An Israelite Without Guile
New Old-Time Religion: Catholicism in Evangelical Clothing
But many of these new trends in popular Catholic culture seem proudly native to the American soil, meaning they take at least some of its cues from Southern evangelical Protestantism. Not long ago, when I was meeting with members of a popular young adult ministry, they impressed me with three habits of speech. First, they offered to pray for each other unbidden. Second, they referred to "the Lord," and in a way that suggested they related to Him on the same intimate terms as they do their Facebook friends. Third, they spoke constantly of blessings. "I feel very blessed to see you" was a common salutation.
This is pure revival-tent goop. In his memoir The Gatekeeper, Terry Eagleton writes that, in the Irish neighborhoods of 1950s Manchester, "Religion was not something to get all sloppy and personal about." A Catholic priest of his acquaintance, recalling how his Anglican counterpart greeted him on Easter morning by shouting, "Christ is arisen!" remarked, "Silly bugger!" If he'd been in Birmingham, Alabama, instead of Manchester England, he might have said, "Bless his heart," meaning the same thing. Those young Catholics I met may not yet know all the complexities of the language they've borrowed.
Another agent of popular fundie-fication is Leah Darrow. As she reports on her website, the former contestant on America's Next Top Model works "full time as a Catholic speaker for Catholic Answers and [will] travel anywhere and everywhere to spread God's message of authentic love, mercy, conversion and chastity." According to Darrow, this conversion took place during a photo shoot. At the photographer's request, she put on an outfit that was "anything but modest," and in a moment of Grace, realized she wasn't "being all I could be."
In his bestselling novel The Abstinence Teacher, Tom Perrotta had an evangelical Protestant speaker lecture high school students on the virtue of chastity. Although the woman's presentation is crass and cynical in ways that Darrow's is not ("she was hot and she knew it," Perrotta writes of her), the basic template is the same. In both cases, we see a Christian virtue embedded comfortably in a suburban ideal of success and beauty. This is normal fare for megachurches, but might have looked a little off to the nuns who taught my mother.
But where are those nuns now? Long dead or long retired, their places largely unfilled. That's one reason the fundie style takes—it gives the laity no end of ideas how to seek the Kingdom of God in the world, the way the Council Fathers said they should. More to the point, this is the age of the New Evangelization, and the fundified is nothing if not evangelical. Dianne Rider told Time Magazine that living in the South among evangelicals calls her and her fellow Catholics "on the carpet to explain what we believe." It's a kind of spiritual homeopathy: to resist the call of evangelical Protestantism, you have to adopt a little of it yourself—the style, if not the substance. Matteo Ricci, in his mandarin's robes, would have agreed.
But there's a more basic reason why certain Baptist and charismatic-like forms are starting to gain traction in Catholic circles. As popular piety has done throughout history, it enables the faithful to have something along with its apparent opposite. According to Huizinga, outsized enthusiasm for the great preachers and ascetics enabled the late-medieval masses to keep their religion despite the disdain they felt for most of the clergy. ("Please, God, let the Dominicans eat the Augustinians," began a popular toast.) The touchy-feely extroversion of the fundie style offers a user-friendly flip side to a more somber, traditional liturgy. One young man at my parish bellowed at me, "Mass is Mass, and a praise and worship service is a praise and worship service," not bothering to add "DUH!"
I doubt this trend will change course anytime soon. If Dianne Rider found contact with evangelical Christianity a transformative experience, she can't be alone. Time reports that the number of Catholics in the South has increased by 30% since the 1990s, and quotes some who have taken a grand notion of their prophetic role. "We adhere to a truer and purer form of Catholicism," North Carolina Congressman Patrick McHenry said, adding that Southern Catholics "are changing the nature of the Church in America." With Ave Maria University opening up in Florida (to be joined by Ave Maria, the town), who can prove him wrong?
Any day now, Our Lady is going to show up in Little Rock.
Max Lindenman is a freelance writer, based in Phoenix. He has been published in National Catholic Reporter, Busted Halo and Salon. His Open Salon blog is here.