Packaging of the soul

One part of Michael Kinsley’s legacy at Slate is an almost predictable fondness for contrarianism. This sometimes results in a bracing departure from pack journalism, such as Kinsley’s proposal that all parties in the debate about gay marriage would best be served by removing government from the discussion entirely.

Other times, however, Slate’s angle seems little more than contarianism for its own sake, which leads to mere eccentricity or excessive preciousness. Take, for example, Andrew Santella’s argument in “The Church Search” that, “while it may be frequently derided as an example of rampant spiritual consumerism, shopping around can be one of the good things about the way religion is practiced in America.”

Santella begins and ends with the Obama family’s deliberations on what church to attend, which is becoming one of the most flagellated dead-horse stories on the religion beat. Would some oddsmaker please turn this topic into a wager at Paddy Power so it will become interesting again?

Santella’s brief report covers many good bases, including Anthony Sacramone’s critique of church shopping. The greatest weakness in Santella’s report is his insistence on seeing Americans’ church choices merely as another function of the market. Thus, he understands goofy church signs or streaming media as so many recruitment tools rather than efforts, however colloquial, at communication:

That simple marquee in front of a church with the cheerfully homely motto (“Prevent truth decay: Brush up on your Bible”) doesn’t suffice to recruit worshippers. Web sites stream audio and video of sermons and music to let prospective members shop from home, and consultants help congregations market themselves to the “unchurched” and the merely unsatisfied by deploying focus groups, surveys, product giveaways (free church-branded Frisbees, anyone?), and other tactics borrowed from the commercial realm.

I count three odd assumptions (e.g., “flinty New England Congregationalism” + Jeremiah Wright = diversity) in this one paragraph:

Even within denominations and churches, believers have room to choose. Pope Benedict XVI has made it easier for Catholic parishes to offer Latin Mass as an alternative to the conventional vernacular Mass. President Obama’s former denomination, the United Church of Christ, is famously diverse, including both flinty New England Congregationalism descended from the Pilgrims’ churches and the huge South Side Chicago ministry once led by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Obamas’ controversial former pastor. If believers need help keeping track of the many variations in style and substance, they can check out the Zagat-like reviews of church services at the Web site Ship of Fools.

The most annoying sentence, however, is Santella’s conclusion, which veers uncomfortably into the realm of Dear Prudence, the advice columnist for Slate: “So, the president shouldn’t feel any need to rush into committing to a new church. When you have so many options, it pays to shop around.”

I do not care if the Obamas spend the next four years visiting as many congregations as they wish in the nation’s capital. Why? I know how challenging it can be to meet two criteria that remain entirely neglected in Santella’s paean to an unfettered church marketplace: the search for community, both with like-minded believers and with people different enough to stretch me; and an atmosphere that inspires my soul to slow down, be quiet and worship God.

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  • Ivan Wolfe

    That’s very interesting. Is the main complaint here that he uses economics to discuss church attendance?

    One of the best books (IMHO) on religion in America is Stark and Finke’s “The Churching of America:1776 – 2005″ It’s a solid, well-argued historical analysis of church-going in America, but from an economic point of view. They argue, basically, that the religious scene in America is a free-market where denominations compete for market share (for the most part, they find that conservative, other-world focused, high demand, slightly off the mainstream religions fare better than liberal, this world focused, low demand, mainstream religions. That’s usually the claim that upsets most of their critics, rather than their use of economics to do the analysis).

    Would you be bothered by the analysis in that scholarly book as well, merely because of their use of economics as the lens to analyze religion, or is their something else about Andrew Santella’s piece that bothers you?

    I personally find Santella’s style to be a little to breezy and self-aware, but I don’t mind his use of economics to frame the discussion. Americans have a long history of shopping around – that’s how Methodists and Baptists managed to win many converts in the past. But perhaps it’s the terminology “shop around” that makes it seem so awful and cheap. Would it be better if we called it “investigating different churches” or “considering the various alternatives”? What’s the difference between those and shopping around?

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Ivan, I can appreciate some economic analysis of church growth, but not to the exclusion of categories such as a search for community of a place in which people feel drawn closer to God.

    A strictly economic explanation of how people choose churches is like an exclusively biochemical explanation of why people fall in love.

  • Ivan Wolfe

    Douglas -

    I sort of agree, but what if they’re shopping around “for community of a place in which people feel drawn closer to God”?

    Perhaps an “exclusively” economic discussion is the problem, but Finke and Stark focused on things like doctrine, practice, the demands the churches made on followers, the sense of community, etc. Santella (who references Finke and Stark briefly) is doing similar work. He even says:

    American faith comes in lots of flavors, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that today’s church shoppers are buying into a superficial, strip-mall faith. When the Barna Group studied what believers look for in a new church, doctrine and belief ranked at the top of the list of the most important factors, while more mundane or aesthetic concerns (music, parking, comfortable seating) were less important. And the free market in faith has been good for America’s religious life. All that hopping across denominational lines likely helped produce a less rigid, better informed, more ecumenical religious culture.

    I would strenuously disagree with his last sentence (he needs to re-read Finke and Stark, who find almost the exact opposite), but until then he clearly acknowledges it’s more than just a consumer thing, and that the product is more important than the packaging.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Thanks for the highlighted reminder, Ivan, and you raise a fair point.

  • Dave

    Douglas, you’re up against the overweening posture of economics, that any choice between options is ultimately economic in nature.

  • Martha

    In an odd way, I think the Obama family not being in any rush to find a new church to attend is typically American Christian nowadays.

    The idea that you don’t need to attend a church every Sunday, that you can practice your faith at home, that if you can’t find a church to suit, you can set up a ‘house-church’; in being non-attenders, I think they’re actually closer to the vast mushy middle of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ stripe and the way most (not just Anericans) practice whatever faith they identify with. Christmas and Easter attendance (and Ash Wednesday for Catholics), ringing any bells? People who only see the inside of a church when attending weddings, christenings and funerals?

  • Jerry

    If goofy church signs you’re looking for, check out In fact there are a veritable plethora of web sites that cover this topic.

  • Dan LaHood

    someplace like Utah…