American folk religion

When I was in college, I had the privilege of spending a couple of weeks in Mexico,

on a mission trip,

as a member of something called a “youth choir”.

A couple of pre-emptive answers to your inevitable questions:

Yes, our shirts always matched.

Yes, a youth choir is as cool as it sounds.

No, most of us were quite terrible at Spanish, especially in song form.

Yes, roughly 99.6% of us got travelers’ diarrhea…and spoke of it endlessly.

No, in Mexico water parks aren’t a huge draw, so sadly we did not have the chance to serenade sunburnt families bobbing up and down in the wave pool with a Spanish rendition of “Better is One Day in your Courts.”

And finally:

You’re absolutely right, 40 middle-class Caucasian kids in matching red t-shirts and Abercrombie khakis do have a way of effectively communicating to everyone within ear shot of our unintelligible hymns:

¿Cómo se dice?: “Dont hassle me, I’m local!” 

Throughout my time ministering south of the border with the “Passionate 40″ (as we were un-ironically known throughout central Mexico), our conversations usually revolved around differences in the food, weather, language, toilet paper disposal options, water quality, showering facilities, and if it’s appropriate to ever actually refer to people living in the country of Mexico as “Mexicans”*?

(*NOTE: I miss you Michael Scott, give Holly my love.)

However, one topic that remained a consistent point of confusion for the Passionate 40 were the divergences between the faith of Mexican Christians and that of us Southern, White, middle-class Evangelicals.

The style, beliefs, holy days, rites, incense.

The honoring of the dead.

The witchcraft.

All of it necessitating questions like: ”these people are Christians!?”

For the most part, these differences were quickly dispatched by a single phrase used endlessly by Americans on mission trips to foreign lands:

“folk religion”

As in: the practices, rituals, and strange behaviors accompanying Mexican Christianity are simply forms of “folk religion” or “indigenous beliefs” that have worked their way insidiously into the faith over time. And, in order for true communion with God to take place, these indigenous beliefs must be excised and abhorred.

Enter, The Passionate 40

Today, with Mexican youth choir stardom squarely in the rearview, I live in East Tennessee.

And, if there’s one thing I’ve found to be true about my current home it’s this:

For a persecuted sect of meek and weary pilgrims being rooted out and harangued by the totalizing forces of godless secularity, there sure are a lot of us down here!

Here’s what I mean:

It is, to this day, more scandalous in my community to admit a lack of belief in God than it is to fly not one, but two oversized Rebel flags on the back of one’s truck while driving in circles around downtown.

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Oh, and to be clear, I mean it’s more socially acceptable to be a racist than an atheist.

So, what am I saying that you, the reader of this internet soapbox diatribe (who is undeniably a blood relative), don’t already know?

All of us practice folk religion, we just don’t always use witches.

Because, if there’s anything I learned from traveling with my band* through Mexico in college, it’s that sometimes native practices, toxic familial baggage, unquestioned cultural assumptions, and weird forms of mysticism involving angels and parking lots can work themselves insidiously into our faith and end up corrupting its most basic elements.

(*NOTE: As with most things in my life, I mean “band” in the most liberal sense of the word.)

How else do we explain a faith expressing belief in the divinity of a 1st-century homeless, Middle-Eastern rabbi who was crucified for his subversive (not to mention non-violent) religious and political practices being currently utilized as a prooftext for endless militarism, violence, and bloodthirsty nationalism?

“If God’s on our side…he’ll stop the next war.”

-Bob Dylan

Or, how do we make sense of the fact that a religion founded on inclusion, welcome, generosity, and an overwhelming identification with the impoverished, immigrant, and oppressed communities has become the very grounding narrative for racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and militant consumerism of every kind?

“Never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount.”

-Arcade Fire

Or, (and I can do this all day)

what do we say about the central idea currently defining American Christianity? You know, the one that understands Jesus centrally as that which removes pain, sacrifice, and struggle from the lives of those he loves. Or, maybe you’re more familiar with his popular work in rewarding the faithful and just with political power, business success, attractive spouses, well-adjusted children, endless game-winning touchdowns, and/or a grammy…

as long as they thank him profusely in their acceptance speech.

Despite the fact, and I’m beating a dead horse here, that he was killed the last time he clearly articulated what it was he believed about wealth, power, faith, and what life is actually about. 

Honestly, compared to some of the things we believe, witches seem pretty tame.

I would argue our problem with folk religion isn’t that our beliefs are too strange, too odd, too offensive, too misguided, too fanciful, or too naive.

Frankly, it’s that they aren’t weird enough.

They aren’t political enough. They aren’t dangerous enough. They aren’t poor enough. They aren’t persecuted enough. They aren’t minority enough. They aren’t “folksy” enough. They aren’t uncomfortable enough.

For instance:

You aren’t weird if the most severe form of persecution you endure “in the name of Jesus” occurs seasonally in the form of haughtily harrumphing into your morning coffee during yet another tear-jerking segment on Fox & Friends about the “WAR ON CHRISTMAS!”

You aren’t weird if the way in which you eat, spend, work, live, school your children, and vacation is exactly the same as everyone else in your socio-economic tax bracket despite the differences between how you and your neighbors spend the hours of 10-12:30 on Sundays.

One more time, with feeling:

You aren’t weird if the central image you have of God is that of a cosmic vending machine dispensing divine favors and national stability for good behavior, while reserving catastrophic weather and terrifying diagnoses for obviously toxic and decidedly un-American decision making.

It’s little wonder that impoverished and unstable countries such as Mexico, Uganda, Venezuela, Guatemala, and South Africa have begun sending summer missionaries in matching t-shirts and khaki capris to the godless water-parks of the Midwest.

Singing songs in a strange tongue about an unfamiliar God to confused practitioners of American folk religion, endlessly bobbing up and down as they cool off from the hot summer sun in the wave pool.

Perhaps one day they’ll get through to us, but until that day is this one:

“could you guys move a little to the left, you’re in my sun.” 

Eric Minton

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About the Author
Eric is a writer, pastor, pug enthusiast, and chief curator of the sacred at www.newheresies.com. He lives with his wife Lindsay and their pug Penny in Knoxville, TN. You can follow him on twitter @ericminton or connect with him on Facebook.

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