“Don’t make me take off my belt.”
Something you might hear from an elder as a child on the verge of misbehaving. Not a threat, but a promise that an impending spanking was forthcoming if you didn’t straighten up your act. I probably only received 2 spankings total in the lifetime of my childhood, but that wasn’t because I was a perfect angel, although I’d like to think I was; it’s likely because the thought alone of being spanked was enough to deter me from getting into mischief.
As children, we develop a moral compass based on the guidance and behavior of our elders. Parents, grandparents, teachers, pastors and others communicate to children the difference between right and wrong and that right-doing warrants reward, while wrongdoing invites consequence.
Now, I’m not here to debate the morality of physically spanking children to chastise them for misconduct; we can save that discussion for another post. But the concept of right vs. wrong, good vs. bad is an ideal that is not just learned in childhood, but one that continues to pervade society in adulthood where the moral compass and chastising authority for many is religion.
Especially where I come from, Texas, the “big belt buckle” of the Bible belt if you will; the Bible belt being an informal term for the southeastern and south central states of the U.S. where Christian church membership and attendance across denominations is generally higher than the nation’s average and largely representative of socially conservative evangelical Protestants.
Just take a road trip from any other region in the country toward the continental south and you won’t need a map to know you’ve arrived in a Bible belt state; you’ll know by the church at every mile, on every corner. So it’s no surprise that with such a huge religious presence, the socially conservative evangelical Protestantism that defines the Bible belt, is as much a part of the cultural milieu of the region as it is the faith fabric.
By default, the Bible belt is the moral compass – the biblical good vs. bad barometer for an America where Christian faith dominates; and so, the Bible belt doles out spiritual spankings in its politics and policies. Where the legalization of same-sex marriage has been welcomed in many U.S. states, the Bible belt hasn’t been as open-armed, with Arkansas being the first and only state in the bible belt to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples just within the last 4 months. Similarly, the Bible belt has the fewest abortion clinics and most restrictive abortion laws in the country, with legislation designed to decrease the access to abortion services, aimed at eventually eliminating abortion in the region altogether. Both same-sex marriage and abortion have been heavily debated as anti-biblical issues within the religious realm.
Ironically, while the Bible belt attempts to uphold traditional Christian values in politics and policy, in practice – the region leads the nation in behavior and trends suggestive of what socially conservative evangelical Protestants would deem as “bad” or “wrong” Christian conduct. In fact, the Bible belt leads the nation in divorces, teen pregnancy, capital punishment, and gay porn consumption, just to name a few.
Godly marriage is the foundation upon which important Christian family values are built; because of that, the Bible belt has the highest rate of marriage in the country when compared to other regions. Unfortunately, the Bible belt also has the highest rate of divorce – a not so Christian value by biblical standards. Research has attributed this trend to a number of factors including youth, education, and values around premarital sex; it’s important to note that the Bible belt has high rates of poverty and illiteracy. There is much pressure to get married early in the Bible belt, yet statistics show that the earlier one marries, the more likely they are to divorce. Likewise, those with advanced education are more prone to wait longer to marry and less likely to divorce. In a region where advanced education is not the norm, the divorce numbers don’t bode well for Bible belters. Likewise, the religious stigma surrounding pre-marital sex also encourages premature marriage with the thinking being, “the sooner I can marry, the sooner I can have sex without religious and moral persecution.”
This mentality, coupled with anti-abortion legislation (which to be clear I’m neither endorsing nor rejecting here) and the Church’s failure to properly address sex and sexuality has resulted in the Bible belt’s ownership of the highest teen birthrates in the country. A study conducted in 2009 confirmed that while teen pregnancies have overall decreased nationwide, the states with the highest rates of teen births continue to be the most religious, most politically conservative, and overwhelmingly blue collar – all definitive characteristics of the Bible belt. There’s plenty of blame to spread around from the notion that religion has done a better job of “discouraging the use of contraception than discouraging sexual intercourse itself,” to the closing of clinics like Planned Parenthood where only 3% of its services go toward abortion and the remaining 97% largely contributes to the prevention of unplanned pregnancies, to classism and the average low incomes of Bible belt states which correlate to less education and therefore poorer outcomes in teen pregnancies and marriage.
Which brings me to maybe the most surprising fact: in a region where same-sex marriage is not allowed, the Bible belt boasts the largest viewership of gay pornography in the country. Imagine. Pornhub – one of the world’s biggest porn sites with over 35 million daily users – reports that not only does every state in the South watch more porn on average than the rest of the country, the Bible belt consumes more gay porn at a higher percentage than even the states where same-sex marriage is legal; Mississippi leads the way in gay porn viewership. Such numbers bring into question the voracious rejection of same-sex relationships in the name of Christian faith, from a region of the country that privately subscribes to the same behavior.
What does all of this teach us about Christianity in America? When the area of most confluence of believers fails to uphold so many Christian values in practice, what is the message we are sending? As a Christian born and raised in the Bible belt, I personally don’t believe there is anything flawed with my faith. The flaw is only in me; in the disciples fulfilling our baptismal call to spread the Gospel as followers of Christ. The flaw is in us, not our faith. The flaw is in Christians not our Christianity. But then again that’s exactly what makes us Christians isn’t it? Broken sheep born into sin but redeemed by a merciful and grace-full Jesus at the cross. Our faith is not one of judgment checks and balances where salvation is the reward in right-doing and condemnation the consequence in wrongdoing; our Christianity is one that simply says, “I’ve already lived for all that is good in man and died for all that is bad. You are forgiven – you are redeemed; now go and spread the good news!”
Christianity was meant to be a liberating faith in the Holy Spirit, not one that imprisons us within our own humanity. Our moral compass should not be set by man in all of our sinfulness; we only need to look to Jesus for good measure, knowing that we’ll always fall short of his glory, and yet we’ll always have access to his grace. I look forward to the day that we can all share the grace that Christ has so undeservingly given us with one another and with ourselves, granting us permission to not just profess our piety in public, but to also embrace it in private practice. So let us put our bible belts back on; let us hold up our pious pants; and let us leave the spiritual spanking to the Father (or Mother).