Monday, 2 March 2009

Wasted Documentary

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?


Steve Jones said...

I thought that Cherie Blair, in the first part of the documentary. made an excellent case for having nothing whatsover to do with outdated, authoritarian churches and their doctrines. Given that the Catholic Church is wedded to many concepts which appear to be in direct conflict whith her own beliefs, then I wonder why she stays with them. There are plenty enough other sects which are more socially progressive.

Of wider concern is the implication that more church attendance is somehow, of itself a good thing for society. However, in favourably comparing the much greater attendence at churches in the US, then one has to wonder if this necessarily correlates with greater social justice. The US, after all, is hardly known for being less materialistic than Western Europe, it has generally much higher murder rates and higher rates of teenage pregnancy than even this country's woefull record. The record on racism is dreadful (although Europe, especially pre-WWII was equally as bad; nominally a time when Church going was much higher). Far from being engines of social progress, many of the more conservative churches in the US, and the bedrock of the Republican party, have been regressive institutions. The perpetuation of segregation in the South and opposition to gay rights has been championed by some of these same chcurches. Also the civil rights movement of the 1960s has surely as much to do with secular movements (at least on the side of middle-class white American society) as of progressive churches. Much of that was centred around the ideas of the US left, given voice by folk revival musicians. Bob Dylan did not sing "With God on Our Side" as some form of praise to established religion.

This is not to say that there isn't something of a moral vacuum. We do seem to have replace a society of ethics and morality with one based on rights and permissions. However, I'm of the general opinion that good societies have nothing much to do with people going to church or not, and much more on a sense of social cohesiveness.

As it is, Cherie Blair's documentary might be better seen as some sort management consultancy job for Christian Churches on how to make themselves more commercially succesfull ("relevant"). Profoundly dispiriting, but the question remains. Why if she feels like this, does she stay whith what, outside of some of the worst excesses of US churches, must be one of the most reactionary institutions in the West. If it's some issue of theological doctrine, she failed to spell out what it was.

Anyway, I would certainly go along with the idea that studies by more objective experts would have been welcome. The subject is too important to leave to what are, literally, in some cases, advocated.

Erika Baker said...

She also completely missed out the right wing evangelicals in the USA and the bible belt phenomenon, and made American Christianity sound as though it was universally accepting, socially aware and completely God-focused.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I agree with all of that: altogether a very odd documentary with questions about her own involvement and the myopia in the USA about its right wing churches and the materialism going unchallenged.

Steve Jones said...

I see I left my normal trademark litany of typos and spelling mistakes. One thing that I feel rather disappointed about is that I could find no proper review in the mainstream press for this episode. Perhaps TV reviewers do not have space or inclination for this sort of in-depth analysis.

A couple of other things which did also occur to me. One was that the singularly most annoying part of the whole program was the rather nauseating experience of the "interview" with Laura Bush and the mutual agreement that the role of faith in the policy making of their respective husbands (especially George W) had somehow been misrepresented by the press. This, when the President had the full force of the Fox network behind him. In fact, I believe that it was faith of a different kind that compelled George W Bush and his fellow neo-cons to follow through with their fateful decision to invade Iraq. Just a blind faith in the inevitability of success, without anything in the way of analysis of the context. Not, I think, a specifically religious thing - more a mind-set. Robert Harris, in his hatchet-job on Tony Blair, lightly disguised as the novel Ghost, had it about right I feel. That is it was TB's policy to remain friends at almost all costs with George Bush's administration. I'm almost of the belief that he was of a type to be able to rationalise to himself what he'd already decided on by gut feel to the extent he believed it.

The apparently real and heart-felt friendship of the Bush and Blair family is one of those modern enigmas which I find impossible to fathom.

As for Cherie Blair and her somewhat schizophrenic relationship with the Catholic Church (not a medically apt metaphor, but it's the one people recognise), then I do wonder about the relationship with her own father. By many standards, he was a disreputable, misogynist figure, and famously was estranged from several of his daughters through his treatment of their respective mothers. However, not Cherie who maintained in contact. This is, of course, all cod psychology on my part, but I do wonder. There seems and odd parallel with her relationship with the Catholic church.

Finally, and as a bit of light relief, Tom Lehrer wrote a wonderful skit on Vatican 2 called "Vatican Rag". On the CD it is prefaced by a little of his thoughts on making the church "more commercial". There's a version of the song on YouTube.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Yes, she misused the programme to plead the innocence of Bush and husband and their religious convictions. We had Blair say he really believed what he did was right, as if belief was as good as evidence. Trying to support her husband's lost reputation by reminding us of the links with Bush, over which she demonstrated access, rather backfired. Obviously Channel Four couldn't resist.

Peter S said...

How do you see the interaction of patriotic fervor with religion from a sociological perspective? Isn't that part of the political movement supporting the Iraq invasion--or do you see the Iraq thing as entirely secular?

I like your point about the history of immigrant cultures supporting religious development here (US). But in the present, it seems to me that the prevailing culture emphasizes individualism, especially individual economic action--the "pursuit of happiness" cast as pursuit of individual material wealth. I think that works against churches as communities.

Explicitly religious (sectarian) commentators often decry the decline in church attendance as pervasive moral failure, of course. But I think your sociological point of view is likely to lead to better explanations.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

The mobilisation of churches for patriotic reasons doesn't really happen here now, but I see it does in the United States where organised religion is more common. The relationship of Church and State here, even though established, has become filtered and more critical, but it is also because church consent is hardly needed for policy that it results in criticism. There was little sentiment here for the Iraq invasion; Blair pushed it through the teeth of opposition by pumped up so called intelligence reports that weren't seen for what they were quickly enough.

Interesting about individualism: we had that phase with Thatcher and it did corrode all sorts of institutions the Conservatives once supported, and has left them weaker, but we are not so individualist now. This recession/ depression could draw a line under Thatcher individualism and take us back to more co-operative communal understandings.

Erika Baker said...

the tv review in The Times had the most in-depth analysis of the programme I could find!

In addition to what has been mentioned here, it also pointed out that her conclusion, that churches are failing when they do not allow women to participate at all levels is clearly wrong, because the Anglican church has many more high profile women (although no women Bishops yet), and still fails as miserably as the Roman Catholic church.

Fred Preuss said...

The church of england is ridiculous. Establishment is a farce. Get rid of it.