the Bible, or the church of the living God (Heb. 11:4).
I must return to another myth that persists in secular progressive enclaves outside the Bible Belt. When many people in these places look at conspiracy theories or political polarization or political violence, they blame the local churches. They assume that the problem lies in pastors whipping their people into a frenzy with dangerous ideas—whether they be vaccine avoidance or much, much darker ideas.
Yet apart from a handful of well-publicized churches led by such personalities, this is rarely the case.
Instead, at least in my experience, churches are usually the sanest outpost of what now goes by American Christianity. At one point, I would have said the problem is not in the pulpit but in the pews. But now I think I would say the problem isn’t primarily in the pews either.
Now, to be sure, this sort of unchurched Christianity affects the church. And my point is not that “the problem is with nominal Christians, not real ones.” My point is that if we really pay attention to what is going on—with the loneliness, disconnection, and fanaticism disguised as “conviction”—we can see that the local church is, in many ways, not the problem but the solution.
This is true not only because churches provide a place of connection that works against loneliness. And it’s not only because churches give a sense of purpose and meaning beyond screaming into the void of cyberspace. It’s not only because churches that train people to evangelize signal that one’s neighbors are a mission field, not a battlefield. All those things are true and important.
But, far more importantly, Jesus told us he would come to us, uniquely, within the context of church fellowship (Matt. 18:20)—in the breaking of bread, in the building each other up with spiritual gifts, in the encouraging one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
If the church is what we believe it to be—a body connected to a Head (Eph. 4:15–16; 5:29–30)—then we know that we are shaped, formed, and made holy mostly through a set of rhythms and practices we often don’t even notice is changing us. And the whole body is “supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews” as we grow (Col. 2:19).
That sort of connection is the only way we can find the right kind of individuality and authenticity. Thomas Merton once said, “I cannot make good choices unless I develop a mature and prudent conscience that gives me an accurate account of my motives, my intentions, and my moral acts.”
Without that sort of conscience, Merton argued, our choices will be determined by what is acceptable to the crowd, and “evil” will be defined by what upsets that crowd. The result of an unformed conscience is one that is “merely the delegate of the conscience of another person, or of a group, or of a party, or social class, or of a nation, or of a race.”
When a party-line or blood-and-soil worldview shapes the conscience, Merton contended, true love becomes impossible since one cannot give to others what one does not have. The conscience is meant to be formed together in community—in worship, mission, and the reading and obeying of God’s transforming Word. That’s the opportunity in front of us.
Yes, if all people see of “Christianity” is the anger and loneliness of half-Christians, then they will not see the real Jesus. But the converse is true too. In a time of loneliness, separation, and boredom, we ought to see a craving for what Jesus told us we all need.
Against the backdrop of all the surrounding cultural wreckage, how distinctive it is for those hungering and thirsting for something more to find a church of people—however small, however unnoticed— who know how to pray, gather around a table, and say “Amen” to the Bible together.
Such a body can cry together over their sins and rejoice together over their forgiveness—to see in one another’s lives that there is power, wonder-working power, in the blood of the Lamb.
For those who can’t tell the difference between hell and New York City, maybe this is the moment for a different Way altogether. If heaven’s not a lot like Dixie, maybe heaven is exactly where we want to be.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.