That cultural Christianity in Middletown, Ohio, however poorly practiced and (likely) heterodox, influenced Vance (decades later) to take his faith more seriously is a good outcome, and one that contradicts the mood and narrative of Ortlundism. Among other things, Vance’s testimony discusses how his newfound Catholicism is spurring him on to be a committed, loving husband and father, and possibly, soon-to-be public servant. That is a net win for society, especially when his own backstory and humble beginnings are considered. He and I would differ on sacramentology, ecclesiology, and a host of other things, but we would share a certain expectation for public morality and decency.
It is presently in vogue amongst evangelical cultural elites to decry “Cultural Christianity,” or alternatively, “Bible Belt Religion.” Ray Ortlund’s tweet from April 12th encapsulates this mood. “I rejoice at the decline of Bible Belt Religion,” he wrote. “It made bad people worse—in the name of Jesus. Now may we actually believe in Him, so that our churches stand out with both the truth of gospel doctrine and the beauty of gospel culture. To that end, I gladly devote my life.”
The basic idea here is that Bible Belt religion is the broadly Christian culture that characterizes the evangelical stronghold of the South and Southwest United States. In response to his thread he clarified, “By ‘Bible Belt Religion’ I mean a nominal identification with Christianity motivated by social advantage and self-importance. It names Jesus, but not with a true heart. The proof: it mistreats those who really do love Him. I have seen this.” And back in 2016 he tweeted, “We’re losing a Bible Belt religion that held us back anyway. We’ve gained A29, TGC, ERLC, T4G, reformed hip hop and poetry, etc. Great!”
For Ortlund, Bible Belt religion, cultural Christianity, is not simply hollow, unregenerate, and useless, but actually an impediment to true Christianity, and a barrier to the spread of the Gospel. His basic contention is that Christianity only endured in nominal form in the geographic South because it afforded social advantage. This is not an opinion unique to Ortlund. Russell Moore recently posted a similar but lengthier take on his blog. I do not mean to pick too much on either of them here. I am sure he is a kind, earnest, and faithful pastor. It is just that he and his public remarks are representative of the dominant persuasion of evangelical leaders—at least the “Big Eva,” conference circuit-riding, Gospel Coalition-writing types. The prevailing opinion in those circles regarding cultural Christiainty is misguided and full of ironies and contradictions.
Ironically, Ortlund and others chant, “good riddance!” to the very cultural conditions that facilitated evangelical growth and eventual dominance in America—namely, the Southern Baptist Convention, United Methodist Church, and Presbyterian Church in America. It was in the nineteenth century (Second) Great Awakening that all three denominations gained a foothold in the South over and against the Anglican parishes already there and what would come to be referred to as mainline Protestantism in the North. But this does not at all imply that the people of Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia comprised some unreached people group that had never yet heard the name of Christ uttered in their midst.
In fact, looking at America generally, the nineteenth century was the most opportune time for establishing new, distinctly American denominations and seeing them flourish. By 1845, when the SBC was founded, the last state (Massachusetts) had disestablished the Congregational church. Though the establishment clause had not yet been incorporated to the states, historically established churches, for a host of socio-political reasons, had already lost their position. The playing field opened up and religious competition began to be governed by that infamous invisible hand.
Simultaneously, the country was still obviously Christian—increasingly diversified, but Christian, nevertheless. As I have written about elsewhere, the same awakening that benefitted Baptists and Methodists also gave rise to some truly strange and popular, pseudo-religious practices, as well as Christian cults like Christian Science. But even with Mormonism, for example, Christianity (albeit in bastardized form) serves as the infrastructure, and the moral code of Mormonism was even more strict than its counterparts.
More to the point, in the mid-nineteenh century, many state constitutions still contained religious tests for public office, including affirmation of the Trinity, inerrancy of Scripture, etc. Christianity—even the militantly orthodox kind—still afforded one political capital. Blasphemy was still successfully prosecuted. (And Christianity was still believed to be foundational to the common law.) Indeed, Christianity did provide social advantage, or at least, did not detract from it. The staunch-Calvinist Justice John Marshall Harlan, for example, who was not the only Presbyterian on the highest bench at the time, taught Sunday school in Washington and wrote for theological bulletins throughout his tenure. These extracurricular activities, as well as his openness about the influence of his theology on his jurisprudence, inhibited his public life in no way. On the flipside, the trial of J. Gresham Machen in the Presbyterian church then garnered frontpage attention from the New York Times. As Bradley Longfield has shown, Presbyterians were, for a time, culturally and politically dominant (in the right circles) in America. Of course, Woodrow Wilson—son of a Presbyterian minister and ruling elder at Princeton’s Second Church—used to dine with theologians (supposedly B.B. Warfield and others) as president of Princeton, is the exemplar of that era. Presidents Jackson, Cleveland, Buchannan, and Harrison were all Presbyterian.