What Desecclesiastical Southerners Still Believe

My fellow Patheos blogger Daniel K. Williams, a history professor at Western Georgia who blogs at Anxious Bench, made a fascinating discovery.

In his article White Protestants in the South Who No Longer Attend Church, he notes that church attendance is down everywhere, including in the so-called “Bible Belt” of the South. In the northeast, the decline – which he attributes in part to sex scandals in the Catholic Church – has been associated with a rise in political liberalism. Does this also happen in the South? Are Southerners Who Abandoned Evangelical Churches Becoming More Progressive?

Using data from the 2018 General Social Survey (GSS) and sorting the information by race, region and church attendance, he found that the 45% of southern white people who no longer go to church have much the same political and cultural beliefs about war as their church-going neighbors do.

They overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump, voting for him over Hillary Clinton by a 2 to 1 margin. They are all for law and order, oppose affirmative action, distrust government, distrust press and support the army. They are even pro-life.

In short, by these and other measures, white Southerners who do not go to church have the same policy as those who go to church.

They even have many of the same religious beliefs. Non-practitioners still identify as Protestant Christians and 89% believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God.

There are, however, some notable differences. Non-church members are okay with homosexuality. And 68% believe that premarital sex between a man and a woman is “not bad at all”. Only 21% of worshipers believe this, with half believing that having sex outside of marriage is “always wrong”.

Unlike the Southern faithful, dropouts strongly support the legalization of marijuana. Professor Williams also found that non-church-going white Southerners are less trusting of others and more cynical of institutions than the faithful.

But could we not also conclude that political convictions not derive from religious affiliation? Perhaps Southern evangelicals are conservative not because they are evangelicals but because they are Southerners.

Dr. Williams’ data aligns well with what others have documented, which is that, for example, Donald Trump has his strongest support among non-believers. Specifically, the white working class, the most non-religious demographic in the country.

Political positions are shaped by economic interests, class resentments, local culture and many other factors that have little, as such, to do with religion. Dr. Williams associates the “individualistic” political positions of Southerners with “individualistic” evangelicalism. But we might as well say that individualistic evangelism is attractive to Southerners because Southerners tend to be individualistic.

Of course, religion shapes moral beliefs and therefore can play a role in a person’s political ideology. It is very significant that non-practicing white Southerners are pro-life, just like their religious counterparts. This may well be an example of Christian cultural influence.

The most telling difference is that non-church followers, while politically and even culturally conservative, tend to be permissive when it comes to sex. This would support the idea that many people abandon Christianity not for intellectual or even spiritual reasons, but because they want to join the sexual revolution. Their sexual desires conflict with the sexual ethics of the church, so they reject the church. Conservatives, as well as progressives, can be guilty of this.

But blaming evangelicals for political conservatism is surely too simplistic. “Contrary to popular stereotypes about the polarizing effects of religion, churches in the South can sometimes temper these inclinations,” Professor Williams concludes. “Even the most politically conservative churches have fostered a sense of community that encourages people to care about and trust others,” important values ​​that dischurches have moved away from.

Illustration: Map of Southern States by Grayshi, Roke, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

About Teddy Clinton

Check Also

Katya Jones is the best thing that ever happened to Strictly – feuds, scandals, Tony Adams and all

Tony Adams and Katya Jones on ‘Strictly’ (BBC/Guy Levy) It says a lot that Katya …