This week, I published this article in the Huffington Post on how Donald Trump’s popularity with white evangelicals stems from the growth of end times theology and prosperity gospel movements. Check it out!
Repost from my blog at Religion in American History.
Can I get a ‘Dar-win’?
Former preacher Jerry DeWitt engaged in this unusual call and response with participants at a recent Freethought Convention that I attended at a local university. This meeting was the first annual secular convention to take place in East Texas and it attracted hundreds of folks from the region who came to commune with likeminded atheists/secular humanists/skeptics. I went to observe and to hear a bit more about a new interest of mine: atheist megachurches. I’ve read a bit about atheist congregations in the news (the NYTimes had a good article last year) and growing international organizations like Sunday Assemblies (recently covered in Salon), which actually engage in missionary work to promote godless congregations. Evangelical atheism is hipster chic and oddly Christian corporate. And it’s just a little complicated. Are they “churches” (which is something that is debated within secular circles) and how do they fit in to the traditional concepts of “congregations” and “fellowships”? Much of their success stems from their emulation of popular Christian church designs—their services mimic Christian worship and congregations provide a sense of community and support for members. The difference is they do all of this in a “godless” environment. And that’s a big difference.
In the southern states, the approach to organized atheism makes a lot of cultural sense. The atheist preacher I heard, DeWitt, runs Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He is a member of a cohort of former Christians who have left the faith and adopted a secular humanist worldview. The atheist congregations that they construct or join are described as an attempt to bridge their atheism with a culture that revolves around evangelical Protestantism. DeWitt (a former Pentecostal preacher) argued that there is so much pressure in the Bible Belt to belong to a church—business relationships are formed in Sunday School classes and friendships in the sanctuary pews—that the irreligious need a space, too. His chapel carves out that space within a society that often excludes non-believers. It also offers a support network for congregants because they do not have connections to the care and service of local Christian churches. DeWitt contends that his chapel removes a lot of pressure for attendees who are often asked which church they belong to. If they are not “out” as atheists in the conservative, religious culture of Louisiana, then claiming membership to the innocuously named “Community Mission Chapel” can help them maintain their atheist anonymity.
Certainly, secularism is not a new force in the American religious/intellectual sphere. Susan Jacoby has written at length on secularism as a major influence on American public life. I found some passages in Philip Hamburger’s Separation of Church and State interesting as I was poking through the literature to investigate historical touchstones for the present phenomenon. Hamburger’s description of the evolution of the National Liberal League and American Secular Union in the 19th century struck me as eerily similar to the current atheist movement. DeWitt can count himself as part of a preaching tradition that includes figures like Samuel P. Putnam. In the 1880s, Putnam was dubbed the “Secular Pilgrim” and he traveled as an atheist itinerant, “preaching the gospel of Humanity.” He led services at a festival given by the Chicago Secular Society, which met in a repurposed church building and opened their services with a choir greeting the congregation. Putnam was one of several secularists who created churches and Sunday Schools aimed at combatting the pervasive Christian influence on the republic (see Hamburger, Separation of Church and State). Christian forms for atheist missions—it’s starting to sound familiar, no? I’d also reference David Hempton’s Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt here because it seems to have particular relevance to folks like DeWitt who exited Christianity to form their own chapels of nonbelief. Current atheist churches might not have the same goals as past freethought missions, but they do share the notion that there should be space in the public sphere for the irreligious. I’m looking forward to hearing more from Leigh Schmidt, too, on the subject of public atheism, as there is much more to the history here that needs to be explored. (See Emily’s post from last year.)
While DeWitt’s chapel reflects southern evangelical trends (it’s a smaller congregation, the services include exhortations, singing, and a sermon delivered with a recognizable Pentecostal fervor), Sunday Assemblies draw on the practices and promotional activities of Protestant megachurches. Sunday Assemblies hold weekly meetings in cities across the United States and Great Britain. They have also reached into Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada, France, Hungary, Germany… it’s a massive movement. The organization professes to be a “godless congregation that celebrates life.” They want to encourage members to “live better, help often, wonder more.” While they do not have a doctrine, their charter is organized like a church doctrine and their services include liturgy, singing in unison, and a message. They don’t accept tithes, necessarily, but they do engage in fundraising through indiegogo and through their own website. And that swanky website appears to be very consciously designed to look very much like some of the major megachurch websites. (I’ll draw your attention to a past post by Kate Bowler on this fascinating subject.) By adopting similar advertising patterns and offering comparable amenities and community-building activities, the assemblies are taking on mega status. I’m curious to look further in to the pop culture references they make in their services and compare those to the messages of evangelical pastors like Matt Pitt and Ed Young, Jr (which I’ve written about here and here and… more places).
As the movement grows, I’m interested to see if and how it takes on cultural patterns of other megachurches. Will they continue to advertise the same way? How much influence will popular culture have on both secular and spiritual megachurches? And how will Christian churches respond to the growing appeal of atheist congregations? While secular churches have been around for a while, it appears that the strategies utilized by Christian megachurches have established successful patterns for the growth of atheist congregations, which might (should) make Christian leaders question whether it’s the method or the message that is drawing so many new members.
It was the most difficult job I’ve ever had. I’ve been a history professor for years, toiled as a graduate assistant before that, and even did a stint as an IT technician. But the three months I worked at Hobby Lobby stocking googly eyes and framing baseball cards takes the cake. I wanted a break from academia but it ended up not being a break at all. I found myself deconstructing and analyzing all aspects of my job — from the Bible in the break room to the prayers before employee meetings and the strange refusal of the company to use bar codes in its stores. (The rumor amongst employees was that bar codes were the Mark of the Beast, but that rumor remains unsubstantiated.) Three months was enough to convince me that there is something larger at work and the SCOTUS decision only confirms my belief that corporate Christianity (and Christianity that is corporate) has made it difficult for Americans to discern religion from consumption.
As a scholar of religious history, I observe the way that faith intersects with culture. I study and publish on megachurches and my interpretation of this week’s events is informed not only by my experiences as an employee at Hobby Lobby but also my knowledge of recent religious trends. My biggest question after hearing the decision was not about the particular opinions or practical repercussions (which are significant and have far-reaching and dangerous consequences). Instead, my first thought was: “What is it about our cultural fabric that enables us to attribute religious rights to a corporate entity?” In the United States we have increasingly associated Christianity with capitalism and the consequences affect both corporations and churches. It’s a comfortable relationship and seemingly natural since so much of our history is built on those two forces. But it’s also scary.
Hobby Lobby is a for-profit craft chain, not a church. I’m stating the obvious just in case there was any confusion because — let’s face it — it’s confusing. It’s as confusing as those googly eyes (do you really need three different sizes, Hobby Lobby, really?). Today, we see giant churches that operate like corporations and now corporations have some of the same rights as churches. Many megachurches adopt “seeker-sensitive” approaches to attract members, relying on entertainment and conspicuous consumption to promote their services. After a while, the spiritual and secular lines start to blur and the Christian and corporate blend. Ed Young, Jr.’s Fellowship Church, for instance, started a “90-Day Challenge” for members. The church asks congregants to pledge 10 percent of their income and promises “that if you tithe for 90 days and God doesn’t hold true to his promise of blessings, we will refund 100 percent of your tithe.”
Megachurches advertise on television, billboards, the Internet. They have coffee shops and gift stores. Some feature go-cart tracks, game centers, even oil changes. Many are run by pastors that also serve as CEOs. So when Hobby Lobby seeks similar religious rights as these very corporate churches, we have to reconsider our definition of religious organizations and maybe even say “why not?” We have normalized corporate Christianity to the point that the Supreme Court deems it natural for businesses to hold “sincere” religious beliefs. The religious landscape in the United States, including our familiarity with megachurches and celebrity pastors, certainly contributes to the acceptance of the church/company conundrum.
The “why not” can be answered, however, with the real costs of the decision. Women’s reproductive rights are compromised. The religious freedom of employees for these corporations is compromised. The sanctity of our religious institutions is also compromised. To protect religious pluralism and freedom of the individual we need clear demarcations between what is spiritual and what is economical. Otherwise, we sacrifice the soul of American religion and all that makes it good and why I study it on the altar of industry. I can’t get those three months at Hobby Lobby back (or the praise muzak out of my head) but I can see more clearly the dangers of allowing corporate Christianity to become the norm. Without clear boundaries, we risk distorting the very idea of religious freedom and the rich, diverse religious culture that makes us who we are. And that’s tragic — maybe not as tragic as praise muzak, but tragic nonetheless.
At Religion in American History, I discussed Ed Young, Jr.’s Sexperiment in the context of evangelical trends.
I’ve got sex on the brain and I blame Ed Young, Jr. I’ve been watching way too many podcast sermons from this dynamic senior pastor and it’s starting to affect my work. Literally. I’m researching and writing a chapter on megachurches and sexuality and keep coming back to Ed Young, Jr.’s teachings at Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas. I’m trying to put his approach to Christian sexuality into a larger context of historical evangelical rhetoric and practices and it’s getting tricky. Young replicates the heteronormative religious teachings of the past (and present) but he does so while openly addressing sexuality and encouraging congregants to think and talk about sex in pretty explicit terms. In other words, to me it’s the same rhetoric that has dominated mainstream evangelicalism for decades but taken to another, overt level. Or, as Young himself says, “a whole nutha level!”
It all started with the Sexperiment. In 2008, Young encouraged congregants to engage in “Seven Days of Sex,” challenging his married church members to have sex every day for a week in order to improve their relationships, their jobs, and their Christian walk. A charge by a pastor to engage in sex (and this is for all married couples—including those dealing with adultery and needing to find forgiveness) is an interesting one, to say the least. Then, in 2012, Ed and his wife Lisa published a book on how married couples can strengthen their marriages through sex and, in turn, help build healthier congregations. To promote the book, the couple held a 24-hour “bed-in” on a rooftop. They stayed in bed all day (to the detriment of their health–the rooftop was not the best place to hang out for 24 hours) and were filmed answering viewers’ questions about sex and relationships. The purpose of the book and an accompanying sermon series are, according to Lisa, to learn how to “have sex His way, and… understand what it was meant to be.” The sermon series features Ed and Lisa Young talking to congregants from a king-sized bed about the church taking control of sexuality. Using the Bible as “God’s Sex Manual,” the couple explains how sex is not just physical but is spiritual. Young argues that sex is God’s idea and should be openly discussed by the church so that it can define the discourse (rather than letting the larger, secular culture control things). Recognizing that the church has often focused on the “prohibitions,” Young turns this idea around and describes what is permitted or encouraged by the Bible within marriage.
That last clause is important. While the Youngs openly discuss the sensitive subject of sex, they constantly refer back to a heteronormative, marital model. There are “no escape clauses, no fine print,” Young says, that indicate that sex should be anything other than between a husband and wife. In another sermon series (I told you… eventually these Ed Young, Jr., sermons will crash my computer), Young explains what Jesus would say to Ellen DeGeneres: “You’re awesome, but homosexuality is not my ideal.” The Sexperiment does not emphasize prohibitions in a direct way, but the undercurrent is to undercut other sexual choices/lifestyles. In other words, this part of Young’s message is very much in line with traditional mainstream evangelical teachings on homosexuality.
Since they are constantly a touchstone of mine (see book), I can’t help but think of how early Baptist and Methodist ministers would react to Young’s methods. There would be agreement on the heteronormative, marital emphases, but the message would most likely be shocking and disturbing. Young would be radical, would be disciplined, and would lose his position in the church. In fact, some of these ministers (especially Methodist itinerants) struggled with marriage and whether a pastor should have a helpmate. Could they afford a wife? Would a wife distract from their ministry? (Lyerly and Heyrman describe this issue and Bob Elder examines women’s roles in evangelicalism.) It’s interesting to see a shift over the past 150 years to pastors needing wives and then to Ed and Lisa Young sharing the pulpit to discuss the intimate subject of sex, while sitting on a giant bed no less.
American religion, however, has not always eschewed the subject of sex. There are well-known (and mostly ill-fated) religious groups in the United States that emphasized the importance of sex among congregants. The nineteenth-century Oneida Community comes to mind as well as the more recent Warren Jeffs’ FLDS compound. In both of these instances, however, the religious leader arranged partnerships and dabbled in, erm, the very illegal. What I’m getting at is this: There are occasions where religious groups will discuss sexuality in an open forum or encourage marriages and sex to promote the growth of their spiritual community.
Let’s be clear, Young is not creating anything like these communes. There is, however, something seemingly scandalous about talking about sex in church—and the mode of delivery used by the Youngs definitely garnered mixed reviews. And Young is not simply describing “healthy” sexual partnerships, he is also encouraging sexual acts among congregants, which does touch on some of the tactics used by other historical religious groups.
Speaking of scandal, another megachurch pastor’s words on the subject of sexuality made national headlines in 2006 when his own actions did not match his teachings:
In this sermon, Ted Haggard presents a traditional argument that the relationship between a man and a woman is intended by God to represent the union between Christ and the Church. Young is borrowing from this same reasoning but adapts this teaching in his Sexperiment: Not only does God desire a relationship between a man and a woman, but he desires a lot of sex in that relationship and not just for reproduction. God created sex for married men and women, he created it to be passionate, and he created it to strengthen the church. And Young created Sexperiment for me to have plenty of fodder for a chapter. So I guess it all works out.
This month’s Daily Sentinel column focused on how sexuality is constructed and contested throughout Christian history.
My blog this month at Religion in American History
Hobby Lobby was not my favorite work experience—it required long hours, ridiculous record-keeping, exposure to monotonous Christian muzak, and putting up with some creepy coworkers. It was, well, retail. Also, I worked there for all of three months. I’ve been a religious historian for far longer and thought I’d share my thoughts on the current case and the evolution of corporate Christianity in general instead of dwelling on those three months of stocking googly eyes. Huffington Post and Businessweek both interviewed me regarding the current SCOTUS case and, while they had good questions, I think that there are some points that have been missing from the discourse. Namely, how is Hobby Lobby related to larger trends? What is actually happening to evangelical religion in the United States? And why are reproductive rights/contraception at the center of this struggle?
Much of the discourse surrounding Hobby Lobby is, necessarily, about corporate Christianity. Of course, Hobby Lobby is a great example of this particular phenomenon and contributes to a larger
narrative of the blending of the corporate and religious that has been a theme in American religious history. As our own Darren Grem pointed out, “Religion has been a part of corporate America for quite some time.” I’ll leave this territory to Darren and fellow business and religion scholars—it’s an exciting field and there is obviously much relevance in this work right now. From my own developing research on megachurches, however, I’m considering a slightly different perspective on current trends.
Hobby Lobby may win this case because of the pro-business and conservative nature of the Roberts Court, of course, but there’s a larger cultural phenomenon that might be influencing public and political opinion as well. The case is significant because it represents the blending of corporate and Christian—and one very visible sector of American religion that mixes the same stuff is the rapidly rising megachurch movement. The public and our leadership have been primed to consider the religious rights of corporations because of the general growth of Christian industry and that industry is manifested in tax-free organizations like megachurches. In other words, megachurches and seeker-sensitive churches, in particular, are assisting in blurring the lines between business and religion so that it is difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins.
Recently, there has been some (additional) attention on how much money megachurches bring in as a result of the recent robbery at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. The thieves took $600,000 in cash and checks from the vault, which were the tithes from one weekend’s worth of services. Some folks started doing the math and estimated that, conservatively, the church brings in $32 million a year not including extra donations made on holidays or electronic donations or bookstore sales. Lakewood should not be specifically targeted for these large numbers—many megachurches bring in large amounts through tithes, donations, and sales throughout the United States. And it is largely due to the fact that megareligion has adapted so well over the past few decades to this mingling of the corporate and the Christian.
Megachurches and megareligion (a term I use to include televangelism and webcasts that incorporate even more followers into a congregation or movement) incorporate so many elements of business with marketing, advertising, entertaining, congregation studies, etc., that they confuse corporate Christianity and Christianity that is corporate for the larger culture. If a church is using flashy advertising, powerful
websites, is selling merch with their logo on it, then it’s acting like a business. And if businesses are promoting a specific religious doctrine and claiming exemption from laws as a result, it’s behaving like a church. They have blended the corporate and Christian beyond earlier permutations and the current religious landscape has allowed for it. This negotiation of corporate/religious boundaries leads to complications: If large organizations that pull in a lot of money are able to have their religious rights protected, then why can’t others? The difference is that some of those large organizations are churches and others are retail stores.
That begs the question [scandalous and hyperbolic question alert]: What is the difference between Hobby Lobby and some megachurches, other than tax status? I know, I know, a lot. But at a core level, is there a similar history there that ties these types of organizations together? I’d argue yes. Both have strong doctrinal beliefs, both spread those beliefs to the masses (either through broadcasts and services or through products and business practices). The difference, of course, is that megachurches evangelize in an open, intentional way and corporations like Hobby Lobby are more slippery in their approach. They want to be religious organizations but without the pulpit (or fancy glass podium that can be removed for the massive praise band, if you want to get technical).
Huffington Post reported that the “overt Christianity” of the Hobby Lobby environment “shocked” me when I worked there. But what’s missing from this observation is the fact that I was not shocked on a personal level. It was not a personal offense. It was really interesting to me as a scholar of religious history. Evangelical Christianity has taken some divergent paths in the 21st century. Many denominations (UMC, for instance) are becoming more open to cultural differences and others are more steadfast in their rejection of pluralism. Hobby Lobby, a corporate institution that relies on a diverse group of customers to succeed (supposedly), is blatantly disregarding the religious pluralism that has gradually consumed large parts of 21st century American society. While corporate Christianity has a long history in the United States (as correctly pointed out by my colleagues), the 21st century is a different era with increased diversity and different demands.
Some of that diversity also stems from sexual and reproductive preferences. By fighting over birth control options, Hobby Lobby is indicating that it rejects the notion that employees should/would have alternative beliefs on the subject. The corporation’s “religious rights” are superseding the employee’s rights, in other words. It’s the company’s religious rights (which are constitutionally debatable, obviously) versus women’s rights over their own body and reproduction (which we’ve dealt with in previous decades). While we discuss the shifting sands of corporate/religious identities, it’s also worth exploring the place of women (particularly their reproduction and sexuality) within this constellation of tricky constitutional issues.
I keep conjuring the visage of Ed Young, Jr., explaining the “Sexperiment” to congregants when I think of this tension, too. Young encourages married couples in his church to have sex as much as possible and in “Sextember” to have sex every day. One wonders where the pastor lands on the birth control debate, considering his desire for frisky congregants. If it’s Hobby Lobby’s approach hopefully his Fellowship Church has a large nursery facility. All kidding aside, there are some pretty serious issues at stake with the Hobby Lobby case and some interesting correlations to blooming megachurch culture in the United States. It’s worth exploring.
My column from the April 12 edition of the Daily Sentinel on how the Hobby Lobby SCOTUS case relates to the larger history of corporate Christianity.
Here’s my blog for March on megachurches, female pastors, and the prosperity gospel. Dig it.
This is an idea that I am playing with for my manuscript on megachurches. Any comments/suggestions/ideas are, of course, welcome.
My March Daily Sentinel column drew from Elizabeth Flower’s Into the Pulpit and describes how women’s role in the Baptist church shifted over time.
Digging through old blogs, I ran across my “Adventures in Christian Retail” series from a couple of years ago. Hope you enjoy on this Throw Back Thursday.
Disclaimer: This is a teaser. I’m working on a larger piece about experiencing employment at a Christian retail chain this summer. I took on the job because 1) we needed the money and 2) I was curious. I have been documenting my day-to-day life there as a full-time employee and am working up a full-length piece with an academic emphasis and analysis of marketing with religion, the gender politics of the place, as well as how they handle money and workers’ rights. Enjoy.
I worked retail this summer. “Christian”-run retail. When I walked into the interview for the position at the local store that is part of a national chain (we’ll call it “Christian Chain” or “CC”), the manager was a bit baffled by the Ph.D. sitting in front of him. “Honestly,” I assured him (and meant it), “I want to work here and my family needs the income.” I (naively) believed that CC, a company that nationally proclaims its Christian values and give generously to conservative Christian causes/movements, would provide a good work environment and would reveal to me how Christian employers manage the workplace. It would give me insight into the world of Christian retail. And it has. Plenty of insight. So here’s a taste of what I witnessed in terms of the corporate model CC follows. The larger piece will include issues of sexism/sexual harassment and employee’s work schedules/worker’s rights but, like I said, teaser.
On money and mythology at CC: This company handles its resources in the most Luddite and inefficient way possible. There is one computer in the store where I worked. It was locked away in the back room and was used only to make/print out weekly schedules. All ordering is done by hand using a pencil and three-ring binders and a complicated system of “base” numbers and “minimum” orders. The poor soul who works in the back room has to then take all of the binders from each department and enter them into the one (aged) computer before a deadline in order for stock to come in.
There are no SKUs–no barcodes–no scanning devices. Thus the hand-written ordering. This is where the mythology comes in. I inquired about the lack of computers in the store and the ancient cash registers that required each item to be manually punched in and discounts to be manually entered as well. I was told that the cash registers WERE NEW. The explanation varied based on who responded to my questions. Some employees (especially those higher up) explained that it was just CC’s way. That it had maintained the same system since its birth (over 20 years ago) and that CC does not change. I found this idea interesting for several reasons. It requires more work from employees, thus costing the business more money. It is a business after all and so shouldn’t it be concerned with profits and losses? But it may also connect to the idea that workers should have sweat on their brow constantly in order to truly earn their wages. The Protestant ethic, so to speak. Work for work’s sake.
Several other (lower-paid) employees told me that the lack of barcodes was CC policy because barcodes represent the mark of the beast. Wha?! I know, this seems far-fetched. But this is a widely held belief amongst employees and thus should not be discounted. Some are dissatisfied with this reasoning but accept it, again, as being CC’s way so it cannot be questioned. (More on this in the longer article.)
Another strongly held belief is that the company does not have barcodes because then it does not have to have uniform pricing. Sales, then, do not have to be reflected at the register unless the customer notices that they are not receiving the discount and asks for it. A few employees see the lack of technology as a ploy for the company to make extra money.
There is an odd dichotomy at work at CC: they are focused on saving money (they are very concerned with hours and wages and do not move an employee to full-time unless they really need them and the employee makes enough demands) but they use a system that ultimately costs them money because it requires employees to work double or triple the hours at a task that in other stores is not nearly as involved and grueling.
Ultimately, what I’d like to consider in a larger format is what does it mean to be a Christian-run corporation in the modern marketplace? CC has held on to antiquated ideas regarding its particular brand of commerce, and the reasoning for that steadfastness varies based on what myth or history an employee chooses to subscribe. Also, the Christian values on which the chain claims to rely are not reflected in its treatment of employees or the employee’s treatment of each other. This begs the question: how much are “Christian” businesses relying on the image of being Christian without truly employing (or even hinting at employing) Christian ethics in their stores. This I will explore in more detail in the article with a discussion of sexual politics at CC and the overextension of employees to the point of completely disregarding their rights. Good times.