On Free Market Faith

4 07 2009


Picked this one up over at Owen’s blog, from the editor of Commonweal, Paul Baumann. Some excerpts:

…Where once it was widely assumed that modernity and its handmaiden “secularization” would kill off religion, the reports of God’s death turn out to have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, Micklethwait and Wooldridge assure us, “the very things that were supposed to destroy religion—democracy and markets, technology and reason—are apparently combining to make it stronger.” Europe was wrong, and America right. Irreligion in Europe is the anomaly, and the “hot religion” (namely Evangelical Protestantism) of the United States is the future. “American-style religion” is very much here to stay, and on the whole that is a good thing—especially for business…

God Is Back traces this church model to the revivals or “awakenings” of the nineteenth century as well as the pragmatic outreach and organization of the Methodist Church, once the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. We follow Evangelical Protestantism’s ups and downs like a stock price, from Prohibition and the Scopes trial to George W. Bush and right up to the current moment. (The crestfallen reaction of conservative evangelicals and Catholics to Barack Obama’s election gets little attention, however.) Faced with the challenge of marketing faith in a postindustrial society, contemporary American “pastorpreneurs” have turned to sophisticated business models for inspiration and instruction. As God Is Back notes, Willow Creek Community Church, the famed Illinois megachurch, boasts two MBAs on its large administrative staff, and an operation that caters to virtually all the needs of its members, from food courts to addiction counseling. “Willow Creek,” the authors write, “is based on the same principle as all successful businesses: putting the customer first.” It is a principle they see being followed by Evangelical, Pentecostal, and even some Catholic churches around the world.

Doubtless there is some truth in the observation that “competition and choice” are good for religion, as the growth of Evangelical Christianity in Latin America and Africa and Catholicism in Africa and Asia demonstrates. But religion is a dauntingly complex historical, social, and intellectual phenomenon, and, as lawyers say, Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s thesis proves too much. How, for example, to fit the success of the American Catholic Church into their model? Yes, the bishops, priests, and nuns who built the remarkable array of Catholic institutions, beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, were entrepreneurial. But they hardly dispensed with “hierarchy and tradition” or committed themselves to competition and choice. Nor was there much real “competition for souls” between the Catholic Church and Protestantism: for the most part, you were born or married into the Catholic Church and stayed there. This was especially true for immigrants who found a refuge in the Church from an otherwise unfamiliar and often hostile environment. In a real sense, then, the Church operated a monopoly in one corner of the religious market. Contrary to Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s theory, it thrived without the goad of competition. Retreating into a subculture of schools, hospitals, orphanages, neighborhoods, and rigorous ritual observance, Catholics protected themselves from precisely the sort of free market God Is Back celebrates as the peculiar genius of American religiosity….

In the end, it is hard to imagine any serious religious believer, or any curious agnostic, for that matter, not being irked by a theory that requires a neologism as cringe-making as “pastorpreneur,” or by a book whose bottom line informs us that American-style Evangelical religion has finally solved the age-old problem of whether one can serve both God and Mammon. Surely there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in this philosophy.

The traditional Christian model of the relationship between Church and state resembles less Adam Smith and more the Sicilian mafia. Just look at the actions of St. Cyril of Alexandria. Now, however, we have a disarmed mafia.

I won’t bore any of you with my line of “I’m so conflicted”, since you all probably already know that and I don’t want to hear it either. I am probably more of a pop culture junkie than most of you are, and the fact that all of the “high culture” stuff fits in my brain as well probably speaks more to my intellectual ADD than it does to any sort of “integral humanism” that I sometimes aspire to. My only real beef is with those who pretend to belittle the “old time religion” or seek to judge the trajectory of religion in the context of modernity based on heavily biased and intellectually flawed principles. La Santa Muerte, the Protestant megachurch, Medjugore apparitions, botanicas, enneagrams, and spaced-out trad chics in mantillas all belong to the same phenomenon, the same category of religion in the face of the free market. They all speak to the inability of religious elites to fully satisfy the religious consumer and morally browbeat him into doing what they want. (Back in the day, as I have pointed out, there was no religious consumer. You believed whatever you were served.)

The question would then come to, “is this stuff true or not?” That question would basically try to cut through the medium to get to the message, and I am not comfortable with such haphazard hermeneutic surgeries. In the end, I remain a “traditionalist”, in many senses of the term, though I know full well the dangers of trying to understand a past that is but a faded memory even for me.



5 responses

5 07 2009

Could we please not refer to religious “marketing” and “advertising.” It ought to be beneath those of us who actually believe to sink to the level of evangelical Protestant hucksterism. References to the “religious marketplace” etc. only cheapen our “product,” don’t you agree?

5 07 2009
Death Bredon

Megavangelism is not very theocentric precisely because it puts the customer first and gives them what THEY want: Six Flags over Jesus. I hear that the rides are exhilarating.

4 07 2009

Interestingly enough, the Catholic hierarchy did try to use Protestant methods of evangelization to reel them in during the 19th century. An essay in the great book “Catholics in the Old South” relates how the clergy tried tent revivals and altar calls to bring Southerners to the Church. These methods didn’t work though in the end for a number of reasons. The fact that the clerics were predominantly French combined with the TLM (which came off as weird to people bred on Methodist and Baptist style worship) made Catholicism seem very foreign; Protestantism was even known as the “American religion” among some slaves that were owned by Catholics. Plus, many clerics ingratiated themselves with the planter class for self-protection purposes, which created resentment among middle and lower class whites and slaves. I think this episode illustrates how deep-seated cultural biases can trump even the most earnest attempts at religious marketing and advertising.

4 07 2009
Fr. J.

Fret not, my friend. All attempts to predict the flow of the religious quantum never get very far. It is easy enough to point out a trend and predict in the short term how it will play out. However, all linear projections ultimately fail beyond a few years. In the Catholic boom of the 50’s it would have been nearly impossible to predict the implosion of the 60’s. And in the Catholic collapse of 70’s it would have been impossible to predict the resurgence in the church of the 80’s and 90’s. In the 60’s, likewise, who would have expected the rise of fundamentalism?

I once wrote a post which showed how in 1900 it looked like Anglicanism would triumph and Catholicism collapse and how a century later all the fates had changed.

Sure, it is possible to draw parallels between Catholic traditionalist movements and evangelicalism. So what? And, yes, it looks like the neo-atheists are gaining ground. So what? The Church in every age appears doomed. But, even as she falters publicly in one way or another, she gathers strength in a thousand less observed ways.

In my work, I see people returning to the practice of their faith almost daily. I see people come to their senses after so many years of living the empty modern way. People come to the truth of the faith in different ways by different means, but they all have in common that they see the lie that modernity has told them.

I am no traddie priest. I am just a N.O. priest who loves his Church and his Lord and trusts them both to guide and keep us. It really is just as simple as that.

So, worry not for the macro-trends. We don’t need anyone to brow beat humanity onto Christ’s path. They come as he wants them to–tired, in need of rest in Him. Empty, in need of his Holy Spirit. Confused, and open to His Truth. Sick and wounded and ready for his Healing hands.

4 07 2009

I think the answer to the American religion market is the neighborhood parish which, ideally, forces you to subordinate your personal tastes and preferences to the local M.O., even if the music is ugly, the heating doesn’t work or the parochus is an idiot.

Otherwise you’re just a consumeristic New Age “seeker,” even if what you’re seeking is traditional Catholicism, whatever you think that means.

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