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Cowboy Christianity

  At first listen, Christianity seems to have an ally in modern country music. Brad Paisley occasionally throws an old-time hymn into one of his albums; Carrie Underwood asks Jesus to “take the wheel” in a cute driving metaphor; Chris Young’s “The Man I Want to Be” is a late night desperate prayer from a sinful man. Every other song on the six or seven Country radio stations in my part of Kansas seems to invoke the name of God or praise the country tradition of strong faith and happy families. 

But carry on a song or two more and something puzzling and even sinister happens. Suddenly Brad Paisley is no longer “In the Garden” with his savior but at a wet t-shirt contest on Daytona Beach, and loving it. Carrie Underwood has obviously taken the wheel back from Jesus, because she “Got a little crazy . . . and I don’t even know his last name.” What about Chris Young and his desperate sinner’s prayer? Well, he has decided that sexual purity can wait until “tomorrow” in his song, “Tomorrow.” Continue listening and the songs go from contradictory to blasphemous. Miranda Lambert, in the song “Heart Like Mine” justifies her over-drinking and other nasty habits by invoking Jesus’ wine consumption.

These are just a few examples of the multifarious and paradoxical world of what Paul Washer calls Cowboy Christianity--the down-home, two-faced theological system that assures its followers, “Hey! You can be a God-fearing, Bible-toting believer and get a little crazy on the weekends. You can worship cold beer and Jesus! You can be faithful to your wife, but appreciate tight jeans on other women.” Basically, you can have your cornbread and chicken, and eat them too. But where is Scripture in all of this? Where is the glorious beauty of chastity, the shocking joy of temperance, the satisfaction of unsoiled speech? In short, where is the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying power in the life of the Christian?  The truth is, though one may hear the hot-button words of the faith in various songs and in various ways, there is little Biblical Christianity in country music today.

“Cowboy Christianity” may not line up with real Christian Orthodoxy, but it sings the praises of another religion, almost perfectly, without even knowing it. It may be the most wide-spread and under-recognized religion in America: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or MTD. Haven’t heard of it? Here are its five tenants:

1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3. The central goal in life is to be happy and to feel good about yourself.

4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

5. Good people (or possibly all people) go to heaven when they die. [1]

Isn’t that much easier to believe than those complicated doctrines of “Original sin,” “The incarnation” and “Propitiation?” MTD provides many (not all) country music song writers a comfortable belief system that allows them to have “fun” and be religious too.

 These singers may have felt the satisfaction of a hard day's work, but they are terribly ignorant of the deep refreshment and fulfilment found in a hard day's work by the Spirit of God in the heart and mind of the believer. They are like one who praises the merits of water for health and vigor, but always chooses to drink Coke. Their love for morality is built on some countryfied nostalgia not the work of Jesus. This is what Paul was speaking of when he wrote to Timothy of those, “having a form of Godliness but denying its power.” The power of Godliness is found in the Holy Spirit’s work to change lives and sanctify sinners. Cowboy Christianity and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism can only offer weak words and ultimately, a weak savior. 


R. Eric Tippin
In "The Study" on 8th Street
July 28, 2012

"Jerked Down"
Oil on Canvas, 1911
Charles Russell 

[1] Dr. James P. Eckman, Grace University,

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Reader Comments (4)

May I not blow this off as a country music trend and forget the deceitfulness of sin in myself as given in the words of warning by Bunyan in the latest Oil post "A New York Room."

July 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterP Tippin

It's interesting to compare the flavorless pabulum of modern country music with its so-called forebears: Cash, Haggard, Willie, Kristofferson, et al. Those guys were no less iniquitous, but they knew what it meant to struggle with a Christianity that actually made moral and intellectual demands of them. And the glory of their music emerges from the crucible of suffering they experienced in the contradictions of their own choices. In contrast, the toothless, unoffensive moral world of Paisley et al. offers no demands, no contradictions, and thus no real suffering—no truly human experiences to reflect in its art. It's no accident that contemporary Christian music also finds its home in Nashville, where the same worldview predominates, but in CCM with the hedonism shorn off. The old masters were more Christian than any of us.

See, e.g., as a classic example, this Kristofferson-penned tune sung by Johnny Cash:

July 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

"Pablum" is spot-on

Great point, Jeff. It has been a while since I've heard that Cash song.

August 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterInk Society Contributer

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