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Big Time Evangelical Religion: Consumerist Individualism

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Ask yourself: what will happen to his church when Rick Warren dies, leaves or is thrown out? Will it remain as successful? Are people there for each other and their community? Are they there for Jesus? Or are they there for Rick Warren?

The North American evangelical/fundamentalist brand of Christianity is the religious version of the American civil religion: consumerist individualism. The consumer picks a pastor based on where the action seems to be: "Wow, you aught to hear our pastor!" Such "churches" are often founded by a man or woman who started them the way other men and women start a restaurant or a movie company. In Warren's case he's pastor of a church called Saddleback but it's more properly known as "Rick Warren's church," just as the Crystal Cathedral came to be known as "Robert Schuller's church" etc.

Warren isn't the first hero-author to capture the imagination of the consumers of American religion. Before Warren there were many other celebrity leaders, including authors C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham and my late father (Francis Schaeffer) to name a few of countless stars.

Since in the Protestant world the word "Christian" can mean anything, Protestants need to hang on to some sort of distinctiveness. One person might be a "C.S. Lewis-type Christian," another might describe themselves as a "Francis Schaeffer-type," and so forth. And given American's love of material success, there are plenty of people who look at Rick Warren's 50,000 member strong church, and say "Hey, now that's what I call a church! I'm a Rick Warren type-Christian!"

Today the American evangelical/fundamentalist consumer of religion is even more prone to the truism that nothing succeeds like success. Talk about unregulated banks and hedge funds, the biggest unregulated American market is big time religion. It's success isn't measured in spiritual gain that changes anything for the better. Big time as religion is in the USA, compared to highly secular Europe, nevertheless America's teen sex statistics, abortion rates, spread of STDs, divorce and child rape rates are higher than those in non-church-going Europe. So the "success" of Warren's-type of born again entrepreneurship is a failure when measured against actual results in regard to what used to be called the fruits of the spirit.

Evangelical/fundamentalist leaders don't see it that way. Their faith entertains. It makes money. It nurtures a celebrity culture all of its own with its own TV stations, radio stations, book publishers author tours, rock concerts, schools, colleges, etc. What's not to love? It is no coincidence that other entrepreneurs who aren't believers, have gotten in on the act. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch now owns the largest "Christian" publishing company, having bought out and then folded it into his stable of publishing giants, one of which publishes -- Rick Warren.

The evangelical/fundamentalist religion is no different in its core "values" than the celebrity-worshiping, entertainment-oriented society it claims to be a prophetic witness to. Star power is seductive.

Pastors aren't pastors in the evangelical/fundamentalist culture any more than evangelical/fundamentalist "writers" are writers or intellectuals are actual intellectuals. How can an intellectual already have made up his or her mind about what the truth is? Rather "pastors" are the inventors of their own product line sold as religion, offering themselves as just another consumer choice to a culture that picks ministers the way they pick sweaters.

Empire builders are empire builders, and entertainers are entertainers, regardless of what they call themselves. Mea culpa! I only understood the reality of the symbiotic relationship between our consumer/entertainment culture and the star religious empire builders, after I quit being one myself.

Judging by the many emails I'm getting from pastors who have read my novels Portofino and Zermatt which are humorous stories about a preacher's family, seen from the inside by a preacher's kid, it seems that many a preacher is in the position of Groucho Marx. Groucho said he'd never want to belong to a club that would let someone like him join. The doubt and self-loathing expressed to me by so many pastors is amazing. Of course they all beg me never to tell anyone what they are telling me.

I can't prove this but I think that any person who remains a "professional Christian" in the evangelical/fundamentalist world for a lifetime, especially pastors, risks becoming atheists and/or liars. They put on an act of certainty. Sooner or later they become flakes faking it, or quit. Worse yet, some just stop asking questions.

The very fact that a preacher can fool others when he or she has so many doubts makes the self-appointed mediator of faith the deepest cynic of all if, that is, he or she doesn't embrace paradox. If you have to be correct all the time, while knowing that you are wrong most of the time, you become an actor. Been there, done that.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer. He is author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and also author of the forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism).