The restaurant was buzzing with a smart after-work crowd. The professional looking women on the next table settled their bills. Then they held hands, bowed their heads, and said a prayer before heading home.
I’ve often seen prayer before breakfast in diners. But I’d never before seen public prayer in a fancy evening spot. The last time I’d been so surprised was when a waitress in a café learned someone in our party was going on a flight. She launched into a long, improvised prayer, asking God to keep him safe. Our friend Edgar tells how a group of evangelists hopped onto to his train. One delivered a sermon, then another then sang Amazing Grace, in a beautiful soprano voice, loudly. And all this happened in California, one of the US’s less religious states
Most of my friends and acquaintances in the UK only go to church for weddings, funerals, christenings, and, occasionally, gently inebriated, for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. I don’t assume my circle here are the same, although it’s the way to bet – most are Democrats, who go to church less than Republicans.
The US is an anomaly, a highly developed nation that, like undeveloped ones, clings to religion, in this case predominantly Christianity. It’s home to more Christians than any other country. Christianity is in America’s blood. Religious extremists founded the country. Then waves of other immigrants used their own churches as a life raft to navigate a scary landscape. And don’t forget the immigrants who did not come voluntarily – the slaves. They found succour in Christianity, which was also used to control them.
And while the US is a rich nation, its welfare safety net is full of holes. There are many dirt-poor people and many fearing poverty. Churches give the vulnerable comfort and sometimes the financial support the state denies. In this land of choice, if you don’t like the religion you were born into you can always find another. A third of people have switched religions. I know a Baptist who flirted with Judaism and now is Greek Orthodox. And, of course, converts are enthusiasts.
There is creeping secularisation. Younger generations are moving away from mainstream Protestantism and Catholicism. Even Evangelicalism may be waning. But while Christianity is shrinking, many Christians are proclaiming their faith more loudly, often along with their politics.
Black leaders have always used pulpits as soapboxes – once it was the only safe place they could speak. But in last three decades evangelical megachurches, whose charismatic pastors often preach political right-wing rhetoric, have grown explosively. In the smallest, 2,000 or more worshippers a week sit in pews resembling stadium seats. The biggest megachurches pull in nearly 50,000 a week; that’s not a typo! With such support, megapastors have handsome salaries – tithing is big here. They write books and go on television.
Megapastors frequently flout the law against tax-exempt institutions such as churches endorsing or denouncing individual candidates. They say the freedom of speech conferred by the First Amendment gives them the right to campaign. One, Kenneth Copeland, declared that Ted Cruz is “anointed by God” to be the next president. Megachurches are social environments, with food courts, cafés, bookstores, theatres, singles clubs, and even car repair shops, where preachings are reinforced.
You would have a hard time finding a Republican at our nearest megachurch, the Pentecostal and largely black West Angeles Church of God in Christ. It’s called the “church to the stars” because of links with celebrities such as Denzel Washington, Stevie Wonder and Magic Johnson, and it has a Grammy-winning choir. Its 5,000-seat steel, granite and stained-glass cathedral arose on land once home to boarded-up buildings. The showbiz funeral of Natalie Cole, Nat King Cole’s daughter, was held here in January.
While I relish thoughtful theological debate, I avoid contact with the unquestioning certainty of fundamentalism – I get too angry. But I was caught out last year.
When I have ants in my pants or feel down, I often prescribe myself a cinema trip – watching the big screen takes me out of myself. Usually any movie will do, as long as it’s not too violent. Hating even mild spoilers, I avoid reading reviews until after seeing a movie. I want to see the whole plot unfold, and I don’t want my verdict clouded by someone else’s opinions. So when I settled down in my seat at our local mainstream cinema, all I knew was that I was about to see a disaster movie with Nicolas Cage playing a jumbo-jet pilot.
From the start, I thought the music a bit fluffy. The presence of characters who had found Jesus made me think the plot might involve attacks by religious zealots. Then people began disappearing, leaving behind the clothes they were wearing and their possessions. Was I in for a sci-fi movie? Slowly the penny dropped. I was watching a faith-based movie about the Rapture. This is when, according to some fundamentalists, believers will be whisked into heaven in the twinkling of an eye, leaving unbelievers among the terrors of an increasingly hostile end of time world: Armageddon. Believers in the Rapture sometimes welcome the escalation of turmoil in the Middle East, thinking it’s a sign the Rapture is near. A few don’t see the point of sending their children to school because they will soon be “with Jesus”.
Faith-based movies are no longer cheap and cheesy. Seeing dollar signs, Hollywood has moved into a gap in the market with known actors and quality productions. It’s a varied genre with biblical epics, gritty family dramas, stories about the meaning of life, and apocalyptic thrillers like the one I saw, called, I discovered later, Left Behind. Congregations are going en masse to cinemas to see these movies, and churches are buying the dvds to show and show again.
I bet you’re asking yourself, “Did she walk out of that movie?” Of course not. I’m a journalist. I wanted to see how it ended. But I am not going to spoil it by telling.
By Lynne Bateson, US Correspondent
As a child growing up in a Yorkshire village, journalist Lynne Bateson rarely went to the city of Leeds just a few miles away, but she dreamed of living in the US. She made it. Here she recounts her adventures, taking a down-to-earth look at life Stateside.