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.

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)

harpercollins.com

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)

ivpress.com

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.

ivpress.com

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?

Naming modern phenomena “traditional,” evangelical tradition

To label something today as traditional is to reference the past, to perhaps suggest an unchanging connection between the modern manifestation and what something was (or what we think it was) before. Historian Kristen Kobes Du Mex highlights how evangelicals claim to be traditional:

Photo by Patricia McCarty on Pexels.com

“America needs a tidal wave of the old-time religion,” inveighed 1920s evangelist Billy Sunday, self-proclaimed preacher of that “old-time religion.” In 1963, when an Episcopal clergyman accused Billy Graham of “putting the church back 50 years,” Graham responded: “I’m afraid I have failed. I had hoped to put the church back 2,000 years,” suggesting that evangelicalism was a return to a pristine, ancient Christianity.

As historian Timothy Gloege explains, however, early-20th-century evangelicals called their movement “old-time religion” even as they pioneered a new, consumer-oriented faith. Frequently sidestepping traditional denominational structures, evangelicals have excelled at using modern promotional techniques to deliver their message through celebrity spokespeople and an elaborate Christian media empire — think of ubiquitous televangelist Joel Osteen. Prioritizing an individual’s personal relationship with God and plain reading of the scriptures, they also created new standards of orthodoxy, including the “inerrancy” of the Bible. These innovations were often sold as “traditional” Christianity, but they developed the faith beyond what even Reformation innovators could have imagined.

This reminds me of a discussion in a grad school class involving the sociology of religion. In a discussion of different religious traditions and where they might fit in a current understanding of liberal or conservative, the professor jumped in at one point and noted that even the groups that claim orthodoxy or tradition tend to have moved over time from earlier practices and beliefs.

So, perhaps being “traditional” exists on a continuum with some versions closer to tradition and others further away? This might even be less of a changing of something and more of a shift in emphases. Think of the hundreds of Christian denominations in the United States who would highlight different aspects of faith as being more important or the major Christian traditions – Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, etc. – and how they might each claim to retain traditional elements of Christianity.

It would be worth noting what groups claim tradition more strongly, how they make these arguments, and for what reasons. Did evangelicals at the turn of the twentieth-century claim “old-time religion” and tradition in order to distinguish themselves from other religious changes? For various religious groups that have called fellow adherents back to the fundamentals of their faith, why do so at that particular moment? In a competitive religious marketplace in the United States, promoting tradition could appeal in particular ways – and not others.

New publication: Christian Colleges in the Locational Wilderness

Christian Higher Education just published online an article from co-author Ben Norquist and I titled “Christian Colleges in the Locational Wilderness: The Locations of CCCU Institutions.” Here is the abstract:

This article examines the locations of the 111 governing members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) and consider how these locations hinder evangelical Protestants from reaching their goal of engaging American society. We found that CCCU institutions cluster in cities in mid-sized metropolitan regions in the South and Midwest, are more likely than the United States population as a whole to be in rural areas, and have a limited presence in the largest metropolitan regions in the United States, particularly their central cities. In comparison to the top 102 liberal arts institutions and top 101 national universities, CCCU governing members were on average founded later and they have locations more similar to liberal arts schools than research universities. We argue that these patterns are physical manifestations of the modernist-fundamentalist debate, suburbanization pressure and anti-urban sentiment, and concentrations of evangelical residents. We conclude that CCCU members’ locations limit their ability to help students and constituents engage society with locations away from the largest cities and their power, resources, and networks

This project began several years ago amidst a search for data on where evangelicals in the United States are located. Given that Ben and I are in a particular location and working for a CCCU member institution, we dug into this data (with the help of my TA Rebecca Carlson) to uncover the patterns of where CCCU schools are located, particularly in comparisons to other kinds of schools and where Americans live more broadly. The last two sentences of the abstract sum up our findings and the implications: with many locations away from the biggest cities and metropolitan regions in the United States, CCCU institutions may only be able to do so much in engaging a country (and globe) dominated by cities and their metropolitan areas. More broadly, if evangelicals are not present or active in these global cities and regions, their opportunities to engage American society are limited.

Publication online in Journal of Urban History: “From “God Will Begin a Healing in this City” to “Jungles of Terror”: Billy Graham and Evangelicals on Cities and Suburbs”

Yesterday, the Journal of Urban History published online an article I had worked on for a few years:

BillyGrahamArticleJul20Online

This project began when I became aware of an online archive of Billy Graham’s messages through the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Given Graham’s popularity and influence while thinking as a sociologist about how religion and place are connected, I wanted to see how he addressed the substantial social change brought about by suburbanization during his post-World War II evangelistic career. Here is a summary of the findings from the abstract:

Graham discussed numerous urban problems and suggested solutions should begin with individual spiritual renewal. Graham proclaimed heaven as the ultimate city and did not encourage listeners to stay in cities or challenge white flight. As a respected pastor and leader, Graham’s messages highlight how evangelicals could consider cities in need of spiritual renewal but not require structural responses or living in cities as well as the limited power evangelical religious leaders have regarding contentious social issues.

The anti-urbanism common among white evangelicals has numerous roots. Graham exemplified several of these: a focus on individual action and salvation, consistent reminders of urban problems (meant to help prompt a spiritual response), and a focus on heaven. At the same time, his evangelistic efforts required holding events in major cities and meeting and talking with numerous influential leaders found in cities. I hope this study can help contribute to an ongoing scholarly conversation about the mixing of religion and place and its consequences for American society.

Divided By Faith, race, and religion

When I teach Introduction to Sociology, one of the texts I use is Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s 2000 book Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Here are parts of Chapter Four (“Color Blind: Evangelicals Speak on the “Race Problem””) that seem very pertinent:

The racially important cultural tools in the white evangelical tool kit are “accountable freewill individualism,” “relationalism” (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and antistructuralism (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences). (76)

But, these perspectives are not just tied to race:

Unlike progressives, for them individuals exist independent of structures and institutions, have freewill, and are individually accountable for their own actions. This view is directed rooted in theological understanding… (76-77)

A summary later in the chapter:

On careful reflection, we can see that it is a necessity for evangelicals to interpret the problem at the individual level. To do otherwise would challenge the very basis of their world, both their faith and the American way of life. They accept and support individualism, relationalism, and anti-structuralism. Suggesting social causes of the race problem challenges the cultural elements with which they construct their lives. This is the radical limitation of the white evangelical tool kit. This is why anyone, any group, or any program that challenges their accountable freewill individualist perspectives comes itself to be seen as a cause of the race problem. (89)

And back to race:

But white evangelicals’ cultural tools and racial isolation curtail their ability to fully assess why people of different races do not get along, the lack of equal opportunity, and the extent to which race matters in America. Although honest and well intentioned, their perspective is a powerful means to reproduce contemporary racialization…

This perspective misses the racialized patterns that transcend and encompass individuals, and are therefore often institutional and systemic. It misses that whites can move to most any neighborhood, eat at most any restaurant, walk down most any street, or shop at most any store without having to worry or find out that they are not wanted, whereas African Americans often cannot. This perspective misses that white Americans can be almost certain that when stopped by the police it has nothing to do with race, whereas African Americans cannot… (89-90)

The book is twenty years old and has led to productive listening, conversations, action, and scholarship. Yet, the intersection of race and religion, the deeply embedded assumptions in faith and other spheres of life, still matters today.

(See this 2016 post titled “How white evangelicals define themselves – and what is missing” for an earlier discussion involving Divided By Faith.)

Bringing a cultural production perspective to the industry of Christian worship music

The Christian worship charts are dominated by relatively few artists. Why might this be the case?

“If a song is going up the charts, there’s pressure on the worship leader to play that song,” said John J. Thompson, who worked with Christian artists as creative director for Capitol CMG Publishing and now runs the website truetunes.com.

Because songs must be catchy, they focus on simplified melodic structures, fewer words, and limited emotional range, with the goal that the congregation can catch on to new songs by the second verse, said Thompson, now the associate dean of the Trevecca School of Music and Worship Arts and the author of Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate; Crafting a Hand Made Faith in a Mass Market World

Most of the songs on the list were written by Caucasians. Thematically, the songs tend to stay in the realm of praise and adoration without venturing too far into more complex themes like confession, doubt, and suffering.

Sandra Van Opstal, pastor, liturgist, and author of The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World previously told CT, “…The worship industrial complex has become so influential that millions of people around the world are being discipled via iTunes. The narrative of God and faith is in the hands of a few worship movements who aren’t talking about how their social location, cultural values, and racial privilege shape their faith.”

In many culture industries, it can be difficult to predict what will become hits. There are hundreds, likely thousands, of worship tracks produced each year. There are ways that all industries try to hedge their bets. One route is to promote and support stars. In the list provided of popular songs, this means Chris Tomlin or Hillsong are better bets for hits compared to lesser-known artists. Another route is to try to cross-promote across platforms. Radio, even as a dying medium, can help drive traffic to streaming music and use of music in churches. Performing the songs in church can help drive congregants to the music and radio.

But, there are more factors at play. How does an artist become popular in the first place? At one point, Chris Tomlin was an unknown and the Hillsong movement had a limited reach. Stars can put out average or bad music. New artists can arise. The cross-promotion can fail to produce. Tastes and trends in music can change. Technology can change in both how music is made and delivered, boosting some and hurting others. How congregations view and utilize worship music could change. And so on.

More broadly, how culture and cultural objects come about is a complex process involving multiple social forces and institutions. In other words, this is not necessarily the way the Christian worship industry works at the moment or into the future. It is hard to know what kind of worship music will dominate ten or fifty years from now. Certain artists may be the music du jour today and be gone tomorrow.

1960s white religious leaders: God told us to love our neighbors but did not mean to pick our neighbors for us

My history colleague Karen Johnson recently delivered the first Faith and Learning lecture on the Wheaton College campus titled “Place Matters:  The vocation of where we live and how we live there.” See the talk here.

One quote from her talk (roughly 35:50 into the talk) stuck with me. In opposing open housing efforts in the 1960s through the Illinois Association of Real Estate Boards, white religious leaders said:

“We don’t doubt the words of Him who said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ but we do doubt, gentlemen, that He meant to disturb our American heritage and freedoms by picking these neighbors for us.”
Three features of this stand out:
1. I suspect this logic is still in use in many American communities today. Individual liberty about where to live is more prized than government intervention to help those who cannot move to certain places unless they have help (usually for reasons connected to social class and race and ethnicity). While it is couched in religious terms in this quote, I don’t think it needs religious backing to be widely supported by many suburbanites or wealthier residents.
2. Connected to the first point, few white and wealthier residents would today explicitly say that their opposition to affordable housing or government intervention to bring new people to communities is because of race and ethnicity (some government intervention in housing is more than acceptable as long as it helps the right people). They might talk in terms of social class or the character of the community. But, it still often comes down to race and who are desirable neighbors.
3. The mixing of American and religious values is strong. For American Christians, where do individual liberties end and Christian responsibilities begin? Which takes precedence? All religious groups have to think about which ideas and values to take on within particular contexts (whether nations, communities, or subgroups). A good portion of the critique of conservative Protestants often seems to involve the blurring of these lines: can these Christians see when their own stated religious commitments do not align with particular American commitments?