In The Expat Worshipper, Part One I told you about the numerous and gigantic churches one can’t help but notice here in the U.S. when one has recently arrived from another country.
And it’s not that there is necessarily a lack of religion elsewhere. Drive around on a Sunday anywhere in South Africa, and you will see huge numbers of people walking along the road in their Sunday finery on their way to attend a sermon.
Or assembled in an open field in their white garments.
Or clogging up the highway in a long line of buses.
The first time we saw such a procession, made up mostly of people in uniforms, we thought it was a military convoy. It was, instead, the annual Easter pilgrimage undertaken by millions of Zion Christian Church (ZCC) members to Limpopo province, a spectacle I regret never having witnessed. Our domestic would regale us with colorful stories upon her return from her Easter outing each year, tales of sleeping in the mud – no tents allowed – for four nights and sustained only by more or less nonstop singing.
There are a lot of devout people in South Africa. But they don’t have a lot of churches.
When I drive around Middle Tennessee, I can’t help but think how awed my domestic would have been at the sight of these huge and well-built churches, each grander than the last. And at the thought of how much wealth they represent.
And how much power.
For a country that established the separation of church and state at its birth, so to speak, daily life in the United States nevertheless rarely seems to stray far from the Christian church.
When I was researching shower door installers the other day (yes – the glamorous life of the repat wife!), I came across one that advised, prominently, on its website: “A Christian Owned Business.”
I was wondering what that meant. Would I get particularly Christian (i.e. low) prices? Or would the employees be treated in a particularly Christian manner with good salaries and benefits (meaning my prices would probably be rather high)? Or would the installer come to my house not only with tools and the shower doors but also a bible to be pressed into my palm along with the bill?
Because that is in fact what happened when we advertised some old cabinets on Craigslist. We scored fifty bucks and The (New, Illustrated) Great, Controversy, a book that fills me with unease and will probably have the unlikely fate of languishing on our bookshelf forever, unread.
In reality I’m sure the Christian Business thing was just another marketing ploy, in a nifty way capturing both your true believers as well as those of us who might not want to see ourselves as particularly un-Christian. In a churchgoing state like Tennessee, you can attract a lot of customers by proclaiming yourself a Christian, I’m sure of it.
But that is precisely what bugs me (and no, I did not choose that installer).
Just imagine, for a moment, how the tagline “A Muslim Owned Business” would work out for anyone brave enough to put that on their banner. Not all that well, I imagine, all professed religious tolerance aside. Or, worse perhaps, “Atheist Owned.”
You can be anything in this country, but you’ll have to be Christian if you want to be it proudly.
I suspect on some level it’s not even a matter of religion. It might just as well have to do with our love of easy labels. Americans love labels. Preferably sanitized ones. It used to be embarrassing to have a difficult child, or a naughty one. Thank goodness we can now just call them ADHD and wash our hands of any responsibility we might have felt a tingling of in the days when bad behavior was at least partially a reflection of parenting style. But I digress – America’s willingness to drug its children into conformity to pursue a world driven by standardized testing is a topic for another day.
What I mean to say is that calling themselves “Christian” allows people to think themselves as part of this wholesome group with all sorts of feel-good attributes, without having to wonder too much about what it actually means.
In all truth, I’d love to claim a simple label like that.
Calling myself a “Respect for others and nature, golden-rule driven, don’t think I have all the answers and always curious about other people’s beliefs, suspicious of all religious dogma but love some rituals nonetheless, a heavy dose of doubt about the so-called word of god, all with a sprinkling of Buddhism” person just won’t do.
I wish “Christian” could encompass all this, but it doesn’t. Not in Middle Tennessee.
By the way, my shower doors turned out just fine, un-Christianly as they are.