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.




One response

10 08 2019

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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