Slouching towards the “American Jesus” – part II

19 11 2009


Up from the rancho, straight into heresy

It can be hard to get used to how much Garay talks about money in church, one loyal parishioner, Billy Gonzales, told me one recent Sunday on the steps out front. Back in Mexico, Gonzales’s pastor talked only about “Jesus and heaven and being good.” But Garay talks about jobs and houses and making good money, which eventually came to make sense to Gonzales: money is “really important,” and besides, “we love the money in Jesus Christ’s name! Jesus loved money too!” That Sunday, Garay was preaching a variation on his usual theme, about how prosperity and abundance unerringly find true believers. “It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, what degree you have, or what money you have in the bank,” Garay said. “You don’t have to say, ‘God, bless my business. Bless my bank account.’ The blessings will come! The blessings are looking for you! God will take care of you. God will not let you be without a house!”

Pastor Garay, 48, is short and stocky, with thick black hair combed back. In his off hours, he looks like a contented tourist, in his printed Hawaiian shirts or bright guayaberas. But he preaches with a ferocity that taps into his youth as a cocaine dealer with a knife in his back pocket. “Fight the attack of the devil on my finances! Fight him! We declare financial blessings! Financial miracles this week, NOW NOW NOW!” he preached that Sunday. “More work! Better work! The best finances!” Gonzales shook and paced as the pastor spoke, eventually leaving his wife and three kids in the family section to join the single men toward the front, many of whom were jumping, raising their Bibles, and weeping. On the altar sat some anointing oils, alongside the keys to the Mercedes Benz.

-Hanna Rosin, from the December 2009 issue of the Atlantic

The narrative popular amongst those who reflect on the phenomenon of Christianity in Latin America is that while Catholicism was imposed by Spanish colonialists as the mandatory religion of the people, “Jesus” was never preached to the natives there. Thus, Latin American Catholics, especially the rural, “ignorant” type, were not really Christians, but “Christo-pagans”. Even many Catholics in this country, aghast at the prevalence of “superstitions” among the “brown peoples”, cannot but secretly breath a sigh of relief when such people finally leave Catholicism altogether to enter into the broad movement of Protestant evangelicalism. “At least they are moving past their superstitions and closer to the Jesus of the Gospels” is the thinking behind such a paternalistic attitude.

Ms. Rosin in the article cited above peels away the layers of false American piety to reveal what is often really at the heart of such American-inspired religious movements, both here and abroad. The Protestantism embraced by many new immigrants has little to do with the confessional polemics of Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, or Karl Barth. The pretensions that such small, independent churches finally preach to the people the “Jesus” that the “Papists” have been trying to conceal from them is propaganda only an ignorant sector of the American intelligentsia would buy. What is really often at stake in these churches is the need for mutual support, assimilation, and the “prosperity gospel”.

The shock of coming to a foreign country so different from one’s own can lead to a number of divergent if extreme reactions. On the one hand, you have families like my own who seem to fight tooth and nail any idea of assimilation, and it was drummed into our head growing up that we were MEXICAN: we ate different foods, spoke Spanish, were Catholic, and considered Mexico to be our real home, all the while enjoying the economic and social fruits of being in this country. The other, perhaps more common response is a diplomatic and assimilationist attitude towards our new home. When we came up from the rancho, we left much behind, and it is no use clinging to things that should be left long in the past. Thus, we stop naming our kids “Socorro” and “Pafnucio”, and name them instead “Stephanie” and “Kevin”. We don’t ride horses, we buy big Ford trucks, or even better, BMW’s. We speak English, we make money, we reach for the “American dream”. Sure, there may be the occasional lament that our children are forgetting the “old ways”, but in the end, we have to move on. There is no turning back in terms of having chosen the “gringo” lifestyle: alea iacta est…

Only the blindest American Catholic would not see here that a change of religion in this situation is perfectly understandable, as the quote cited at the beginning of this essay would demonstrate. In a world where patronal feasts of the village and road side shrines are as out of place as the Spanish we once spoke, a new form of religiosity is needed, one that responds to our lives in a culture based on dynamic personalism and material gain. That is where the small Latino evangelical churches come in. Not only do they preach a message more in sync with the culture, but they often provide mutual support networks where the Catholic Church abandons the average believer to swim in the mega-parishes of urban and suburban areas. One researcher cited in the article summarizes the appeal of these churches in the following passage:

These churches typically take in people who had “been basically dropped into the world from pretty primitive settings”—small towns in Latin America with no electricity or running water and very little educational opportunity. In their new congregation, their pastor slowly walks them through life in the U.S., both inside and outside of church, until they become more confident. “In Mexico, nobody ever told them they could do anything,” says Lin, who was himself raised in Argentina. He finds the message at prosperity churches to be quintessentially American. “They are taught they can do absolutely anything, and it’s God’s will. They become part of the elect, the chosen. They get swept up in the manifest destiny, this idea that God has lifted Americans above everyone else.”

Thus, while the Catholic Church continues to try to appeal to Latinos in this country with a mixture of watered-down liberation theology and paternalism towards “our traditions”, the evangelical churches are imbued with a spirit of personal independence and entrepreneurialism. God wants us to be rich. God wants us to have the nice house like the gringos. God wants us to be AMERICANS. To such a message, the American Catholic Church can only offer empty platitudes and an ambivalent exhortation to uphold traditions that even it barely understands anymore. Stuck between the rock of memories of the “old country” and the hard place of suburban Catholicism-lite, I am very much of the opinion that the future of Latino Catholicism in this country is far from certain. We may be helping to uphold the Church in terms of demographics, but if the Church cannot engage the shape of our Catholicism as something that makes sense in the context of American postmodernity, it too will fall by the wayside as did the Latin Mass and the weekly St. Jude novena.

The solution I believe lies in a deeper analysis of tradition and culture, and not dismissing them as remnants of a past that we have long ago disposed of. We can no longer have the luxury of telling the same narratives over and over again about the Church’s triumphant march through history, but we have to realize that the small things, the roadside shrines, the saints’ festivals, the trinkets that made our Catholicism tangible are often more important than systematic theological constructions. In other words, we must come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be an incarnate spirit of finite existence, and that the “little things” that we have changed and are changing in the shape of our Faith may not be so little after all.

One thing is for sure, however: the “American Jesus” is not Jesus in any real sense, but an idol made by the Puritan ethos of this country in an ironically iconoclastic campaign against the past. Even if we admit that those poor Mexican peasants never had “Jesus” preached to them, what is being preached to them now is something far worse: the marriage between God and Mammon; the golden calf of the American prosperity Gospel.



5 responses

24 11 2009

Christianity interpreted as too close to wealth is to say that the kingdom of God is somehow fused with the world–the religion loses its distinctiveness. Is there decadence here? I recommend the following post on the recent article in the Atlantic:

22 11 2009
Walt C

@ Tapestry .I also saw some of this going on back in the 1990’s when I was an Amway distributor. Everybody in my “downline” ended up in these “properity gospel” denominations, usually joining during a seminar/rally weekend. On Saturday a rally was held and the speaker,a “Diamond” level distributor got up and said “If you want to know the real secret of building this business be here tomorrow morning.” The next morning was mainly an extended altar call during a non-denominational “prosperity gospel” worship service. The people there really ate it all up.

19 11 2009

How about English as a language and its effects on Calvinism? it just seems to be the Language that can most easily be used to manipulate people. Once you learn english, your faith is boiled and cooked into a whole bunch of sound bites, like “Faith alone”, “thou shalt not bow”, “scripture alone.” Those mexicans fall for it in a heartbeat, same thing seems to have been happening to the igbos in Nigeria

19 11 2009

Yes. In other words, Catholics have to incarnate their history.

19 11 2009

I wonder if the embrace of the prosperity gospel by minorities is also part of larger decision to seize the Horatio Alger “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” aspect of the American dream. The article in question mentioned how a bunch of black minister came together to decry the prosperity gospel as being against the liberationist Jesus that has been prominent in black religious thought since slavery. It would have been nice for the author to expand more on this, but I guess the focus of this particular article was on Latinos. In the case of blacks and the prosperity gospel, my impression it that its adherents seen as the natural teleological development of more than four hundred years of struggle, rather than a conscious break with the one’s religious heritage. Often, you can mix the two. This is why Bernice King, elder at New Birth Baptist Church and youngest daughter of MLK, can say with a completely straight face that her boss and fellow prosperity gospel peddler Eddie Long is a modern-day version of her father. Since ministers like Eddie Long have a significant amount of influence, they get invited to various political and civil rights events, which only gives legitimacy to their claims that they’re taking up the mantle of the black leaders of the past.

The appeal of the prosperity gospel is that you develop a “will to power” in a way; no longer content to be one of the “blessed meek,” adherents are encouraged to aggresively seek wealth and material possessions to demonstrate how much they love God and vice versa. If you’re used to thinking of yourself in passive, Job-like terms, that can be pretty powerful. This is probably why the prosperity gospel has caught on in Africa too.

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