Hot Dogs

Malcolm Bull

  • Mine eyes have seen the glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America by Randall Balmer
    Oxford, 246 pp, $19.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 19 505117 3
  • In God’s Country: Travels in the Bible Belt, USA by Douglas Kennedy
    Unwin Hyman, 240 pp, £12.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 04 440423 9
  • The Divine Supermarket by Malise Ruthven
    Chatto, 336 pp, £14.95, August 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3151 9
  • The Democratisation of American Christianity by Nathan Hatch
    Yale, 312 pp, £22.50, November 1989, ISBN 0 300 44470 2
  • Religion and 20th-Century American Intellectual Life edited by Michael Lacey
    Cambridge/Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars, 214 pp, £27.50, November 1989, ISBN 0 521 37560 6
  • New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America by Mary Farrell Bednarowski
    Indiana, 175 pp, $25.00, November 1989, ISBN 0 253 31137 3

In recent years, nothing has done more to reinforce the European sense of cultural superiority than the sight of America’s televangelists. Easily stereotyped as politically reactionary, sexually hypocritical, intellectually retarded and financially dishonest, the televangelists confirmed every prejudice about American society. That such men should be allowed, not only to appear on television, but to run for the Presidency of the United States, is taken as proof of the immaturity of the nation’s social institutions and the inherent gullibility of its people. Whatever the weaknesses of European civilisation, it has been possible to take comfort in its relative secularity; Europe, at least until the Rushdie affair, seemed immune during the worldwide resurgence of fundamentalism – the one place where religious fanatics remained at the margins of public life.

And yet America is everything that Europe hopes to become: a united continent with a secular constitution where ethnic and religious differences are not permitted to impede the pursuit of material prosperity. It was the Erastian nation-state that quelled religious enthusiasm in Europe. If national identities grow weaker, religious identities may harden and long-forgotten disputes re-ignite. Evangelical religion thrives on population mobility and social change: the frontierless European Community and the newly-liberated countries of Eastern Europe may both prove receptive to fundamentalist Christianity, and (if the recent Soviet invitation to televangelist Robert Schuller is anything to go by) the satellite channels of a united Europe may one day broadcast the gospel of individual salvation which its inhabitants have long thought fit only for their American cousins.

It is worth remembering that the social evolution of Europe may be towards, rather than away from, the social conditions which have nurtured American Christianity, for it is tempting to explore the topic with the bemused condescension once reserved for the exotic customs of other races. Take the announcement (recorded by Randall Balmer on his visit to Calvary Chapel in Santa Ana, California) that ‘we’ll play volleyball, eat some hot dogs, and then baptise anyone who wants to identify with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.’ How can this elicit anything but a wry smile: how can such a combination of the inconsequential and the theological be of serious social importance? Both Randall Balmer, a professor of history at Columbia, and Douglas Kennedy, an American writer resident in London, confronted this question on numerous occasions in their travels through the evangelical sub-culture of America. Their narratives abound with the exploits of Christian stunt women, Christian tee-shirt salesmen, Christian heavy metallists, Christian weight-watchers and Christian bikers – people whose lives affirm that consumer preferences can become the channels of divine grace. Of the two authors, Kennedy has the sharper eye for the ironies of free-market religion, for cases like that of the Manhattan life-insurance saleswoman who sent donations to Oral Roberts, a preacher who raised millions of dollars by proclaiming that God would ‘call him home’ if he did not receive the money. Balmer, who hopes to explain as well as entertain, sometimes plays down the strangeness of his subjects by emphasising the historical continuities: the success of ‘secret rapture’ films is said to ‘illustrate’ the influence of dispensationalist millenialism, and Phoenix faith healer Neil Frisby is described as ‘not terribly exceptional’ in the context of earlier religious healers and health reformers.

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