Poor people’s religion

7 08 2019

There is a difference especially in the First World between religion as concern for the poor and religion of the poor. In my experience, especially in Mexican-American barrios in the United States, when people get religion or return to religion, they often never stray back into Catholicism but instead go to evangelical churches in storefronts or megachurches. These churches often lack a “social conscience”. Though most of the people who attend them are poor or working class, that’s not the focus of their identity or mission. While they are often built on social aide or prison outreach, the focus isn’t on the societal causes of their condition (think Archbishop Camara’s idea of helping the poor vs. asking why there are poor people), but rather on how Jesus can help people out of their condition, how their condition was caused by bad or sinful decisions, and so forth.

Catholicism was a poor person’s religion back in the day. And I have known people for whom Catholicism was a help in their getting out of addiction or poverty (though few). But Catholicism in our context is not what I think about when I think of a “rock bottom” religion. That is, what people turn to when they have hit their personal rock bottom, when it seems there is no way out and they become desperate. People who are raised Catholic don’t seem to turn to the confessional anymore, they turn to the megachurch, the storefront church, and the direct access to Jesus via Bible reading.

A lot of this is colored by my own personal experience, and some will protest of their own experience or that of loved ones. But demographics don’t lie. Numbers don’t lie. Half of Guatemala didn’t become evangelical Protestant because of deep dives by the masses into Reformation theology and the five solas. It became almost majority Protestant because Catholicism ceased being a “rock bottom” religion and became either a faith of the rich, a faith of social conscience (that doesn’t seem to solve anything), or a rote faith that one practices mindlessly.

Most of the Catholic conversion I have encountered on social media and the Internet over the past 20 years has been either very cerebral or zealously aesthetic. I count my own conversions as being of this nature. Seldom do I see people turning to Catholic Jesus in prison or because their wife left them or because they needed to kick their dope habit. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the Catholic intellectual and aesthetic convert, but they seem way more put together than many of the people I have known who became religious after a rough patch in their life. That’s why I am very pessimistic about the future of Catholicism in all of its forms in the First World. Even Pope Francis and his defenders seem to obsess about the poor and the outcasts when the poor and the outcasts are really obsessing about the megachurch pastor who might be one part prosperity gospel, one part self-help.

Is it possible that the Church of the Poor can obsess too much about being poor (in an act of “virtue signaling”) and not actually be something the poor want to be part of? Once you hit rock bottom, you don’t want to dwell about the societal and theological reasons you are there. You just want to climb out.


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9 responses

5 10 2019
Jesse

@Carlos Lam:

A 99 IQ, in an ideal world, would be perfectly sufficient. But (1) that would be in the top sixth for, say, African Americans and (2) we don’t live in an ideal world. People with below average – and increasingly, average and a little above average IQs – are being crushed, and the Church is at best remaining silent and at worst colluding in order to fill its pews.

Offshoring to cheaper countries and importing cheap, pliable labor both squeezes the working classes and non executive white collar workers, and destroys their bargaining power. You can have the best work ethic, the best intentions and still have employers able to disregard and mistreat you because they have the option of a Mexican janitor, a Ukranian meat plant worker, an Indian H1-B visa recipient or simply to move production abroad.

And that’s not counting the vast increase in housing costs in any area with any jobs. It vastly increases the costs of forming families – and then religious conservatives have the stones to criticize these people for not getting married at 20 and providing the Church with a litter of future worshipers. And then they scratch their heads and wonder why these people aren’t thrilled – THRILLED I TELL YOU – to receive the taxpayer funded charity the Church so beneficently wants to bestow upon them, while whining that the government has the nerve to demand anything in return.

It’s just one layer of humiliation upon another. So please stop pontificating about the nebulous, ghost in the machine concepts of a “work ethic” and “delayed gratification”, when the Church is doing its level best – very successfully – to ensure that they has no positive effects whatsoever. Thanks to a cabal of which religious bodies are an enthusiastic part, most people can do everything they’re supposed to and still wind up either 40 and still unable to afford a family, or with one and still dependent on either welfare or charity handouts (govt welfare by another name.)

28 09 2019
Carlos Lam

You are correct that the Church is making a mint off of govt programs. Indeed, from 2008 to 2015, Catholic Charities & the USCCB received almost $2 BILLION for refugee resettlement, according to USAspending.gov. This is why the US bishops’ statements on immigration ring hollow: the bishops have a financial incentive to keep said programs going.

While I agree that half of the population is below the median in IQ (that’s the definition of median), Murray and Hernstein NEVER posited in the Bell Curve that a good work ethic and deferred gratification cannot be taught to half the population. There IS a point at which IQ may be too low for such lessons, but a 99 IQ would not be said point. Perhaps an IQ of 80 or below may make such a task near impossible.

8 09 2019
slumlord

I’ve come here from Rod Dreher’s blog. Interesting blog you have here with some quite original thinking. Kudos.

Even Pope Francis and his defenders seem to obsess about the poor and the outcasts when the poor and the outcasts are really obsessing about the megachurch pastor who might be one part prosperity gospel, one part self-help.

It’s one thing to love the poor, it’s another to love poverty. Sometimes I wonder when the Church preaches about its “preferential option for the poor” it sometimes wishes they remain so. I think Catholic theology, in its criticism of acquisitive materialism, has developed a “reactionary” devotion to poverty. The idea that poverty makes one “pure and simple” is not one that squares up with my experience. Poverty, more often than not, is destructive to the person.

If you really listen to the poor, one of the things that they absolutely hate is poverty, and a church which doesn’t understand this aspect of their existence is one that isn’t going to get much traction with them. I loathe the prosperity gospel but the poverty gospel is repulsive as well. I find Francis’s criticism of the “prosperity gospel” a bit rich/ironic given that he also seems to support the illegal migration of Latin migrants into the U.S. There seems to be a failure of logic going on. Yet it is typical of Catholic “thinking”.

FWIW, I think that the Church is going to have to “Protestantise” a bit if it expect to keep traction with the poor. Protestantism offers you religion and practical advice on how to avoid poverty. Catholicism is sorely lacking, especially in the latter.

8 09 2019
Jesse

A further thought: the Evangelicals, inasmuch as they are making inroads with the poor, are doing so by regarding them as the creation of god. They may be less intelligent, or less disciplined, but these churches will meet them where they are at and try to mold them into a godly, dignified presence without assuming they have to assume the trappings of the white upper middle class to do so.

(Also, can we talk about the dog whistling of the Catholic elites berating the “underclass” for their laziness, profligacy, stupidity etc? It’s a bunch of rich, or at least well off, white folks berating a disproportionately black/Hispanic group for their problems. There’s nothing wrong with a group being white, but at the very least the visuals are nauseating.)

The upper echelons of Catholicism, kind of by definition, regard the “underclass” with at best irritation. They are to be hectored out of what is seen as their inferiority, and if they can’t magically become a 125 IQ, upper middle class white person who enjoys the angels on a pinhead type of discussions (or have no interest in trying in the first place), then they can go hang.

God never promised a life with no irritation, or challenges. He never promised us a world where we never had to have long term interactions with those much further down the feeding chain. He never promised that such long term interactions would end with them shedding the original culture and becoming Just Like Us. He never said it was either possible or desirable.

The elite attitude tends to be, well, spoilt and childish. The Evangelicals/Pentecostals seem to intuitively understand that the poor to middling types are different, and that that’s fine, and how to appeal to poorer people as not just objects to show noblesse oblige to.

8 09 2019
Jesse

@Carlos Lam:

Dude. Read the Bell Curve. It’s innate. The idea that you can enact change by telling people to “be like me” is patronizing and, to be blunt, moronic. You have to accept that half of all people are below average in intellect, common sense, work ethic, and ability to defer gratification. That’s how god made them, and the Americans among them still deserve decent, prosperous lives which they can make for themselves.

The next logical, moral step is to try to create a society where these people can still have a good, dignified life. And that means making it easier for them to behave in a middle class way, and to have an economy where they can prosper. Which means – sing it with me – the borders have to closed and a LOT of people have to be sent home. Which means that the Catholics have to stop importing vast numbers of people to prop up their numbers and keep wages down. Which means letting go of this dependence on the existence of vast numbers of poor people.

Right now, there is a system where people aren’t taught to behave in middle class ways and – pay attention, this is important – there are no real rewards for a huge chunk of people who do. You do everything right (save, work hard, stay out of trouble), whether as a middle class or working class person, and you’re still getting replaced by immigration, outsourcing, offshoring and automation. Your kids are facing a bleak, poverty stricken future. You still have official govt services taken away and replaced by high handed (and taxpayer funded) religious charities.

The Church is actively colluding in the hollowing out of the American Dream, and then berating people for not being either good bourgeoisie or obedient Catholics. They see no connection between their own actions and the destruction of the respectable classes, or why the native born hate them so much.

7 09 2019
Carlos Lam

“Is it possible that the Church of the Poor can obsess too much about being poor (in an act of “virtue signaling”) and not actually be something the poor want to be part of?”

You hit the nail on the head! Of course, it’s WAY easier to spend money (preferably OTHER people’s money) on the poor instead of actually having a heart-to-heart conversation with a member of the underclass about why thing like deferred gratification, education, & discipline are important. God forbid that we treat the poor like our equals & challenge them to live a better life!

7 09 2019
Jesse

To follow up on my comment, the Church needs to ask itself a hard question.

Take the vast bulk of people who are middlebrow and uninterested in esoteric discussions and willful religious asceticism. They are not in need of the Church’s charity and unlikely to wind up in that situation in the future. What, precisely, does Catholicism offer to these people?

The Church appeals to the elites because it is highbrow and unappealing to the fair to middling sorts. (And also because it offers Gentile elites a way of providing a united front against the heavy Jewish elite contingent, but people get touchy when you point that out.) It has a deep need of the poor (and for there to always be lots of poor to minister to.)

It has no place for the middle classes. In its current incarnation, it is better suited to the classic Third World dynamic of a small to medium elite, and a peasant/prole class to show noblesse oblige to. That’s a deeply unpleasant reality for most people in it, and one that people want to get out of/avoid. So why exactly would the First World find anything in it appealing? To a large extent, the normal types are fleeing, and if you’re still there there’s something…amiss with you.

7 09 2019
Jesse

It’s not that you’re wrong; it’s that your analysis is incomplete. Catholicism has become (always has been?) a religion of the upper and lower classes. It’s been hollowed out in the middle. And the Church has been assuming it can plug that by going to the poor – often to the extent of importing them.

(Look at all the religious agencies taking govt money to tend to the poor and to “resettle” “refugees”. It’s causing resentment, and it’s why there’s so little sympathy from ordinary people to the religious wails of govt intrusion. You want independence, don’t become a de facto govt agency.)

But that doesn’t work even on its own terms; the poor don’t want to be dependent and on charity, and told what to do for the rest of their lives. They want a hand up, or at least a way of living their situations with dignity and grace. Placing themselves under the Church’s thumb in return for handouts doesn’t cut it.

A better solution – assuming going back in times isn’t an option – would be to stop importing, get off the govt teat, and try to appeal to the middle classes. Which is harder when you can’t bribe them with taxpayer money. (Let’s say the Church stops taking the money and starts paying its taxes. How long exactly would it survive?)

10 08 2019
Leah

Islam has a reputation for being a “poor person’s” religion (at least, in the black community in the US), and you can hear many testimonies about people who have found Allah in prison or about how Islam helped them get off drugs and alcohol. However, to my knowledge, there is no counterpart to Pentecostalism in Islam. What do you think accounts for this difference, especially since Islam and Catholicism are both focused on religion as bodily discipline vs religion as belief, as is the case with Pentecostalism?

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