Historian Christopher Dawson writes that “It is clear that a common way of life involves a common view of life, common standards of behavior, and common standards of value, and consequently a culture is a spiritual community which owes its unity to common beliefs and common ways of thought far more than to any unanimity of physical type . . . Therefore from the beginning the social way of life which is culture has been deliberately ordered and directed in accordance with the higher laws of life which are religion.”

The most important element in the formation of a culture is the predominant faith of its people. The foundation of Western culture is Christianity; in this country, Reformed Protestant Christianity. The majority of the early settlers were serious Christians; most of them were followers of John Calvin. Sydney Ahlstrom has noted that “Puritanism provided the moral and religious background of fully 75% of the people who declared their independence in 1776.” Ahlstrom further argues that, when the influence of the Reformation is considered among European immigrants, the figure is closer to 85 or 90 percent. This was true not only of the Puritans and Separatists of New England but of those inhabitants of the Southern colonies who came from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Huguenot France. In short, Calvinism was the dominant theological position of the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn—no Protestant—sums up the case:

If we call the American statesmen of the late eighteenth century the Founding Fathers of the United States, then the Pilgrims and Puritans were the grandfathers and Calvin the great-grandfather. In saying this, one need not exclude the Virginians because Anglicanism has essentially Calvinistic foundations still recognizable in the Thirty-nine Articles, and the Pilgrim Fathers, like the Puritans generally, represented a kind of re-reformed Anglicanism. Though the fashionable eighteenth century Deism may have pervaded some intellectual circles, the prevailing spirit of Americans before and after the War of Independence was essentially Calvinistic . . .

All of this changed, however, in the 19th century. New England turned away from historic Christianity to embrace the heresies of Deism, Unitarianism, and Transcendentalism. This apostasy, coupled with the influence of the aberrant—actually, heretical—theology of Charles Finney in the West, drove the majority in the North away from biblical Calvinism. The doctrines of God’s sovereignty and man’s depravity were discarded. Men were left with an irrelevant God (or none at all) and a sovereign, perfectible man. Harriet Beecher Stowe observed that, in Boston during the mid-19th century, “the only tiling worse than an atheist was a Calvinist.”

The biblical teaching of human depravity offended modern Northern sensibilities. Man was basically good. “Sin” was merely the consequence of inadequate education and an unseemly environment: Man’s problem was not inside of him but something external to him, in society. There was no need for rebirth in the biblical sense: Man was not saved by grace but by education and sociopolitical reform. As a result, the North became “movement mad” with societies dedicated to the eradication of every evil under the sun (real or imagined).

The South observed this drift into semi-paganism with a mixture of fear and amazement; while the North was experiencing a general apostasy, the South was undergoing a revival of the old faith. As the North increasingly drifted from the Bible, the South was becoming the “Bible Belt.”

As the 19th century began, the South was one of the most “unchurched” regions of the country. By the 1830’s, however, it had become a hotbed of evangelicalism. Historians have called this revival the “Second Great Awakening.” Most of the attention has focused on the Northern side of this “Awakening,” partly because it is far more interesting than what occurred in the South, hi the North (and in some sections of the upper South), the Awakening was dominated by heterodoxy, fanaticism, and extravagant emotionalism. The Awakening had all the hallmarks of bedlam, complete with weeping, wailing, and the gnashing of teeth. The Awakening in the South, however, had a decidedly different character.

Charles Finney’s brand of revivalism, which swept the North like wildfire, never resonated in the South. The Southern Christian leaders (Daniel Baker, J.H. Thornwell, B.M. Palmer, R.L. Dabney, John Holt Rice, Thomas Peck, and Moses Drury Hoge, among others) vigorously opposed Finney’s theology as well as his “innovations,” preventing the South from being corrupted by the fanaticism that dominated the revival in the North and West. Following the classic “Reformed faith,” these men believed that true revivals were God-sent, not man-produced, as Finney and his followers insisted. Revivals could not be planned, nor could they be prolonged by artificial means. They were a gift of God.

The attempt to contrast these views is not mere theological nit-picking. Finney’s revivalism focused on man’s ability to manipulate God and thus produce reform by his own efforts. Southern Christians, however, insisted that man was utterly dependent upon God and that nothing could be accomplished apart from His blessing. These two perspectives would bear different fruit: Dependence upon God and strict adherence to His will, as set forth in His Word, became the hallmark of Southern Christianity; political coercion in the name of God increasingly characterized Northern Christianity.

The predominant view in the South was that the Bible is the infallible, inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God. The content of the sermons was overwhelmingly biblical. Southern ministers spent their energies on explaining and applying the truths of the Scriptures: the sovereignty of God, the depravity of man, the divine election of grace, the atoning death of Christ, the call to repentance and justification by faith.

Thus, in the South, the preaching of the Word was viewed as the chief means God uses to change the hearts of men. The primary instruments of reform, therefore, were not political or social movements but the truths of God faithfully proclaimed to the consciences of men. Reform always begins within man by the grace of God, not from without by legislative coercion or military force.

In accordance with the old orthodoxy. Christian Southerners believed that God was sovereign: He alone can be trusted with unlimited authority since He is spotlessly holy, just, and good. They believed, therefore, that, if society was to prosper, all human institutions (family, church, and state) must abide within the strict limits that God had outlined for each in the Bible.

It is only within God Himself that we find the solution to the ancient question of the one and the many: God is both One and Three; both unity and diversity reside equally in Him. Christian cultures, reflecting this truth, have always had a place for both “oneness” (unity, structure, form) and “manyness” (individualism and diversity). Only in the Triune God and in His Covenant can we have unity that does not annihilate legitimate diversity, and vice versa.

Consequently, Southern men understood the importance of minding their own business. The officious, busybody attitude of New England was not tolerated. Following Scripture, men cared for their neighbors, but they knew there were certain things that are none of your concern, and you need to resist the temptation to run other people’s lives.

By contrast, unitarian and atheistic cultures usually demand a stifling egalitarian conformity in order to preserve unity. Unitarians view God not as a Person, but as an impersonal force. There can be no “love” in God (since His monism makes it impossible to express love within Himself); and the culture, reflecting this vision of God, often becomes cruel and heartless. Societies that refuse to recognize the loving Trinity seek unity by force, either through totalitarianism or statist egalitarianism; thus, they tend to be characterized by harshness, bitterness, and cruelty (as Islamic and communistic societies have been). True unity, however, is founded not upon impersonal or bureaucratic forces but upon the love and grace (the personableness) of the Triune God. Where this is lacking, there can never be true freedom, peace, or prosperity.

The theology of the South molded the political views that have dominated the region. The concepts of limited constitutional government, a union composed office and independent states, a hearty distrust of democracy, strict constructionism, the separation of powers, and the rule of law: All of these doctrines (and many more), which characterized our nation in its founding, are rooted in biblical Christianity. At one time, these views prevailed throughout the country, but the North’s theological liberalism gradually undermined these convictions among the “progressives” of the mid-19th century.

By 1861, the descendants of the Puritans in New England had rejected the religious faith that had laid the foundation for the nation. As one historian has put it. New England had been transformed from the “Holy Commonwealth” into “Yankeeland.” The rejection of the Reformed faith led to a perversion of the old faith of their fathers. The Puritan “work ethic” degenerated into a greedy materialism; the Puritan emphasis upon education became a worship of knowledge centered on man; the old concern that men obey God’s Word metamorphosed into an overreaching pharisaism; the exercise of godly authority turned into tyrannical, statist authoritarianism; and the desire to take dominion over Creation became a yearning to use political power to enforce conformity.

The great commission that Christ gave His disciples—to preach the Gospel and see the world transformed by grace—was perverted into a secular “Manifest Destiny” to make the world over in the image of New England—by force, if necessary. The South was the first major target of this “evangelical statism,” and we lost far more at Appomattox than a war: We lost a world, a way of life. Moreover, the entire nation lost the constitutional republic our forefathers had sacrificed to establish; in its place we gained an unrestrained, amoral empire that, like Babylon of old, seeks to save the world by legislative coercion and brute force. Appomattox was a terrible defeat not just for the South, but for all who care about constitutional government and liberty.

We must take seriously the connection between theology and culture. We have been deluded into believing that we can enjoy the fruits of Christendom without affirming its roots; that we can have a society of integrity without faith in a God Who holds all men accountable to speak the truth. We assume we can have prosperity and ignore marriage vows. We think we can rear a moral, responsible generation while teaching our young to ignore morality and shirk responsibility. We are shocked that our children are callously indifferent to violence and cruelty, yet we insist that they be taught that all life is merely the result of a grand cosmic accident. We are living in a deadly dream world; the cost of rejecting biblical theology has been catastrophic.

When we break covenant with God, Andrew Lytic said, all we are left with is magic. But magic is nothing more than pretense: We have no power to perform miracles, and this impotency provokes in unbelievers a lust for power. If there is no God, we must create our own. Having forsaken the true God, modern man has embraced the idol of empire. Those who rule us are unable to think of any solutions except those that come from their god, the unitary state. But idols cannot work miracles. Every effort to attain “freedom and dignity” by political means results only in more slavery and degradation.

Apostates always seek liberty apart from grace. As we used to know, however, liberty is a gift from God. He who commits sin, our Savior said, is a slave to sin. “But, if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:34, 36). This is a lesson our forefathers knew well. It is a lesson we must learn again.