Greg Critser, Fat Land.
Houghton Mifflin, 2003
For the leaders of many American congregations, the challenge of the era was competing with the permissiveness rising in secular America. That meant “a little bit o’ sugar,” as one pastor recalls. Along with literalist, moral preaching about things like homosexuality and abortion would come a new tolerance for “the little sins.” (Later on, when many of the new leaders had had their own personal failings televised widely, this doctrine became self-protective as well.) New seminarians were thus told that “holding the flock together” meant accentuating similarities. The same thing was taking place within more liberal circles.
At places like fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, the student bookstore carried more titles about self-acceptance than it did about traditional moral failings. (Asked where a book about gluttony or sloth might be shelved, a visitor was told: “Where else? In self-help.”) The end result of this reorientation, as Marie Griffith says, was that “the American church became like therapy. It was suddenly all about love and tolerance and acceptance, not about individual discipline.’
There is, of course, a societal cost to religion’s abandonment of the little sins. Religion, like belts or modest meal portions or argumentative family dinners, is a maker of boundaries. Religious beliefs generate the development of moral communities, which, in turn, serve to guide and constrain the action of individuals. As the sociologist Emile Durkheim observed early in the twentieth century, without a religion’s “system of interdicts,” a society will flounder. (Toynbee agreed, albeit in a secular manner, by noting that the disintegration of a civilization is always marked by a “surrender to a sense of promiscuity.”) The relevant point here is clear. If, as Durkheim concluded, God and society “are only one,” can there ever be a little sin, at least where religion is concerned?
By the ‘90s, with such purely theological considerations, aside, scholars who studied the sociology of religion began t notice a growing trend: Not only did religion no longer address overconsumption, it seemed somehow implicated in just the opposite—in aiding and abetting overeating. In a 1998 study looking at 3500 U.S. adults, the Purdue university sociologist Kenneth F. Ferraro sought to find out the answer to two interrelated questions: One, was religion related to body weight, especially obesity, and two. did religion intensify, mitigate, or counterbalance the effects of body weight o well-being? to the first, the answer was qualified: Obesity was highest in states where religious affiliation was highest, but the specific differences in body weight between groups were more likely explained by differences in class, ethnicity, and marital status. Of all the religious groups surveyed, Southern Baptists were heaviest, followed by Fundamentalist and Pietistic Protestants. Catholics fell at the middle of the list, while the lowest average body weight was found among Jews and non-christians. Surveying attitudes within those groups, Ferraro concluded that obesity was associated with higher levels of religiosity. If one calculated in the fact that many of these believers were also of low socioeconomic status, on could almost conclude that eating and religion had become a unified coping strategy. “Consolation and comfort from religion and from eating,” Ferraro wrote, “may be a couple of the few pleasures accessible to populations which are economically and politically deprived.”
To the second question—did modern religion act to inhibit gluttony or obesity—the answer was more surprising. It didn’t. Instead, the church has become a nest of unqualified social acceptance. As Ferraro wrote” There is no evidence of religion operating as a moral constraint on obesity.” Instead, Ferraro went on, “higher religious practice was more common among overweight persons, perhaps reflecting religion’s emphasis upon tolerating human weakness and its emphasis upon other forms of deviancy such as alcoholism, smoking and sexual promiscuity.”
Ferraro warned that it wasn’t that religion indirectly promoted higher body weight. Rather, most pastors simply saw obesity and overeating as too risky a subject. “They feel they would risk alienating the flock—at least at this point,” say Ferraro. “In that sense we are in a stage with obesity like we were with smoking in the 1950s and 1960s.”
And so when it came to overeating, gluttony, and obesity, Christians, like everyone else in America, were in deep, deep denial. As Jerry Falwell said when he heard about Ferraro’s findings, “I know gluttony is a bad thing. But I don’t know many gluttons.”