Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

3 Facts You Should Know about the Bible Belt

  • Dr. Michael A. Milton Author
  • 2020 6 Feb
3 Facts You Should Know about the Bible Belt

There are certain phrases and words that make their way into the popular American lexicon almost by accident. One of those phrases is, "the Bible Belt." It is a verbal concept that is used repeatedly in the news, in classrooms, and particularly, in dialogue about Christianity and culture. Is the phrase, "the Bible Belt" a geographical location, a mindset, a dream, a fading reality, a badge of honor, or a pejorative comment? The answer is – yes. Yes, the phrase is all of those things. One of the reasons that we want to engage with this phrase is to be quite clear what we think about it as Christians.

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  • Who Coined the Phrase "Bible Belt"?

    Who Coined the Phrase "Bible Belt"?

    The phrase was first used by that cheeky and cynical American journalist icon, H.L. Mencken (1880-1956). Mencken, a Baltimore Sun writer for his entire career, was no harmless humorist. The son of Baltimore German-American aristocracy by way of a cigar factory fortune, Henry Louis Mencken was an ideologue, a writer with a controlling idea that shaped every word of a story. It might be asserted that Mencken’s creed was less atheism and more precisely anti-Christianity.

    His ideology was studiously set in an inscrutable commitment to the philosophy of Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche was the infamous enemy of Christianity and promoter of an amoral Übermensch — a “Superman” — a human ideal “free” from Biblical moorings. Nietzsche’s prototypical person was free from what the academic believed was a repressive Christian concept of “original sin.” Nietzsche was the original “God is dead” evangelist. And H.L. Mencken was more than an admirer of such “evangelism.” Mencken was a convert. The Baltimore writer wrote The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1907). It is necessary to recall these salient facts as one considers the origin of the phrase “Bible Belt.” 

    Some phrases were conceived to antagonize. Critics of George Whitefield and John Wesley scolded evangelical Anglicans by calling them “Methodists.” Thus also with the phrase “Bible Belt.” Like the uncontrollable charter of a roaring river, the phrase forged its own pathway of usage. 

    So what does it mean? And what does it mean for Christians today? What is the Bible Belt?

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  • Who Coined the Phrase "Bible Belt"?

    1. The Bible Belt Is a Place

    When it was first used, the critic who employed the phrase meant to shame those areas of the United States that were populated by conservative, Bible believing Christians whom he equated with backwards, ignorant simpletons. Mencken especially meant the Heartland and the South. The temperance movement, for instance, had started in Kansas.

    Today we might be tempted to think of the Bible Belt as only the former states of the Confederacy. However, it originally included Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and then on through the Mid-south and deep South. It then stretches up into the southeastern parts of the United States, up to Virginia, West Virginia, rural and small-town Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Southern Illinois, and Indiana. Therefore, the Bible Belt is a geographical location that includes a large part of the United States.

    It is safe to say that in the early part of the 20th century, most of the United States (except for the major metropolitan areas in the East, the Upper Midwest, and the West Coast) exhibited the traits of what constitute the the Bible Belt.

    And speaking of traits: that leads us to our second mark of the Bible belt:

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  • Who Coined the Phrase "Bible Belt"?

    2. The Bible Belt Is a Culture

    Mencken intended to cast a pall of backwardness over those areas called the Bible Belt. The belief that the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God struck the urbane and cynical editor and social critic as anachronistic and primitive. Never mind that he was attributing qualities to people he had never met. However, he did recognize that the Bible belt has a unique culture that is grounded in conservative Christianity.

    Culture is the collective public and private expression of worldview. The culture of Christianity has been unchanged since Jesus Christ and even since the days of ancient Israel in several ways. We might include these historic features of a biblical worldview: there is a God and he created all that is — seen and unseen; God created mankind as male and female and placed them in the Garden of Eden to tend the life-giving soil, and enjoy the fruits of their labor; humankind sinned against Almighty God, violating his sacred arrangement – if they obeyed they would live and if they disobeyed they would encounter death; the world itself was cast into a fallen state and that is the world that we live in today.

    The biblical worldview also teaches that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son to fulfill his own covenant that he would do for us what we could not do for ourselves through his own covenant, the covenant of grace; the mediator of this covenant is God the son, Jesus of Nazareth, born of the Virgin Mary, who suffered and died for our sins, rose again from the dead on the third day, was seen by over 500 witnesses at one time in addition to many other appearances; he ascended into heaven where he rules his kingdom this very day, and he is coming again to judge the world and establish a new heaven and a new earth.

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  • Who Coined the Phrase "Bible Belt"?

    Historical and Scientific Influence on Bible Belt Culture

    One could almost simply recite the Apostles’ Creed to understand the worldview that undergirds the culture of that place and people called the Bible Belt.

    A significant part of the descriptive that H.L. Mencken hurled was brought about by the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. The trial exposed the rift between those who believe that Darwinism should be taught in the public schools of Tennessee and those who felt that such a theory was out of place. The famous attorney Clarence Darrow was hailed as a liberal hero for keeping the nation on its own evolutionary path out of the superstitious past. What is interesting today is the increasing critique against Darwinism.

    These include renowned scientists such as Michael Behe (author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution and Darwin Devolves, a magnificent defense of intelligent design from the study of DNA), Steven Meyer (author of Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt, a devastating blow to Darwin’s missing question of the Cambrian explosion of fossilized animal life) and the brilliant Princeton PhD mathematician, David Berlinski (a non-practicing Jew, whose recent book, The Devil’s Delusion formed a direct polemical response to the atheist, Richard Dawkins).

    Other critics include think-tanks like the Discovery Institute in Seattle, and Erskine Seminary’s David Livingstone Institute for Christianity, Medicine and the Sciences, all of which have contributed to a growing body of scientific and intellectual capital that is transforming H.L. Mencken’s condescending comments about the Bible Belt into self-condemning evidence of inflated, irrational bias.

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  • Who Coined the Phrase "Bible Belt"?

    3. The Bible Belt Is a Vision

    In a real way in the Bible Belt is an idea that is larger than any regional part of the United States. The vision of the Bible Belt transcends race, region, time, and economy. At its best, the Bible Belt is a committed community that recognizes the place of God and the practice of the Christian faith in the public square. And we must be careful even as we state this. For such an idea is not intended to promote theocracy: that is, an imposed rule by clergy and dogma. This often-employed critique is a red herring, a logical fallacy used to distort the true aim of such a community.

    A theocracy forces faith by fiat: the “belt,” therefore, is used to enforce a particular faith. Such imposition is alien to the gospel. Rather, Christianity reflects Christ and applies His gospel by faith. This Bible Belt is one fashioned out of a free offer of God’s Grace. This belt is merely a highlighted area, a population in a representative democracy — whether a republic (e.g., the U.S.) or a constitutional monarchy (e.g., the U.K.) — noted by a growing number of people following the Lord Jesus Christ and seeking to reflect his gospel in every area of life. Therefore, imposing Christianity on a nation is contrary to the vision of residents in the Bible belt. Their goal is to see human lives transformed one by one, and then the culture, including government, begins to reflect the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

    That is a very important point. Indeed, such influence by the propagation of the gospel was a distinctive that the American founders understood well. The Bible Belt used to include New England where ministers would regularly preach “election day sermons” prior to elections. These early American clergy didn’t dictate how a parishioner should vote, but why they voted. They reminded them of the gospel that transformed their lives and how they had the opportunity to reflect that through a Biblically-derived representative government.

    If the Bible Belt becomes the repressive, moralistic conscience-cops of Mencken’s making, you can be sure that it is neither Biblical nor a Christian community. 

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  • Who Coined the Phrase "Bible Belt"?

    What the Bible Belt Means

    So, while a secular-minded critic targeted the majority scriptural values of a committed Christian community — in the original case, East Tennessee — to paint a broad-brush-stroke of drab irredeemable, backwoods intolerance and call it “the Bible Belt,” the reality is something quite different.

    As a matter of faith, to the dismay of others like Mencken, both the New England Pilgrims and the Jamestown founders were residents of a “Bible Belt.” Moreover, members of the Reformed Christian Faith, Protestantism, along with a minority of Roman Catholics and Jewish congregants, formed a larger community of committed Judeo-Christian citizens who expressed their faith by founding a seamlessly sewn belt of Biblical values. And that Bible Belt was called the United States of America.

    Sources

    Brunn, Stanley D., Gerald R. Webster, and J. Clark Archer. 2011. "The Bible Belt in a Changing South: Shrinking, Relocating, and Multiple Buckles". Southeastern Geographer. 51, no. 4: 513-549.

    Hall, David W. Election Day Sermons. Oak Ridge, TN: Kuyper Institute, 1996.

    Teachout, Terry. The Skeptic: The Life of H.L. Mencken. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

    Vail, R. W. G. A Check List of New England Election Sermons. Worcester, Mass: Society [i.e. the American Antiquarian Society], 1936.

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    Michael A. Milton, PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary) is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.