Bumper sticker theology at Thanksgiving

BumperStickerCarSome of you out there on the religion beat may remember the name Christian Smith. He is the sociologist who taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who, among some scribes, is best known for writing an infamous Books & Culture essay, "Religiously Ignorant Journalists." It opens like this:

Today I received a phone message from a journalist from a major Dallas newspaper who wanted to talk to me about a story he was writing about "Episcopals," about how the controversy over the 2003 General Convention's approval of the homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, would affect "Episcopals." What an embarrassment. How do I break the news to him that there are no "Episcopals"? Actually, they are called Episcopalians. Of greater concern, I wonder how this journalist is going to write an informed and informing story in a few days about such an important and complex matter when he doesn't even know enough in starting to call his subjects by their right name.

What I have learned, however, over the years, is that this journalist is not alone in his ignorance. As a scholar of American religion promoted to journalists by my university's PR department as an alleged expert, I constantly receive inquiries from reporters wanting background, quotes, and contacts for religion stories they are writing. Usually they have one or two days to complete the story. As often as not, the journalist mispronounces the name of the religious group he or she is covering.

So, remember him? Well, he has moved on to a new post at the University of Notre Dame, serving as director of the Center for the Study of Religion & Society. It sounds like he may have his fingers into even more interesting data and news in the future.

I ran into Smith a few weeks ago at his alma mater, Gordon College, where my daughter is a student. He gave an interesting and somewhat offbeat chapel talk that I recorded and filed away to serve as a hook for a Thanksgiving weekend column.

It's linked to a major news story that is taking place right now in almost every church in the USA. What's that? Does the phrase "pledge card" meaning anything to you?

So here is how that column for Scripps Howard New Service begins. I hope it offers some food for thought this weekend, as many of us head deeper into Nativity Lent (or Advent in the West):

It was the kind of cryptic theological statement that is often found stuck on automobile bumpers.

This sticker said: "Don't let my car fool you. My treasure is in heaven." This echoed the Bible passage in which Jesus urged believers to, "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. ... For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

This sticker's creator probably intended it to be displayed on the battered bumper of a maintenance-challenged car, noted sociologist Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. Thus, the sticker suggests that the driver knows his car is a wreck, but that he has "other commitments and priorities" that matter more.

But Smith was puzzled when he saw this sticker on a $42,000 SUV parked at a bank.

"Let's be clear. I have no problem with abundance. I have no problem with capitalism," he said. ... "The person driving this car may give away 40 percent of their income. I have no idea. I'm not trying to nail people who drive SUVs or whatever.

"But it seems to me that the meaning of this bumper sticker has changed from what I thought was the original meaning to, 'Well, Jesus didn't quite get it right, because I have a lot here and I also have it in heaven, too. So I have all the bases covered.'"

After years of digging in the data, Smith has reached some sobering conclusions about believers and their checkbooks. It's true that Americans give away lots of money, in comparison with people in other modern societies. It's also true that religious Americans are much more generous than non-religious Americans. But here's the bottom line: The top 10 percent of America's givers are very generous, while 80 percent or more rarely, if ever, make charitable donations of any kind.

A story? Well, as the old saying goes, "Follow the money."

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