The American Way of Conversion

27 11 2008

sw-1413

Recently I encountered again the boast on one blog I read, “Another Calvinist is now Catholic!“. The discussion that ensued on this and another blog made me reflect on what conversion means in this society. As I have written before, it was not so long ago that conversion from one religion to another was an impossibility, and in some parts of the world it still is. The historical question for me, however, is what has been the nature of conversion in Christian history and not simply in ideas. Was conversion always an “individual” struggle, an intellectual working-through of historical, theological, and devotional texts? How much of the communal is unconsciously assumed in all of this, and how much have we emphasized the interior assent of reason over other, equally important factors?

To begin, of course, we must start at the beginning. When five thousand people in one day converted to the Church in the Book of Acts, how similar would this act of witnessing signs and wonders be to the modern day conversion stories now making their way around the Internet? When entire households were baptized also in the Book of Acts, how many people were doing it because they sincerely believed in Jesus, and how many were doing it just to play along, and does it really matter? Throughout Christian history, divines have been making their rounds in the halls of the rich and powerful to get them to convert, and by that grab entire vast populations for Christ. The results of course have been mixed, from the entire medieval population of Russia taking a bath in the Volga to frightened indigenous Mexicans converting at sword point. In spite of the less than ideal beginnings of these ecclesial cultures, no one would argue that the religiosity of places like Russia or Mexico has always been insincere. Like an arranged marriage or a marriage of convenience, many times such attachments can blossom into real, spontaneous affection.

If we fast forward to contemporary America, we see a culture that no longer obligates a particular religious identity to be part of the broader civil society. This of course has not always been the case. Catholics, most significantly, were treated for many decades as closeted foreign agents who had allegiance to a power other than the American commonwealth. While in contemporary society, one can be of Italian heritage and a Presbyterian, back in the old days such conversions would have entailed a disowning of one’s heritage to assimilate into the more accepted religious ethos of American Protestantism. Now, of course, even Catholicism has become a more American religion through the modernizing tendencies of the 1960’s. What once was a real difference between the two religious cultures has been watered down in most places into a common religious ideology of shallow sentiment and moral propriety.

Which brings us to the issue of conversion itself: if Catholicism has become less Catholic in its current form, why do people move between denominations? If everything is really so similar, why change from one thing to another? One must here of course state the blunt facts. For every evangelical Internet pundit or EWTN talking head who has converted to Catholicism out of conviction, there are three or four Catholics (if not more) who have left the Church out of mere convenience. Most of the ex-Catholics I know did not leave the Church because they hated the Church. A lot of them are not Protestants now because they are anti-Catholics. A lot of them do it because the evangelical preacher gives a good sermon, the church community has a good Sunday school, or, and we must take this at face value, it makes them feel closer to Jesus. The Catholic Church, in its watered-down, self-conscious American manifestation, has little to do with it. I think those who leave the Church out of real intellectual conviction are very few, because, and let us face facts, relatively few people are intellectually capable of making such decisions, and many simply do not want to be bothered with them.

There is of course the other side of the coin. How many people are in RCIA now who are simply there because they have a Catholic fiancee who wants a church wedding? Or how many Catholics just go to Mass out of habit? (Considering where I go to Mass, I almost include myself in this category.) How many are Catholics because they want to have some moral foundation to pass on to their kids? All of these reasons are not bad reasons, even if they are not the ideal ones. I would say that the number of people who are coming into or remain in the Church for these reasons dwarfs the conversion stories seen on the Catholic media. I don’t mean to belittle the latter or say that these converts are insincere, but I think it is insincere to parade these cases about like trophies when the reality of it all is far different.

I recently spoke to one young man who converted to Catholicism, and I was impressed if not a little dumbfounded by his lack of intellectual reasons for conversion. Not that this person was unintelligent by any means, far from it. But his reason was pretty much that the people he found in a Catholic church were nice and he found Jesus there. If only all of us would find this, converts and cradle Catholics! I do have to conclude, however, that the modern Catholic Church and the remnants of the Reformed traditions are in the same boat from the cultural and sociological perspective. And, leaving aside the workings of supernatural grace, both are not as dissimilar as some would like to think.


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5 responses

1 12 2008
AG

I think one has to acknowledge the very deep-seated anti-Catholicism within some American Protestant strains and churches as one aspect of these conversion stories. Having had long conversations with Presbyterians, 4-or 5-point Baptist Calvinists, Church of Christers, and mega-church attendees, it is shocking how much anti-Catholicism (works-based salvation, praying to idols, priesthood of the believer, one mediator between God and man) is indirectly taught in some congregations. I don’t think that many (every Sunday) Catholics have any idea what Protestants believe, and yet many self-identified evangelical Protestants can tell you exactly what they think Catholics believe. For converts I’ve known, discovering the actual truth about Catholic beliefs can create a certain amount of anger towards their former denomination/congregations, where they feel they were either blinkered or lied to. I think that aspect, the righteous indignation of “I was lied to/held in an illusion”, is as much a motivation for the telling and popularity of these conversion stories among converts as anything, particularly among Americans, who place a high priority on expressing indignation.

Of course, a large part of what makes these conversions possible is that we live in an information age where you can uncover the facts about other religions from the safety of your own home and only later encounter the persons who actually practice that religion, and then boast that these people are lesser practitioners of that religion than you are (not saying that all converts do this, but they are definitely a strain). But again, even though A.V. likes to write about how similar modern American Catholicism is to American Protestant varieties, there still exist stark cultural differences between one and the other. Attending an evangelical Protestant service in a building that seats 5,000 with a man wearing a suit going through his powerpoint presentation and no communion is worlds away from even the most guitar-playing, hand-clapping Catholic Mass in an octagonal building in the suburbs. I’ve known Protestants who regularly attend the former who get freaked out over the latter. Somehow the three mentions of the Virgin in the latter become “those Catholics pray to Mary all the time in their service.” One sees many more differences between these services than one sees similarities. I point this out only to remind that for many converts (the former low church group), “crossing the Tiber” really is a profound change in their “culture.”

30 11 2008
triunepieces

If I only were a trophy…

I converted to save my soul from the certain possibility of damnation from mortal sin, and to have the Eucharist.

29 11 2008
F and R

I cannot really explain why exactly I am Catholic.

I hope you had a Blessed Thanksgiving.

28 11 2008
Sam Urfer

Well, the sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke explore this very topic very thoroughly in their writings, primarily in “Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion” (http://tiny.cc/oNfF9). They find that, 9 out of 10 times, the reasons people convert from one religion to another come down to social networks and experiential encounters rather than intellectual considerations. Stark has spent a good deal of time in his books theorizing how decentralized folk religions such as African paganism tend to collapse in the presence of congregation based religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and such). According to his model of the “religious economy”, the social benefits of Synagogue, Mosque, and Church explain largely why Abrahamic faiths are stomping out (or, perhaps more accurately, absorbing) more traditional folk religions in the third world. While this model is interesting, I take it with a rather large grain of salt. Lies, damn lies, and statistics.

For myself, I converted not when I saw all the great intellectual reasons to join the Church, but rather how all the intellectual reasons arrayed against it were less than convincing. I’ve always been haunted by the Catholic Church, being a Medievalist in school and having a Catholic grandmother, which only got worse when I met actual Catholics and had to deal with the cognitive dissonance. To paraphrase Francis Schaeffer, the only reason to believe the Catholic Church is the True Church, is because it is true in reality. This is something that is revealed by the Spirit in our lives, rather than an intellectual accomplishment.

28 11 2008
Leah

Going back to the issue of what constitutes American religious culture, the presence of these long Internet apologias and conversion stories all seem to be derivitives of the Puritan journal, in which diarists spent a great deal of time examining the most minute actions in the hope that they would get a clue as to whether they were a member of the elect or not. Similarly, religious switching, though not nessesarily shopping in the consumerist sense, always seems to have been part of the American religious experience; witness the Second Great Awakening, when Americans were switching denominations at an alarming speed, as they tried to ascertain which church was the True Church. Of course, Catholicism didn’t figure into the Second Great Awakening, as the focal of this movement was revivals and subjective mystical experiences. Still, I think it illustrates the importance of the individual conversion experience in American religious culture. While I wouldn’t dispute the fact that most people choose a church based on how much they like the people or the minister, I think that a not insignificant number of “regular” Americans probably think about the nuts and bolts of religion more than in other societies, where religious identity is pre-determined by culture.

In a related note, I’ve been wondering how conversions in places like Africa and Asia work, since these are regions where religion often still equals ethnicity. Based on what I’ve read on the FSSP and the Institute of Christ the King sites, the Latin Mass missions in Africa are huge, much larger than the parishes here or in Europe. The “regular” missions are also growing at a breakneck speed. I wonder if part of that success is because entire communities are being converted in a very short period of time. How are such large scale conversions even possible?

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