Materialism and religion in the clothes pastors wear

An Instagram account highlights the expensive wear of ministers:

On his feed, Kirby has showcased Seattle pastor Judah Smith’s $3,600 Gucci jacket, Dallas pastor T.D. Jakes’s $1,250 Louboutin fanny pack and Miami pastor Guillermo Maldonado’s $2,541 Ricci crocodile belt. And he considers Paula White, former president Donald Trump’s most trusted pastoral adviser who is often photographed in designer items, a PreachersNSneakers “content goldmine,” posting a photo of her wearing $785 Stella McCartney sneakers.

As the Instagram account grew, Kirby started asking more serious questions about wealth, class and consumerism, including whether it’s appropriate to generate massive revenue from selling the gospel of Jesus.

“I began asking, how much is too much?” Kirby said. “Is it okay to get rich off of preaching about Jesus? Is it okay to be making twice as much as the median income of your congregation?”

This is a long-standing issue within Christianity, let alone in American Christianity where money and status have existed alongside religious fervor and practices for a long time. In a society that emphasizes consumption, even conspicuous consumption, plus celebrity, is it a surprise that ministers would want to wear expensive items?

Counterfactuals to these observations might help. Two come to mind:

  1. Are there mainstream religious groups or leaders who actively shun or downplay status? I can think of famous pastors who are not as well dressed. But, are they necessarily poorly dressed? How much does presentation of self matter compared to other noteworthy factors like particular religious doctrines or practices? I assume there is some limit where a pastoral presentation has to fit some parameter or the lack of style or flashiness will be a negative. Is the nature of American religion with its religious economy of competition inextricably tied to status and presentation?
  2. Some evangelicals have raised questions about materialism and consumption for decades. Historian David Swartz’s book Moral Minority highlights how evangelicals in the early 1970s questioned the consumption patterns of Americans. If you want to go back further, Max Weber argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that a particular ascetic approach to spending wealth on oneself helped spur on capitalism. How far did this critique go? By the 1980s, evangelicals largely became associated with conservative economic policies and reside in suburbs where appearances and keeping up with the Joneses matter to some degree. At the same time, evangelicals often claim they do not want to be too flashy or that they are middle-class even if they have the resources to be above that.

Researchers adjust as Americans say they are more religious when asked via phone versus responding online

Research findings suggest Americans answer questions about religiosity differently depending on the mode of the survey:

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Researchers found the cause of the “noise” when they compared the cellphone results with the results of their online survey: social desirability bias. According to studies of polling methods, people answer questions differently when they’re speaking to another human. It turns out that sometimes people overstate their Bible reading if they suspect the people on the other end of the call will think more highly of them if they engaged the Scriptures more. Sometimes, they overstate it a lot…

Smith said that when Pew first launched the trend panel in 2014, there was no major difference between answers about religion online and over the telephone. But over time, he saw a growing split. Even when questions were worded exactly the same online and on the phone, Americans answered differently on the phone. When speaking to a human being, for example, they were much more likely to say they were religious. Online, more people were more comfortable saying they didn’t go to any kind of religious service or listing their religious affiliation as “none.”…

After re-weighting the online data set with better information about the American population from its National Public Opinion Reference Survey, Pew has decided to stop phone polling and rely completely on the online panels…

Pew’s analysis finds that, today, about 10 percent of Americans will say they go to church regularly if asked by a human but will say that they don’t if asked online. Social scientists and pollsters cannot say for sure whether that social desirability bias has increased, decreased, or stayed the same since Gallup first started asking religious questions 86 years ago.

This shift regarding studying religion highlights broader considerations about methodology that are always helpful to keep in mind:

  1. Both methods and people/social conditions change. More and more surveying (and other data collection) is done via the Internet and other technologies. This might change who responds, how people respond, and more. At the same time, actual religiosity changes and social scientists try to keep up. This is a dynamic process that should be expected to change over time to help researchers get better and better data.
  2. Social desirability bias is not the same as people lying to researchers or being dishonest with researchers. That implies an intentional false answer. This is more about context: the mode of the survey – phone or online – influences who the respondent is responding to. And with a human interaction, we might respond differently. In an interaction, we with impression management in mind where we want to be viewed in particular ways by the person with whom we are interacting.
  3. Studying any aspect of religiosity benefits from multiple methods and multiple approaches to the same phenomena under study. A single measure of church attendance can tell us something but getting multiple data points with multiple methods can help provide a more complete picture. Surveys have particular strengths but they are not great in other areas. Results from surveys should be put alongside other data drawn from interviews, ethnographies, focus groups, historical analysis, and more to see what consensus can be reached. All of this might be out of the reach of individual researchers or single research projects but the field as a whole can help find the broader patterns.

Functional religion in the form of American politics

I have seen some version of this argument several times recently. Here it is in The Atlantic: Americans have replaced religion and its associated features with politics.

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But if secularists hoped that declining religiosity would make for more rational politics, drained of faith’s inflaming passions, they are likely disappointed. As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like.

Not so long ago, I could comfort American audiences with a contrast: Whereas in the Middle East, politics is war by other means—and sometimes is literal war—politics in America was less existentially fraught. During the Arab Spring, in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, debates weren’t about health care or taxes—they were, with sometimes frightening intensity, about foundational questions: What does it mean to be a nation? What is the purpose of the state? What is the role of religion in public life? American politics in the Obama years had its moments of ferment—the Tea Party and tan suits—but was still relatively boring.

We didn’t realize how lucky we were. Since the end of the Obama era, debates over what it means to be American have become suffused with a fervor that would be unimaginable in debates over, say, Belgian-ness or the “meaning” of Sweden. It’s rare to hear someone accused of being un-Swedish or un-British—but un-American is a common slur, slung by both left and right against the other. Being called un-American is like being called “un-Christian” or “un-Islamic,” a charge akin to heresy.

This is because America itself is “almost a religion,” as the Catholic philosopher Michael Novak once put it, particularly for immigrants who come to their new identity with the zeal of the converted. The American civic religion has its own founding myth, its prophets and processions, as well as its scripture—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and The Federalist Papers. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. wished that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” The very idea that a nation might have a creed—a word associated primarily with religion—illustrates the uniqueness of American identity as well as its predicament.

The particular form of religious activity and civil religion in the United States is unique. But, more broadly, this discussion gets at what religion is. Is it about belief in a transcendent being or a supernatural realm? Or, is it more about what religion does in terms of particular practices?

Such discussions remind me of the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim. In his work, religion serves a cohesive function in society. Here is an earlier post about how functional religion could explain devotion to Apple:

The argument is one that can be applied to many things that take on the functions of religion such as providing meaning (Apple vs. other corporations, beauty vs. functionality), participating in common rituals (buying new products), and uniting people around common symbols (talking with other Mac users).

Politics can do some of these same things. Politics provides meaning in particular beliefs, policy positions, activities, and group identities. Politics has its own set of common rituals and ceremonies, which could even extend to today’s patterns of reacting to political news via Twitter and other forms of social media. There are common symbols ranging from particular visual images to personas to slogans. Political camps can have their own sacred narratives about how the world works.

Durkheim also had ideas about religion giving way to other forms of cohesion. For example, an expanding division of labor would increase interdependence on each other. Science could help address particular issues that used to be addressed by religion. Is politics – particularly in the form right now in the United States that is marked by polarization – an advancement and a move away from religion?

The evangelical books on suburban life recommended for devotional reasons

Following up on Friday’s post on a recent publication titled “Faith in the Suburbs: Evangelical books about Suburban Life” and yesterday’s recommendation of The Suburban Christian for a more scholarly approach among evangelical books that discuss suburban life, today I highlight two books that stand out in taking a more devotional approach to evangelical life in the suburbs.

As I noted yesterday, the books I examined all had an interest in helping Christians grow in faith and practice and live in the suburbs at the same time. Both Dave Goetz’s 2006 book Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul and Ashley Hales’ 2018 book Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much stand out for their mix of advice for and insight into the everyday suburban religious life and the spiritual practices they recommend for a changed suburban life.

They approach these practices in slightly different ways. In the opening chapter, Goetz sets up the problem:

I think my suburb, as safe and religious coated as it is, keeps me from Jesus. Or at least, my suburb (and the religion of the suburbs) obscures the real Jesus. The living patterns of the good life affect me more than I know. Yet the same environmental factors that numb me to the things of God also hold out great promise. I don’t need to the escape the suburbs. I need to find Jesus here. (5)

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Subsequent chapters then each start with a listed environmental toxin of suburban life and then a practice in response. The material for each chapter then discusses these two features. Pursuing these practices will help readers find the thicker life he describes this way:

This much thicker world is a world in which I am live to God and alive to others, a world in which what I don’t yet own defines me. (13)

Hales puts the problem this way:

More than 50 percent of Americans live in suburbs, and many of them desire to live a Christian life. Yet often the suburbs are ignored (“Your place doesn’t matter, we’re all going to heaven anyway”), denigrated and demeaned (“You’re selfish if you live in a suburb; you only care about your own safety and advancement”), or seen as a cop-out to a faithful Christian life (“If you really loved God, you’d move to Africa or work in an impoverished area”). From books to Hollywood jokes, the suburbs aren’t supposed to be good for our souls. Even David Goetz’s popular book, Death by Suburb, though helpful, presumes suburban life is toxic for your soul – as if suburbia were uniquely broken by the weight of sin. The suburbs – like any place – exhibit both the goodness of God’s creative acts (in desiring to foster community, beauty, rest, hospitality, family) and sin (in focusing on image, materialism, and individualism to the exclusion of others). We cannot be quick to dismiss the suburbs out of hand. (8)

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The practices and counterliturgies Hales recommends would help Christians see suburbs and their role their differently:

This book is about coming home, about finding ourselves in the story of God and rooting ourselves in our places. It’s a bold look at the culture of affluence as expressed in suburban life. My hope is that is challenges your idea of belonging and also shows you a more beautiful story to root yourself in. As individuals, families, and churches commit to love and sacrifice for our neighborhood and subdivisions, we will find our place. (14-15)

If an individual, church group, or religious organization wants to consider evangelical life in the suburbs, both of these books could be a good starting point for conversation and action.

The evangelical book on suburban life recommended for scholarly reasons

Following up on yesterday’s post about a recent publication titled “Faith in the Suburbs,”” I wanted to highlight the one text that best connects readers to scholarly discussions of and existing research on suburbs.

One of the features of the books I examined is their focus on everyday Christian/evangelical life. On the whole, these texts are part of a larger category of books where evangelicals wrestle with current social issues and consider Christian approaches. Across the books, the goal is help readers build their faith and draw on evangelical and biblical resources.

Al Hsu’s 2006 book The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty is the best on drawing on existing historical, theological, and other scholarly research on suburbs and places. There is a full chapter on suburban development that draws on a number of well-cited texts about how the American suburbs came to be. While some books I studied cited no scholarly works, Hsu cites numerous works and the discussion and footnotes could provide a good starting point for a reader who wants to engage the decades-long scholarly discussion.

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The engagement with a wider academic conversation may be connected to other unique features of Hsu’s text. He considers how Christians could engage race and social class in the suburbs. In the final chapter when discussing solutions, Hsu connects religious activity and structural activity:

While we must never neglect the significant of evangelizing individuals, equally important is transforming societal, organizational and municipal structures. (188)

Hsu also helps individual Christians think about their beliefs and practices in the suburbs. For example:

Behind the readers’ comments is a tacit assumption that the Christian life simply can’t be lived in certain environments…But for Christians, nothing is beyond redemption. (13)

For individuals, church groups, and religious organizations looking for an evangelical book addressing suburban life with a more scholarly angle, this would be a good starting point.

New publication – Faith in the Suburbs: Evangelical Christian Books about Suburban Life

The recently published The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Cities includes a chapter that took me several years to put together.

This chapter began in reading several books written over the last two decades where evangelicals considered how to live as a Christian in the suburbs. I slowly collected these books, purchasing some myself and even having one gifted to me by our college’s president. With Americans firmly established in the suburbs at the beginning of the twenty-first century (over 50% of Americans living in suburbs), from different angles the books ask some common questions: do the suburbs present particular opportunities or challenges regarding religious faith? Should Christians live in the suburbs or elsewhere? The chapter I wrote considers common patterns in these books as well as several areas they do not consider.

This chapter is not only about these books; I think these texts also hint at a larger sociological question. How do different spatial environments affect religious faith? Evangelicals do not always consider this; faith is often considered portable, truths are consistent across a variety of contexts, and churches are more about the collections of people rather than buildings and places. Other religious traditions take places more seriously. In the American suburban context with voluntaristic religion, congregations meeting in all kinds of structures, an emphasis on individualism and private property, and geographic mobility, how could a suburban environment not affect religious faith?

Churches and a digital divide during COVID-19

COVID-19 has pushed more churches into the digital realm but there are patterns in who is operating online and in what ways:

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“The digital divide in churches reflects the digital divide in American society more generally,” says Mark Chaves, a theologian at Duke University and director of the National Congregation Study, which has surveyed religious groups in the US since 1998. Churches with less of a digital presence tend to be located in rural areas. Their congregations are more likely to be older, lower-income, and Black. Those demographic groups are also less likely to have access to broadband, and they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, both in health and economic outcomes. Those realities have factored into church outcomes too. A survey from LifeWay Research, which focuses on Christian ministries, found that white pastors were the most likely to report offerings that were higher than expected in the past year. Black pastors, by contrast, were most likely to report that the pandemic economy was impacting their churches “very negatively.” Churches often run on tight margins, and those impacts can have long-term effects: LifeWay Research found that a small percentage of churches have had to cut down on outreach, suspend Sunday School or small group programs, or lay off staff members. Black pastors were more likely to say they cut staff pay or deleted a church position…

For the faith sector, the acceleration of new technologies could lead to massive changes. Other industries, like media and retail, have been transformed as they progressively moved online; money, influence, and attention now converge in a small pool of winners, often at the expense of smaller outfits. Some believe churches might experience something similar. “You’re going to have the top 40 preachers that everyone listens to, and the regular everyday preacher is not going to be able to compete,” says William Vanderbloemen, a former pastor and founder of the Vanderbloemen Search Group, an executive search firm for churches. That’s not to say more niche markets couldn’t also emerge. “People will still show up to hear a message from a pastor who knows their specific community on a micro-contextual level. Like, here’s what happened in our zip code this week, and here’s how it relates to how we think of our God.”…

Chaves, who runs the National Congregation Study, says it’s too soon to know whether this year will have a lasting impact on worship practices, and what that impact would be. “Church attendance has been declining slowly for decades,” he says. “Will we see a shift if online participation stays ubiquitous? Or will it mean that more people are participating?” Some early research suggests that churchgoers are eager to get back to in-person services and worshipping together with their community. While smaller congregations, like First Baptist Church Reeltown, are unlikely to continue broadcasting their sermons on Facebook Live, other churches may find value in a hybrid model, where some people come into Sunday services and others watch from their computers.

One way to think about this is to consider the marketplace of American religion. Because there is no state-sponsored religion and there is the free exercise of religion, religious traditions and congregations can compete for people. In this competition, innovation and flexibility can help lead to increased market share. The Internet and social media are additional tools in this competition. Want to appeal to those using those mediums? You have to have a presence. Or, perhaps a group can seek others who eschew digital worship.

Using the Internet for church is not new. But, COVID-19 may have accelerated this market competition. Could churches compete without going online? Just as businesses suffered, how many churches might close because of COVID-19? Who can provide a compelling church service and other activities in online forms? Can you easily translate online viewership to attendance or membership measures? Could certain churches flourish in certain platforms while others utilize other options?

And what this means for religiosity in America is hard to know. In addition to church attendance figures, does this push Americans further down the path of individualistic and voluntaristic faith? Is church via Internet or social media really church in the same way without embodied action and sacred spaces?

“Unprecedented volume of public participation” regarding development plans for Naperville mosque

Updating a case I wrote about in a 2019 article, further plans for a property owned by the Islamic Center of Naperville on the suburb’s southwest side have drawn a lot of public comments:

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The Islamic Center of Naperville, or ICN, is seeking zoning variances so members can develop a mosque, school, multipurpose hall, gymnasium and worship-area expansion in five phases over the next 40 years…

Naperville city planner Gabrielle Mattingly said the city received “an unprecedented volume of public participation” for the hearing, including nearly 2,000 names in support or opposition, 770 written comments and 160 people who signed up to speak…

The commission was able to spend 20 minutes at their meeting this week scrolling through the 1,610 signatures favoring ICN’s plans and the 305 in opposition…

ICN’s development plans show the first phase, expected to start this year, includes constructing a two-story mosque with 26,219 square feet of space to provide space for 692 worshippers, said Len Monson, the attorney representing ICN. It also will include space for offices, conference rooms, storage, multipurpose spaces and washrooms.

One interesting aspect of this proposal is that it lays out several stages that progressively increase the size of the mosque over the next forty years. Building in stages could make sense for a lot of religious groups: they could wait and see how many people are attending and it could help spread out the need for financial resources.

When the Islamic Center of Naperville requested in 2011 that Naperville annex this land with the goal of eventually constructing a facility on the property, neighbors expressed concerns. The City Council unanimously approved the request but the reactions in Naperville occurred around the same time as several other mosque proposals in DuPage County encountered opposition.

Additionally, this property is surrounded on all sides by residences. I have found in my research that locations near homes tends to increase concerns raised by community members. In Naperville and numerous other communities in the United States, residents used to nearby open spaces or agricultural land can hope the land always stays in that form rather than become home to a new building or development.

It is hard to know from this article how many of the public comments are in support of the proposed changes and how many are opposed. Even if the number of supporters is large or a majority, that would still suggest a sizable number of people with concerns.

Seeing modernization and religious change in one small suburb

One way to approach the significant social changes of recent centuries is to examine broad patterns at a societal level. Another way to understand these changes is to look at what happened in a suburban community outside Boston:

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“What has produced this kind of world is modernization,” Wells said. “The public environment that results from it is modernity. But these words––modernization and modernity––are abstractions to so many people. How could I explain what has happened to my readers in a way that they could get it?”

He found the answer in a small Massachusetts town named Wenham––population 4,875 when Gordon College isn’t in session. Wells opens No Place by explaining how Wenham, settled by Puritans after a 1635 sermon, slid into modernity in stages––telegraphs gave way to radio and television and internet; farmland yielded to suburban homes; horses were replaced with trains and cars and airplanes.

At some point, Wenham crossed a divide along with everyone else, Wells wrote in No Place. “It is as if the ability to make better cars and better airplanes and better medicines and better theories imply an ability to make better selves––to transcend not only our own mortality, which would be no small feat, but also our own corruption, which would be an even larger feat.”

“So many people no longer believe in human nature––something all human being have in common,” he told TGC. Instead, “they believe in the self––the core at the center of each person that is unique to them and unlike any other self. This is really at the root of the extreme relativism of our time where people not only have their own ‘values,’ but also their own take on reality.”

I have not read the book being discussed – No Place for Truth – but this is a common academic approach: use an interesting case to illustrate broader processes. In this case, it sounds like Wenham, Massachusetts can help show how modernity played out in a community roughly twenty-five miles from Boston.

At the same time, I am more interested in the suburban connections here. Again, while I have not read book discussed above, I have been studying religion and place in recent years and there may be some patterns across communities. Here is my attempt to connect the case of Wenham to suburbs and religious change.

Wenham is a small and wealthy community. Founded in the mid-1600s, the community has just under 5,000 residents with population growth of over 30% three decades in a row after World War Two. The median household income is over $90,000 and the community is over 97% white. (All figures from the 2010 Census.)

When a large number of Americans moved to the suburbs during the twentieth century, these new suburban residents were often said to be conservative. This could apply to politics as well as religion. Religiosity soared after World War Two. Many new churches were founded in suburbs while others already present grew substantially.

But, even in small suburbs where religion was important, modernism prevailed. The focus on self became part of the American suburban dream. Even with a suburban focus on providing the best for the nuclear family, suburban residents could focus more on themselves free of the stronger community ties that could be found in either small towns or urban neighborhoods from which the new suburbanites came. And success in the suburbs came to be defined as personal or individual success: a nice house, a good income, leisure time, having all the necessities befitting a suburbanite.

This all had an impact on religious beliefs, behavior, and belonging. A shift to the self changes beliefs about transcendent beings and doctrines, affects how people live their everyday lives, and weakens attachments to religious institutions.

Thus, the argument goes, modernism and religious change came to America and its communities. Life changed everywhere, even in exclusive suburban communities.

Podcast interview regarding Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures

David Hartman and Brooke Christensen of the More Than This podcast recently talked with sociologist Robert Brenneman and me about our new book Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures. If you are interested in religious buildings and architecture, you will want to listen.

More Than This podcast on Anchor