@roddreher makes an interesting, if somewhat open-ended analysis of the subject:
…my general sense was the same I had when I lived in NYC for five years: that the region overall is cool to Christianity in a way that I have not seen anywhere else I’ve lived (except for South Florida).
Needless to say, the last phrase caught my attention. As a South Floridian who is a product of a “bi-cultural” family in that regard, I’d like to dodge the food fight he’s having in his comment section and try to take a run at explaining the phenomenon he’s looking at.
Let’s start with the obvious: the main reason South Florida is “cool to Christianity” (and Dreher is being charitable here) is because many of its inhabitants started out life in the Northeast. That’s less true now than it was when I grew up there, mainly because of major Latin American immigration, but it still marks the region’s character.
With that out of the way, we can speculate about things such as education, “belief” in certain things as opposed to others, and of course lifestyle issues. But this is supposed to be a country of opportunity and upward mobility, and I think the simple explanation is that people in the Northeast don’t see Christianity as part of the “way up” as Southerners have and to a large extent still do.
Let’s start by looking at the structure of Christianity itself in the Northeast. In colonial times same was a hodgepodge of Purtians and other nonconformists who moulded the various colonies based on their preference. Puritanism in particular is a hard religion; they burned witches in Salem. But the 900-pound gorilla which really messed things up was Roman Catholicism, which rapidly became the bane of the rest of Christianity. The lack of unity among these groups made using Christianity as an upward vehicle in a civic society problematic. That was compounded by the fact that most of these churches lacked a vision for incorporating that success in a Christian life. The main offender in that regard again is Roman Catholicism; conservatives have been reminded of late of the real nature of Catholic social teaching, but it’s always been out there.
Some mention should be made of a group well entrenched in the Northeast that isn’t Christian at all: the Jews. These highly resourceful people had no use for church, and the result was a society where the Gentile-Jew divide was very sharp. (That, too, was replicated in South Florida). So we had yet another split in the way up.
When we turn to the South, we have an entirely different situation. All of the Southern colonies were Anglican until after Independence, at which time the Church of England (becoming the Episcopal Church) got disestablished. That, however, put a Christian presence at the top of society; Southern churches, for their differences in polity and doctrine, moved as a unity, albeit a class-stratified one, where one chose one’s church based on where one wanted to be in society.
For all the blubbering we hear from secularists about Southern “fundamentalists” and “fanatics” Southern Christianity never indulged itself in some of the really suppressive tactics of their Northern counterparts. For example, they burned witches in Salem, not Savannah. Things were “banned in Boston”, not “banned in Birmingham”. Southern churches’ biggest sin was racism, but it’s worth noting that black churches, taking a cue from their white counterparts, stuck together for their progress during the civil rights movement.
Under these conditions church could, was and is used as a way of moving up in a way that hasn’t been the case in the Northeast in at least a century.
For me, it’s made for a strange ride. When growing up in Palm Beach, I read (or heard) the Gospels and realised that I would have to give up things to walk with God. Most people won’t make that sacrifice and thought I was crazy to think about it. I come to the South and such a concept was considered absurd, but for a different reason: where you went to church was part of the “way up”.
Which idea is closest to what Our Lord wants is beyond the scope of this post. For the aforementioned reasons any real Christian in the Northeast (and of course South Florida for that matter) will hit a glass ceiling in a hurry, and that’s why Christianity is in trouble there.