Religion in each country has national characteristics. In Europe and Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, Catholicism and Islam are part of a long past, and to practise these faiths in those countries is to belong to a venerable tradition. In the USA on the other hand, influences have been those of the European Dissenters; an ecstatic tradition bought from traditional African tribal faiths; and, somewhat oddly, aggressive business techniques to advertise and promote the faith and to prosper commercially. It’s a unique mix.
5 Political influence
Politicians will always attempt to appeal to the majority, which means Protestant Christians. Evangelicals or non Christians will not influence government as they are unlikely to control executive, legislative and Congress at any one time, and even if they did, could never agree on doctrine long enough to make religious changes to government.
Current issues in which the churches are vocal, such as homosexuality, abortion and the environment, are all social issues, not doctrinal religious ones, despite what church leaders have to say on these matters. What the faithful are asking for is a clear moral stand on a confusing social issue and it may not be possible to take one. The Catholic church in particular, in speaking out against homosexuality, has been embarrassed by the thousands of child abuse claims against priests before the courts (over 4,000 allegations and $3 billion in compensation). The advocacy of both environmental issues and a stand against abortion (over-population causes more environmental damage by far than anything else) is a sign the churches have no coherent policy, and reflects rather the views of both liberal and intolerant sectors from within the same organisations.
Recent polls indicate sizeable minorities now want religious leaders to take a stand on political issues and even endorse a political party, not reflecting that religious involvement has led to discrimination towards sectors of the community in the past. There seems little awareness that discrimination and violence are still the lot of many African Americans despite legislation more than 50 years old.
Martin Luther King jnr
A pioneer in intervention in political matters by a religious figure was Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jnr, who worked to address civil rights inequality for black Americans from 1955 until his murder in 1968 in Memphis Tennessee. King was influenced by the example of Billy Graham, and has probably influenced as many people as he, by his ministry, his oratory and by his death (possibly instigated by J Edgar Hoover and the FBI some think). Most Civil Rights legislation of the 60s was a direct result of King’s advocacy of a non violent protest movement which nevertheless aroused great controversy and many acts of violence.
Religion of USA Presidents
It’s probably not going to affect policy or legislation, but may indicate lobbying groups. And what if a fanatic went to the Oval Office with strong ideas on the nature of the Trinity?
- Obama United Church of Christ (Protestant)
- GW Bush Episcopalian (Protestant)
- Clinton Southern Baptist (Evangelical)
- GHW Bush Episcopalian (Protestant)
- Reagan Disciples of Christ (Protestant)
- Carter Southern Baptist (Evangelical)
- Ford Episcopalian (Protestant)
- Nixon Quaker
- Johnson Disciples of Christ (Protestant)
- Kennedy Roman Catholic
- Eisenhower Presbyterian (Protestant)
- Truman Northern Baptist (Protestant)
- Rooseveldt Episcopalian (Protestant)
- Hoover Quaker
It all starts with marketing. Without marketing you get no customers (worshippers). And the most successful are so called Protestant ‘megachurches’, churches with more than 2,000 people attending each week (reports Forbes magazine). In 2005, California led the nation with 178 of them, followed by 157 in Texas and 85 in Florida. The number of megachurches in the U.S. has leaped to more than 1,300 today–from just 50 in 1970. The average megachurch income was $6.5 million pa in 2007, over $8.5 billion a year for all of them. Featuring huge stages, rock bands, jumbotron screens, as well as the enormity of the facilities, pastor personalities and income––these churches are impressive forces flourishing at staggering rates. Here are the top 10.
1. Lakewood Church, Houston Texas, five miles from Second Baptist.
2. Second Baptist Church of Houston Texas
3. North Point Community Church, near Atlanta Georgia
4. Willow Creek Community Church, near Chicago Illinois
5. LifeChurch.tv, of Edmond, Oklahoma
6. West Angeles Church of God in Christ, Los Angeles California
7. Fellowship Church, of Grapevine, Texas
8. Saddleback Valley Community Church of Lake Forest, California
9. Calvary Chapel, of Ft. Lauderdale Florida
10. The Potter’s House, of Dallas Texas.
Marketing has made divine service entertaining. Earlier, in the 50s, again in California, home of religious marketing, marketing had produced the drive-in church, which obviated the need to leave the car to hear a sermon. The idea caught on. Not that different to the drive-in movies, which were big at the time.
7 Church assets and income
When it comes to church income the USA tax laws get in the way of finding any real information. The US Government holds that religion is a tax free activity, and religions have accordingly kept their assets and income private. Americans know as little about the financial position of their faiths as they do about their national security budget.
In estimating wealth, there are usually three components to consider.
One is assets. The churches own considerable property in real estate, and stock market holdings, which collectively could make them the wealthiest sector of the economy. Assessing the worth of church real-estate is impossible though. Firstly, the current market value is unknown. Most of the churches’ property has been held for many years, even centuries, and was originally donated when land was comparatively valueless. It’s current market worth would need to be offset by the replacement costs of the services the churches provide through these properties. These considerations are all intangibles difficult to place on a statement of income and expenditure.
Secondly is generated income. The churches have diversified into many businesses, from shopping malls to sports arenas, publishing in all its forms to record production. This is a taxable income and can be traced. The problem is finding out which church or faith owns the company, and whether the individual church does, or the religion as a collective whole. Income also includes contributions from the faithful, tithes and donations. All of this income can be used as investment capital, and much cannot be traced.
Against this must be set costs and liabilities, including wages, running repairs and operating costs, including advertising. Properties are typically used for health or education usage, and a value would need to first be put on that. Accountants cannot convert an intangible like faith into a cash amount, let alone, for example, the extra burden on the public health system now borne by churches. Here is some context.
“The world is 123 billion acres in size, of which 37 billion acres are land. The world’s primary feudal landowner is Queen Elizabeth II. She is legal owner of about 6.6 billion acres of land, one-sixth of the earth’s land surface. The largest individual landowner after the Queen is another monarch, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The Pope is understood to own all the land of the Catholic Church’s institutions, religious orders and dioceses as monarch, on much the same basis as the Queen owns her acres. The estimated total of land held by the Pope is around 177 million acres. [The Queen, the Pope and King Abdullah have constitutional restraints on how they can exercise such ownership, ‘feudal’ ownership]. At eight on the list of individual and family landowners are the farms and ranches of the Kidmans in Australia, to whom the actress Nicole Kidman is related. Theirs is the largest private, non-monarchical, non-state landholding on earth. The first American on the list, Ted Turner, is at number 24 [with over 2 million acres]”. (New Statesman 17 March 2011).
The important thing about this is not property value, property which in any case is assigned to a plethora of ‘holding’ companies. It is the negotiation power these property owners have, and the vast sums they can realise to increase their wealth by stock market manipulation, currency exchange or discounted loans. And spare a thought for the political influence they must exert over financially weaker companies and conglomerates.
I wonder if any church leader could raise, say, a trillion dollars, by selling or mortgaging assets, selling stocks, calling for donations and putting pressure on governments and banks for financial support? Might pay the national debt of a South American country perhaps, enabling that country to divert funds from the World Bank and foreign governments to solving large scale poverty and food shortages.
Actual income and assets of the Catholic church in America are unknown. The estimate of spending in 2012 was $170 billion. By comparison, Apple Computer’s revenue was $150 billion in 2012, said the Economist August 2012. Catholic institutions employ over one million people. There are now over 6,800 Catholic schools (5% of the national total); 630 hospitals (11%) plus a similar number of smaller health facilities; and 244 colleges and universities.
The Boston Archdiocese of the Catholic church paid $100 million for sex abuse settlements. According to a report in The Boston Herald last August, it has about $160 million worth of income-producing commercial real estate, and total property worth between $1.3 billion and $1.4 billion. As of 2001 the diocese boasted over two million members. Each household puts an average $438 every year into the collection plate, which could generate hundreds of millions a year in total donations.
LDS (Church of Latter Day Saints) owns about $35 billion worth of temples and meeting houses around the world, and controls farms, ranches, shopping malls and other commercial ventures worth many billions more.
A 2007 report claimed donations to all churches in America totalled $103.32 billion that year.
Half of this sum comes from the practice of tithing, giving an amount supposed to equal 10% of income to the church. The leading “tithing” sects according to an article in Christian Ministry are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, the World Wide Church of God and the Assemblies of God. In total, about 10 million tithers in the United States donate about $50 billion annually to the churches and other non-profit causes.
The Catholic church collected $13 billion in 2012 in offertory collections said the Economist.
The Church of LDS collects $7 billion pa in tithes and donations said Cragun and Reuters.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS or Mormon Church) gave about $1 billion to charitable causes between 1985 and 2008, only about 0.7 percent of its annual income. The United Methodist Church allocated about 29 percent of its revenues to charitable causes in 2010 (about $62 million of $214 million received). Wal-Mart, for instance, gives about $1.75 billion in food aid to charities each year, or twenty-eight times all of the money allotted for charity by the United Methodist Church and almost double what the LDS Church has given in the last twenty-five years”. (nowscape.com)
These scanty search results show both the churches’ hidden accounting, and reveal the fact that that accounting may not be too expert. As each church in most denominations is an independent business, some are wealthy, some near bankruptcy. There seems little notion of one church helping another. The knowledge of doing good with the money raised has excused some wasteful spending.
There is much more to any evaluation of the churches’ activities of course. The effect of faith, and belonging to a faithful community; the use (and misuse) of inspired writings etc.
America, which shows the world one of the most racially unjust societies on earth, one with the biggest difference between rich and poor, the most technically advanced, yet in many ways the most superficial, reveals all these characteristics in its religious practices. Yet still, shows itself the most religious society on earth.
8 My point of view
Writing about other people’s faiths made me consider my own. I went from a devout Catholic to a kind of deist, but now I think very little about religion, trying instead to feel it. I cultivate an attitude rather than subscribe to a set of beliefs, which last seems to me unnecessary.
There seems no need for a book, written, published and translated by human beings, of which, despite being declared the exact word of god, churches cannot agree on an interpretation; when all around us we have the creation to teach us what we need to know.
To accuse other people of being sinful was a practice condemned by Jesus, who likened people who condemned others to “whitened sepulchres”, good on the outside, corrupt inside. Dealing with one’s sins is a personal matter and sometimes takes a while.
To squabble and divide over definitions of the Trinity, or the nature of god, which no human being can understand, seems pointless, and has only served to keep the population down, like the war between the little enders and the big enders in Swift.
To gather in churches, essentially a social act, seems unnecessary as a religious act. To ask anyone else to make moral distinctions for us, no matter how wise they be, seems mainly laziness. To ask others to see for us results in us getting lost.
What we know about the great teachers associated with any religion is that no one has ever taken the slightest notice of their message, being too busy formulating their own ideas of how the great teacher can be revered and inventing heresy in the process.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.