Once again Channel 4's ability to throw away a good idea in a documentary was shown by its use of a celebrity: Cherie Blair's contrast between European and American forms of Christianity.
The difference between Europe and the United States was not faith, she said, but organisation, and she contrasted old and tired building based Christian Churches in England (and a focus on Roman Catholicism and less so Anglicanism, and ignored the rest) with megachurches in the United States - able to grow due to being free of State connections.
Why can't a documentary like this employ a sociologist of religion? Last week Colin Blakemore represented science and something of the 'New Atheist' (so called) and led a good programme. This one by Cherie Blair was superficial rubbish.
First of all, organised religion in the United States is declining, not growing, but it is declining from a bigger base. It does have periodic revivals and then the decline continues. The reason American attendance is high is as much to do with history as it is the reason European attendance is low.
American attendance is higher because, historically, the immigrant communities have found their identity through their churches. Secondly, the United States is a country of associations, and one of these is churches. Gregarious Americans meet one another through churches they attend along with other means of association.
Further, the churches have provided provisions of welfare and religious education and are part of a much stronger voluntary giving society than in Europe. Thus Churches are a centre for charitable giving, and indeed (as shown) are a necessary support for the poor. We did this in Victorian times.
In Europe society has a historical background of class and status, the established Churches representing the upper class and reaching down. The working class arose largely unchurched, and the middle class attended their denominations in fear of the mass urban city and its morals. However, politics was collective, and reforming, and the welfare state arose, as did full and proper educational provision. Indeed, even religious education as part of the national churches provision became part of the education of state schools - a way to deliver Christian instruction to the working class. Collective organising is different from associational organising, and although the middle class has provided some associational gathering, the middle class has followed on from the working class: indeed now there is a loss and merging of class identity into a secular mass of individuals. This has been due to the loss of manufacturing and key primary industry (coal) and the growth of an in and out of work underclass. These developments continue to bypass organised religion.
This contrast has got nothing to do with churches like Willow Creek (featured) in the United States showing the way forward. You can find just the same in the UK: for example, I visited Abundant Life in Bradford and it has no crosses or obvious religious paraphernalia, but it is a media centre. This new non-denominational Pentecostalism owes much to media entertainment; the fundamentalism associated with them is often a gloss for something less formal. Abundant Life doesn't strike me as particularly fundamentalist anyway, and certainly not of the old school. What these places do is suck the life out of neighbouring churches in terms of their development and nurturing, so that they fill up with a middle age range of people who do, actually, fall away. People are not going to retire attending these places. Nor are they making huge inroads into secular Britain.
A person said to me about how the evening Anglican service is her favourite and its so sad regarding the numbers. Interesting that she had done a count, and so had I (but I'd done one in the morning too). In a town of, what, 11,000, this was less than half a small street assuming two people per house.
One of the effects of the European inheritance - and Britain epitomises these characteristics - is the loss of any absorbed Christian narrative now in the cities, towns and villages of the land. The Sunday School movement is dead. On top of this, the people who attend churches also have practical explanations for daily life events that do not relate to what is stated in these services. Services are becoming museum concert pieces with a few prayers. The readings this last week have simply been of a different thought world: every single one has had no application to any normal explanation for humankind or weather systems, other than a shift of explanation towards becoming more authentic regarding your own self (and Lent means 'be more reflective').
Now in the United States a sociologist would have shown the different form of secularisation taking shape there. Of course there is a bigger base of fundamentalism in the United States, and Christian conservatism blows hot and cold in its insertion into political conservatism. However, secularisation comes to religion in the form of heartwarming participation and entertainment, in the secularisation of selection of dogma (a lot of unexplained "Jesus we love you"), in a focus upon personalities and celebrity, and in some churches via a diversity of views including towards the secular and practical, a concern for lifestyle and this life (Blair did say this), as well as extending social inclusiveness, and the worship of the flag. One gets the sense that some American churches are the head equivalent of going to the gym: go in, blow your brain around in some fuzzy religiosity and all sorts of deliverances, and come out until the next time. As Peter Owen Jones remarked, there is a vast choice of fast food religion in America and not much spirituality.
Cherie Blair made much of the place of women in religion, again making a false contrast between male hierarchies and marginalisation in Europe and the openness found at Willow Creek. Well the same equality is found in megachurches in the UK. Where politics is becoming ugly in British religion it centres around support for Israel and anti-Muslim sentiment, usually through African import and some Pentecostal Churches.
Much of this links up with the broader agenda of Satellite TV religion and its exploitative money making industry that absorbs cash on the promise that giving a lot means getting more by some mysterious means (not actually a method practised by satellite TV religion: it just banks the dosh) - this is for many, then, religion while sat at home. The television is always safe, though watch for the begging letters once you've sent the email saying where you live when watching. No I haven't: I already get it why they ask.
What puzzles me is this: given all her stated views about churches not showing crosses and other paraphernalia, and advancing the place of women and minorities, why is Cherie Blair a Roman Catholic. Is it just family and culture? Far from it embracing Vatican II, her much criticised Church is now marching up a quite different road that hardly is her approach. Did her husband, in converting to this moribund form of religion, make a fundamental mistake?
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