Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Recycled: ~ 80% post-consumer content

Mark Schmitt of The Decembrist grapples with the phenomenon of the Christian Right in this post. A snippet--

[W]hy it is that the current flourishing of religious faith has, for the
first time ever, virtually no element of social justice? Why is its public
phase so exclusively focused on issues of private and personal behavior? Is
this caused by trends in the nature of religious worship itself? Is it a
displacement of economic or social pressures? Will that change? What are the
factors that might cause it to change?

Here is what I posted in Comments there:

I take issue with the thesis that we are experiencing a period of religious renewal. Rather, I think consumerism is having the same corrupting effect on religion as it has on so many aspects of American culture. Comfort trumps social justice. Knee-jerk secularism and feel-good fundamentalism -- both are easier than thinking.

Absolutely agree that megachurch evangelicalism partakes of self-help ideology and eschews sacrifice. Megachurches follow the logic of the marketplace and entrepreneurism. Many booming churches are non-denominational and so are relatively free to incorporate worship styles and doctrines that are "market-tested" for maximum popular appeal. New church start-ups use the same criteria for site selection that Starbucks or Walgreens uses: they look for emerging suburbs with attractive demographics. These churches promote tenets and practices for their convenience and feel-good quality, e.g. the "prosperity Gospel."

By contrast, the historic denominations (with more nuanced theologies and thoughtful, committted approaches to social problems) are less flexible. They support institutions and doctrinal traditions somewhat without regard to "marketability". They are geographically rooted to long-standing churches/congregations, even to those located in inner cities and rural areas experiencing demographic decline. Their situation is analogous to the Mom 'n' Pop store struggling to survive on Main Street and compete with the new Wal-Mart out by the interstate.

Today I heard a leading scholar of the African-American church express the view that the growth of white conservative Protestantism is simply a backlash against the civil rights movement. I think that's a little too simple an explanation, but there's a kernel of truth there. Mainline Protestant leaders were often outspoken in their anti-Jim Crow views. The mainline denominations are precisely the ones that have been in decline for the last generation while more conservative churches have experienced growth. It's a sort of religious "white flight."

Similarly, I think there's truth to the notion that pro-life, anti-gay, anti-feminist movements are a reaction to the sexual revolution and gender wars of the Baby Boom generation. (By anti-feminist I mean, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention's retrograde decision on the ordination of women. The SBC REVOKED the ordination of clergywomen who had been serving very ably as pastors.)

ADDENDUM: To link this more clearly to Schmitt's original post, the pertinent "trend in the nature of religious worship" is that in many places, worship has become about Me, Me, Me. God, give me comfort and leisure and success AND deliver me from feeling guilty about it. Economic and racial issues are hard to confront, because it's hard to deny one's own place in those hierarchies. People of different sexuality are easier to demonize and feel superior to.

The church is a social and historical institution. Many American Christians, like many Americans in other contexts, have been frightened by change and by social upheaval. I think the Culture Wars are real--there is a deep and acrimonious divide between modernists and anti-modernists. Religion stresses tradition and has pre-modern roots, so it is a particularly intense front in the battle.

I just had a thought: as voluntary organizations, churches may be MORE susceptible to some harmful effects of consumerism (insularlity, cliquishness) than other venues. Workplaces and schools tend to have diversity thrust on them. But churches are largely voluntary and self-sorting, and can be extremely insular.

A side effect is that the Karl Roves and the Rick Warrens have joined forces and found a way to put a religious spin on greed, sentimentality, and self-congratulation. (Insularity works to the advantage of the GOP, which, for example, wants to get a sharp anti-gay message out to the base but show a more gay-tolerant face to the political center.)

Disjointed stuff. More later, perhaps.

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