Buffet Believers, Therapeutic Pluralism, and Theological Hybrids

By Kathryn Lofton

Americans have always been obsessively pastiche, tossing together a Mason's cap with Anglican marital liturgy, rosaries with hummed gospel tunes in single buffet-believer selves. But an CNN.com article posted October 31 about Scientology in lower-income African American churches reminds us that no accounts, even the most spectacular (Bellah 1985; Butler 1992; Schmidt 2005), can do justice to the absurd reconciliations that must take place:

I could pull many quotations from this piece, but I think I'll linger, momentarily on Kennedy's response when asked whether Scientology's values contradict the religion of Jesus Christ: "Sometimes yes. Sometimes no." The ease of religious assemblage is so graceful as to be possibly disturbing. Kennedy explains that his parishioners "relate" to Hubbard's /The Way to Happiness: A Common Sense Guide to Better Living/ (1981), a descriptive guide to the Church of Scientology's 21 keystone precepts. Alongside the expected "do not murder" and "honor and help your parents" there are the more Scientology-ish "safeguard and improve your environment," "fulfill your obligations," "be industrious," and (in a Gene Roddenberry tribute) "flourish and prosper." The limited scholarship on Scientology has offered one consistent sociological conclusion: it is the way to manna.

Reconciling therapeutic pluralism is so automatic as to be axiomatic among contemporary believers. Far be it from this blogger to command anything less than such play and combination (who wouldn't want, in age of the perfectly moral Prius, to be a "theological hybrid"?). Yet at the level of the academic, it does seem to vex our theoretical mechanisms. How do we explain religious practices or religious commitment in a nation so thrilled by the possibility of the combination platter? If religion is, in part, premised on exclusivity (I am /this/ because I am not /that/), can we properly call Kennedy's parishioners AME or Pentecostal anymore? What will be our new language (in phone surveys by Pew, in monographs by graduate students, in essays published by the /New York Times Magazine/) to profile religious free agency? This is hardly a new question, but it is interesting in an age of spectacular coverage of fundamentalists and new atheists we miss, constantly, the rarity of such pure subjects. I sit in mourning, today, for denominational clarity. It really made our work much easier (sometimes yes, sometimes no).