The Bible Belt — A Great Missionary Field for Catholics
In a previous blog, I wrote how Catholics and Evangelicals will be working together in the coming years. In another blog, I wrote that it’s easier to evangelize Evangelicals than it is Liberal Catholics. Finally, in a third blog, I explained exactly how to evangelize the Evangelicals. In this blog, I want to write about how some Evangelical strongholds are actually ripe missionary fields for Catholics. I’m speaking of the Bible Belt in particular, which is heavily saturated primarily with Baptists, and to a lesser degree, Pentecostals and other Evangelical affiliations.
The above map is from the 2010 US Census. It shows the majority religion in each county of the United States. The American Bible Belt is the area shaded in red, which is primarily Southern Baptist in affiliation, with a plethora of smaller Pentecostal and Evangelical affiliations, along with a smattering of mainline Protestants and Catholics which are undetectable on the map. If you don’t actually live in this area, or are unfamiliar with it, you need to understand that this is a completely different country from the rest of the United States. It’s a different culture, a different value-system, a different worldview, with different politics and different social standards. This is the land of “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” where Christians cling to their guns and Bibles. But let me tell you, it ain’t all that bad. In fact, as a Catholic, I prefer to live here, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the United States.
Southern Baptists fall into the Evangelical spectrum, ranging from Fundamentalist to Moderate. Surprisingly, they’re usually more “Catholic-friendly” than you might expect. In fact, because this area is very much like its own country, it’s somewhat of an island in the Christian world. It’s a place where Catholicism is so rare that most people in this area are completely unaware that Catholics make up the majority of Christians worldwide. In fact, if you ask the average Baptist in the Bible Belt about the size of the Catholic Church, most will tell you they think its rather small, and extremely foreign. A lot of folks here in the Bible Belt think of Catholicism as a “Mexican thing” and something completely outside the American experience. They’ll tell you that the majority of Christians around the world are probably similar to Baptists. While some Catholics might be annoyed by this, I find it delightfully amusing.
You’ll notice that the area of the Bible Belt basically encompasses the Old South, otherwise known as Dixie, which broke away from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America from 1861 to 1865. At that time, there was a stronger Anglican presence in the South, in the form of The Episcopal Church. Many Southern aristocrats, including General Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis, were Episcopalians, and had a warm relationship with Catholics. Davis and Lee are said to have had a cordial acquaintance with Pope Pius IX. Anglicanism faded away in the South, following the Civil War, mainly due to missionary efforts from Southern Baptists among Confederate troops during and after the war. These Southern Baptists, being more Evangelical in their approach to Christianity, put more of an emphasis on a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, and a more literal interpretation of the Bible. As The Episcopal Church took a more liberal trend over the 20th century, the Southern Baptist influence over Dixie was solidified. Southerners have always taken tradition very seriously, and one of those traditions has always been a literal interpretation of the Bible.
This is the land of “yes sir” and “no ma’am” where manners are valued as part of the culture. This comes from Dixie’s Anglican roots, that have been preserved by Southern Baptists as a good cultural foundation upon which to build their religious stronghold. Here, the Confederate Flag is not usually a hate symbol, but rather a symbol of the region’s history and heritage. I have personally witnessed black and white men alike waving it all throughout the South, even in my home town in the Ozarks. This would be unheard of on the Western and Northern states. When I say it’s like a totally different country here, I mean it. You’ll see things in the South that you just won’t see anywhere else.
The open and public display of Christian religion is refreshing to me. Having grown up on the West Coast, I knew I had just driven into another country when I started seeing giant crosses peaking through the treeline, and highway billboards with Scripture passages on them. A local theme park in Branson, Silver Dollar City, has Scripture passages posted throughout the entire campus, and a Gospel-based theme to their Christmas decorations and parades. Entertainment shows in Branson, Missouri usually end with a patriotic theme, coupled with a testimony of Jesus Christ. Some Catholics might cringe at this, but I fail to see why. As a Catholic, I am seeing my faith in Christ validated on a cultural level around every corner, and I can’t help but find it comforting.
Sure, it’s not “Catholic” in a literal sense, but it’s close enough. I’ll take Baptist over Godless-Secular any day of the week. They’ve got all the gospel basics down. They love Jesus, and they know they’re sinners. They generally don’t try to justify sin, but rather throw themselves before the mercy of God. In spite of their Evangelical-Protestant approach to things, they do (amusingly) sell icons and statues of Jesus and the Saints in their Christian bookstores. These aren’t the traditional Catholic type, mind you, as the artistic style is very different, and what is usually being depicted is a Biblical scene, or theological message, but what they’re selling are icons and statues nonetheless. Every Advent season, I get to look forward to well-lit statues of the Holy Family in front of their churches and homes. They’re literally everywhere! Even in front of private businesses! It all feels so “Catholic” for a short time, and they don’t even realize they’re doing it. What can I say? It’s great!
Do I occasionally run across an anti-Catholic Fundamentalist? Sure! But no more often than I run across them on the West Coast when I go there to visit friends and family. My personal experience with Evangelicals in the Bible Belt has been surprisingly different than what you might think. Truth be told, I get a much stronger anti-Catholic experience in Southern California than I do in the Ozark Mountains. My trips to Southern California (where I grew up) are occasionally punctuated by street-preachers (especially near the beach) that hand out anti-Catholic tracts and carry on with loudspeakers about how “the Catholic Church won’t save you, the pope won’t save you, Mary won’t save you,” etc. Most Evangelical churches in Southern California are run by former Catholics, usually with an ax to grind against the Catholic Church, and frequently have something negative to say about it.
In contrast, most Evangelicals in the Bible Belt are simply ignorant of Catholicism and curious about it. To them, it’s just a “foreign religion” that most of them have never encountered before. Those who have some experience with Catholicism usually have very limited information about it. Many of them want to know more, but are afraid to ask, for fear of offending. For the most part, Catholics are recognized as Christians, but a “minority religion,” sort of like the Amish. They see us as an oddity, they would like to know more about, but are usually afraid to ask. Opening a conversation about the Catholic Church is not hard to do, if you keep the topic centered around Jesus Christ.
There is a phenomenon I’ve encountered in the Bible Belt, which I’ve labelled the “burnt-out Baptist” phenomenon. Usually, these are good Christian folks who really do believe the Bible and the basic tenets of the Christian faith. All their lives they’ve placed their trust in what their Baptist (or other Evangelical) church has taught them, but they run into a very common problem. Sin is real, they know it, and they won’t twist the Scriptures to justify their own personal sin. However, because they lack the sacrament of confession, they don’t know what to do about it. For all their talk about “confessing your sins directly to God” it leaves many of them empty in the end. The closest thing Evangelicals have to confession is the “altar call,” which is a call to come down to the pulpit, not the altar, so the name is somewhat inaccurate. Some Evangelicals see the altar and the pulpit as the same thing, namely because they don’t practice communion very often. Whatever the case, the pastor calls members to repent of their sins and rededicate their lives to Christ. Then, in front of everybody, various members of the congregation (along with some new people who want to join), go down to the front of the chapel, stand before the pulpit, and say what is called the “sinners prayer.” They don’t confess their individual sins to the congregation, but they do acknowledge that they are sinners, and the congregation can think whatever they want of them. As a former Evangelical, I can attest that this is a cathartic experience. But how many times can one do this? In my life as an Evangelical, I think I’ve participated in it maybe half a dozen times. You can’t go down there every week. If you do, people will start to wonder. There is little sense of closure. Evangelicals who really study the Bible, and are extremely conscious of their sins, instinctively understand that some form of “confession” and “absolution” is necessary, but they really have no way of obtaining this in their Evangelical experience. Consequently, some of them get “burnt out” over time.
All of this is compounded by the over emphasis on Bible study in the Evangelical world. Realizing that they’re still not obtaining the level of holiness and devotion they desire, Evangelicals will often turn to “deeper Bible studies” wherein their entire Christian faith is defined by how well the know the Bible, how often the read the Bible, and how accurately they can quote the Bible. In a very real sense, they have become a religion of the Book, by the Book and for the Book. This too leaves a sense of “burning out” for some Evangelicals, as they realize that Christianity can’t be all about the Bible for the sake of the Bible. There has to be something more, something larger, something deeper.
The end result is a ripe missionary field of “burnt out” Baptists (and other Evangelicals) who are looking for something deeper in the Christian faith. These are the primary people we can easily reach, and they’re usually very receptive to Catholic teaching.
Most Evangelicals on the West Coast, in my experience, are former Catholics who spend the rest of their lives trying to justify why they left the Catholic Church. In contrast, most Evangelicals in the Bible Belt have been Protestant for generations and barely know what a Catholic is, let alone what we believe and how we worship. Who do you think is going to be easier to reach? Will it be the former Catholic (now Evangelical) who left the Catholic Church and has an ax to grind against it? Or will it be the Evangelical, raised that way from childhood, who has barely heard of the Catholic Church and finds Catholics to be a curiosity? Obviously, it’s the latter, and that’s why Baptists and other Evangelicals are converting to Catholicism in large numbers in the Bible Belt. Most Catholic parishes in the Bible Belt are made up of a large percentage of Evangelical converts. The number is usually between 40% and 60%. Imagine that, if you can. The average Catholic parish in the Bible Belt consists of about half adult converts. This is why Catholic parishes in the Bible Belt are consistently growing, while many Catholic parishes in other parts of the United States are struggling to keep their doors open.
The Bible Belt is a ripe missionary field, and Catholics willing to come here to help evangelize are rewarding with the following…
- A safe Christian environment that opposes Godless Secularism,
- State laws that often reflect the Christian values of those who live in the Bible Belt,
- State laws that protect religious freedom and oppose discrimination against anyone based on religious beliefs,
- A good place to raise children where there are still some Christian values left in the culture,
- A surrounding culture that reaffirms faith in Jesus Christ and the gospel,
- Freedom to homeschool children free of secular influences,
- The right to carry firearms and protect one’s family,
- A warm sub-tropical environment with mild winters,
- Access to plenty of lakes, rivers and streams,
- Access to forests for hiking, hunting and nature,
- Vacation access to white-sand beaches (and warm ocean water), usually a day’s drive (or less) from almost anywhere in the Bible Belt.
It sounds great, doesn’t it? But don’t come here unless you’re willing to do two things…
First, you must respect the Christian culture of the people who live here. They’ve worked hard, for generations, to build it and preserve it. If you come in here seeking to change it, you won’t make many friends, and you’ll be wanting to leave in short order. Don’t come here attacking their historical symbols either, such as confederate flags and monuments, or you’ll be sent packing. Assimilation is the key. You keep your Catholic faith, of course, but you assimilate into the surrounding culture insofar as values, politics, manner of speech, etc.
Second, you must be willing to evangelize using the method I prescribed, otherwise you’re wasting your time here. That means in addition to making Evangelical friends, you’re going to need to study your own Catholic faith and learn how to make some very basic defenses of it. You’ve got to be able to handle basic Evangelical questions. It’s not hard. In fact, it’s fairly simple, and any Catholic can do it. But if you won’t do it, or you don’t fully believe the Catholic faith, then don’t come here. You’ll be overwhelmed very quickly. Catholics who flee the Bible Belt are usually Catholics who are fairly liberal, and don’t fully believe the Catholic faith anyway. They quickly get overcome by the thick Christian culture of the Bible Belt, and leave to seek out a more Secular environment where they can feel more comfortable. The Bible Belt is for people who actually believe the Bible. You don’t have to have a literal interpretation of every part of the Old Testament (and Catholics usually don’t), but you do have to believe the overall message of the Bible, and staunchly believe every word of what is written in the New Testament. If you don’t, I’m sorry, but you just won’t fit in here, and it won’t be long before you find the culture annoying.
I, however, am a practicing Catholic, who believes the Bible and the Catechism. I go to Mass weekly, and I pray regularly. I study my Catholic faith. I can give a basic defense of Catholicism whenever Evangelicals ask, and they’re usually very appreciative of my perspective. Because of this, I absolutely love it here! I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the United States. I was born and raised in California, but the Ozark Mountains of the Bible Belt are now my home. If I ever move, it will only be to get closer to the East Coast or Gulf of Mexico, and it will still be within the Bible Belt. I am a Catholic citizen of Dixie now. This is my home, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.