New Old-Time Religion: Catholicism in Evangelical Clothing

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License PlateAn old man shuffles into a darkened screening room. As he settles onto the couch, the projector whirs into action. Right there on the screen, the man sees his own life. Especially the bad parts. From outside the frame, a caressing female voice begins:

Over the years, we begin to realize how quickly life goes by.... When our transition to eternity begins, there won't be a chance for any do-overs, no time to rewind our life, no chance to choose a different ending. It is then we will fully realize how our unkind thoughts and selfish choices wounded others, and led us away from God, our loving Father.... Thankfully, you still can ask God to help edit your life story, and create the ideal ending.... Imagine hearing God say after your life's movie, "Well done, good and faithful servant..."

This is a description of a video available on the website of an organization called Catholics Come Home, but it resembles nothing so much as "This Was Your Life," a cartoon tract put out by Chick Publications. Yes, the same Chick Publications that gave us "The Death Cookie." Its ham-handedness has made it into somewhat of a camp classic. Along with Chick's other masterpieces, "This Was Your Life" has been spoofed onstage, on YouTube, and in short, touted as a matchless example of Christian kitsch.

Jack Chick hasn't sued Catholics Come Home; perhaps his case for intellectual property theft is weaker than I'm making it sound. But that's beside the point. Whether actionable or not, whether calculated or not, resemblance between the CCH video and Chick's tract may reflect the emergence of a distinctly American brand of popular piety.

When paired with the word "piety," "popular" means basically what it means when modifying words like "music" or "culture": broad in its appeal, emotional in tone. It can emerge from the people themselves, like the gripping, sometimes gruesome apocrypha concerning the child Jesus that circulated among medieval peasants. It can also be pitched to the people, like the sermons of St. Vincent Ferrer, which, Johan Huizinga tells us in Autumn of the Middle Ages, made weeping audiences beg for encores.

To some degree, both kinds have followed immigrants to America. In his biography of Joe DiMaggio, Richard Ben Cramer relates how statues representing saints of dubious historicity were grudgingly installed in North Beach churches. In any swap meet in a Mexican-American neighborhood, you can buy a statue of La Santa Muerte, or "Saint Death." But then, in those very same stalls, you can also buy one of the wholly orthodox Virgin of Guadalupe, promoted by the Vatican as patroness of the unborn.

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.