Mega-Christianity & Roots of the current religio-political climate?

It’s worth doing a little reminding of the major roots of what has become pop-mainstream Protestant culture in the US. Once again, Wikipedia rises to the challenge.

Dispensationalism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Dispensationalism is criticized for other reasons. It teaches that Christians should not expect spiritual good from earthly governments, and should expect social conditions to decline as the end times draw nearer. Dispensationalist readings of prophecies often teach that the Antichrist will appear to the world as a peacemaker. This makes some dispensationalists suspicious of all forms of power, religious and secular, and especially of human attempts to form international organisations for peace such as the United Nations. Almost all dispensationalists reject the idea that a lasting peace can be attained by human effort in the Middle East, and believe instead that “wars and rumors of wars” (cf. Matthew 24:6) will increase as the end times approach. Dispensationalist beliefs often underlie the religious and political movement of Christian Zionism.

Some dispensationalists teach that churches that do not insist on Biblical literalism as they deem appropriate are in fact part of the Great Apostasy. This casts suspicion on attempts to create church organisations that cross denominational boundaries such as the World Council of Churches. (See also ecumenism.)

I say “pop-mainstream” because there is still a more old-school mainstream of church leadership in Protestant denominations in the US, in the vernacular tends to mean by “mainstream Protestant” — but this doesn’t count the incredible swell of “non-denominational” churches and those that may have a denominational name attached but have basically shot into their own trajectory. While many of these churches are Southern Baptist, it’s worth noting that historically Southern Baptists (and Baptists in general) weren’t really considered “Main Line Protestant.” There’s some question as to whether or not the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) is still even the same denomination it once was, since it has adopted a very hierarchical, creedalistic character.

So, yeah, “pop-mainstream” means the current pop-church incarnation of Crystal-Cathedral-and-Rick-Warren-like mega-churches.

The “Contemporary Christian” ethos that suffuses so many of these institutions has a bland, suburban ease to it, but also a dramatic call to personal awakening, that is a really powerful combination for people who are moderately ambitious, comfortable with homogeneity, but still seeking meaning in their lives. (For an illustration of this brand of piety, see the description of the last family listed here.)

In my own experience, growing up in and around these churches, I found that the focus in these places is on living a clean, decent Christian life — which, if you dig a little, is really just code for “stay away from sexual sin.”

Sexual behavior is a convenient bugbear: it fits with the Puritan/Calvinist cultural strain in our culture, it taps very efficiently into secret shame and guilt, and in spite of its generally private nature, it touches on much of what makes public society work: property, family, health. The result (or the cause? it’s very chicken/egg) is that the American perspective of sexuality is a lot like the old New Yorker cartoon map of the country that has New York huge in the middle, and everything else backgrounded to a smear of irrelevance.

While the word “sex” doesn’t make it into every sermon, it’s the first thing that seems to get mentioned when anybody’s asked for examples of sin, especially the kind of sin that’s supposedly destroying our country. (Example: Rick Santorum’s answer to Jon Stewart’s quip about his moral/cultural concerns. Steweart half-jokes if Santorum’s worried about chameleons “shilling for beer” [re: the Bud ads a while back … I took this as a real question, not so much a joke, asking if cute talking animals advertising a controlled substance for adults was one of the things Santorum* thought problematic] but Santorum replied: “Actually, I’m more concerned about Victoria’s Secret ads.” And he was serious. )

This is an amazing feat, though … what it means is that social issues, like workers’ rights, personal privacy, bigotry, etc, end up fading in the background, and working-class /middle-class people end up obsessing over their sexual fears to their own detriment, voting for candidates who then turn around and pass laws that enable their cable company to charge 3x what they should, their employer to lay them off without a pension for no reason, and a war that will kill their children. But they have these Americans just happy as clams… basically thinking “well, it’s ok that Bobby’s in the Army and getting shot at for no reason, as long as he can’t marry another dude if he gets back alive.”

Ok, that was a bit of a tirade…let me get back on track…

Also in my experience of these churches, there was also a lot of self-helpish “how does this Bible verse help me in my daily life / carpool / soccer team / YMCA intramurals” prooftexting. Sure a lot of it dealt with personal grief and suffering, but it was important not to get things too downbeat.

There was always a carefully metered helping of guilt about personal distance from God, about not praying enough or not giving enough to the church (not to charities or actual poor or needy people, mind you, but the church in which you were sitting, which surely does a lot for the needy, once the mortgage on the Wellness Center is paid).

I heard very few sermons about the poor or downtrodden, and I heard very little anger at greed and self-righteousness (though now there’s a lot of anger at “liberal” self-righteousness, evidently).

Oddly enough, when I read the Gospels, those latter items are almost *all* that Jesus teaches against, and the clean-living and self-helpy stuff is in short supply. Of course, the dispensationalist influence means that every single page of the Bible’s current incarnation is treated with equal weight (when it’s convenient) and read with “inerrancy” (as if there is no question how to interpret or see the intention or meaning or context of extremely ancient texts), so the actual words of Jesus in the Gospels get lost in a sea of conjecture and bias posing as education.

When I became an Episcopalian, I heard a lot more of what I read in the Gospels. A focus on the poor and sick and disempowered, on understanding and loving those around us, and warnings to avoid self-rightousness judgmentalism. Oddly, this denomination’s numbers are in decline. I suppose people prefer the milquetoast lonzenge with the liquid-hate center?

You know, honestly, I’m being somewhat disingenous here. The truth is that, as in all things, there was a mixture of great stuff and not-so-great stuff going on in the churches of my youth. I witnessed hurting people helped and loved, folks with their hearts broken finding solace and comfort and purpose. Communities that came together through hardship. All these churches did a lot of that really great human stuff. And the Episcopal churches of my adulthood, while they had politics and theology I found more palatable, generally felt somewhat dusty and asleep at the wheel.

But it’s not the dusty/asleep ones that have been working to put their minions in public office, quietly and with great discipline, over the last 20-30 years, and working to dissolve the ever-eroding sepration of church and state. And they’re not the ones loving their “you look like me” neighbor, but then preaching hate-filled self-righteous messages to their congregations about sexual minorities and other religions.

I’d be curious to know if our cultural fixation on cleanliness and purity across the board, religious or not, is waxing or waning? I mean, there just has to be some connection between the popularity of antibacterial soap and “clean Christian living.”

*A quick post-script about Santorum. Now that I live in PA, I’m going to make it my personal hobby to help get this joker out of office.
If for no other reason that the title to his “book”: It Takes a Family.
Naming his book that (as a long-delayed “nuh-uh-no-you-dihunt” response to Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village”) shows how humorless and lacking in imagination this guy is. It’s like hearing the HBO slogan “It’s not TV, It’s HBO” and saying, “Um, hey! They can’t get away with that! That’s false advertising! It *IS* TV!! It’s right there on my TV!!!”
The whole point of Hillary’s title was to run against the grain of the conventional wisdom in the US that everything is about the nuclear family. Her point was that the family doesn’t live in a vacuum — it’s a part of a whole society, an organic community context, and that how we treat our children needs to reflect an understanding of this anthropological truth. That it’s unhealthy to insulate and fetishize one-man-one-woman “family” to the detriment of the reality of the majority of human beings on the planet: people who depend on other relatives and friends to form a network of support.

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  • http://antonellapavese.com/ Antonella

    Coming from a catholic country, when I first arrived in the US I was shocked to notice how much Old Testament there is in the American “christian” philosophy, and how little the New Testament message has made his way in the fabric of the American social conscience.

    Catholicism is not any longer my favorite religion, but I do appreciate how it taught me that revenge is bad and compassion is good, that helping the less fortunate is a sign of greatness and not of weakness (indeed is an opportunity to gain access to Heaven), and that when we say “Thou shall not kill” we really mean it. (But yes, sex it is definitely catholic’s favority sin…)

    It also warned me against what Italians calls “carita’ pelosa” or “hairy charity:” doing good deeds expecting something in exchange (eternal gratitude, electoral votes, or the adoption of your own values and political view: for a current example, read among the many nice and compassionate comments, the nasty comments to this post)

    I understand from your post that has not always been this way. There was a time where religion in the US was functioning as social support and unifier and not as a divider, were christian charity (not of the hairy type) was at home in most churches. What happened? How come that “the eye for an eye” took the place of “turn the other cheek”?

  • AndrewH

    I’m reading an article in this week’s New Yorker about Rick Warren’s church and many like it, and evidently they (churches in general) are the source of much charity work and social support… millions and millions of dollars worth. So I hope I haven’t been too harsh about that. I’m just going on what I remember — that even though there were some outreach programs, they were mainly about getting people to join the church. There were token ‘feed some homeless people this weekend’ things too.
    But really, a lot of it may be warped by my memory?
    I just know that, no matter how much of that work may be happening, it hasn’t filtered out to the culture at large. If so many millions of people go to church, then why don’t their politics follow suit with all this caring-for-the-poor thinking?
    An Episcopal church near me funds a free clinic in town, where people can get tested for STD’s, and get other kinds of treatment, at no charge or for whatever they can afford to donate. But most churches I grew up in or visited as a teen wouldn’t do such a thing.