Thursday, May 26, 2005

Brother can you spare a dime

David Brooks poses an interesting point in Thursday's NYTimes:

Earlier this week I listened to Rick Warren speak at a conference sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Warren is the pastor of the Saddleback Church in California, the country's largest megachurch where 20,000 people or so go to worship each Sunday. He's also the author of "The Purpose Driven Life," which has sold more than 25 million copies in English alone.

. . .

My third thought, which may be more profound than the other two, is that we can have a culture war in this country, or we can have a war on poverty, but we can't have both. That is to say, liberals and conservatives can go on bashing each other for being godless hedonists and primitive theocrats, or they can set those differences off to one side and work together to help the needy.

The natural alliance for antipoverty measures at home and abroad is between liberals and evangelical Christians. These are the only two groups that are really hyped up about these problems and willing to devote time and money to ameliorating them. If liberals and evangelicals don't get together on antipoverty measures, then there will be no majority for them and they won't get done.

Now, you might be thinking, fat chance. There is no way the likes of Jerry Falwell and Barbara Boxer are going to get together as brother and sister to fight deprivation. And I say to you: All around me I see bonds being formed.

Now that is a topic I have some insight into. As I have written about before, I did quite a bit of work for 2 of the largest evangelical churches in the US in the late '80s and early '90s. These Megachurches both had recording studios, where they recorded "Christian Rock." And I did some work at the aforementioned Saddleback Church last year.

I won't mention the names of the first 2 churches I mentioned above; no purpose would be served by that. But here are my insights into the idea that Brooks posits.

Not gonna happen, no sirree Bob.

I spent quite a bit of time with what I would call "senior management" of both organizations, as well as with folks in "the body." And while clearly there are many fine decent folks at both organizations, Management had a different agenda, especially at one place.

The agenda is "Salvation." Starts and ends there. We're not talking Catholic Salvation, since, as is well known, Catholics aren't "saved." They haven't been born again.

But wait, you say...they're Christians too. Well, not really, because they, poor fools, haven't had the epiphonal moment where they suddenly gave their life over to Christ. But wait, you say again. What about all the Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, etc., who grew up in Christian homes, and believed for as long as they could remember in God and Christ.

Nope, sorry. Gotta be born again. Gotta have the moment, the transition from condemned to saved. And of course, after that, you can be a mean, petty bastard and it's all excused, because, well, you're saved.

Now that may seem like a harsh indictment, but it's what I saw over and over again. I saw greed, avarice, meanness, contempt for ANY other faith tradition, and a total sureness about their belief. As re: the poor, the rote answer is "There have always been the poor, always will. Whaddaya want me to do about it?"

Please understand, many of the faithful are very well intentioned folks, who do care about poverty, hunger, and the human condition. But they are steered by Management to focus their energy on Salvation. The metric is "How many came up for the altar call at the end of the service?" Or "How many baptisms were performed on Saturday?"

Sure, they have food drives, and collect shabby worn out clothes, but these are distributed with a very large dose of the Gospel. And the members are all "encouraged" to Tithe, and the budget is always there for new mixing consoles for the sanctuary, new bleachers for the gym, new lights for the parking lot.

One of the poorest parts of Southen California is just a few miles up the street. Could the people there benefit from some of Brooks' antipoverty measures? Indeed. But these people are largely Catholic, hence, beyond redemption. Instead, the church regularly mounts missionary expeditions to Tonga, where the poor folks are more likely to be swayed by what seems like manna from Heaven, along with a sermon on Salvation. Now, clearly Tonga ain't Waikiki, but it still must be a pretty fun trip with, you know, tropical sand, palm trees, and beaches. That's tough duty for any missionary.

I don't know, Brooks' idea may have some legs. Certainly with some folks, church members with conciences. But for Management, I'm not so sure. They are carving notches on the altar. And the notches are for "souls", not for people.