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Weighty matter: Is religion making us fat? September 20, 2006

Posted by peterong in Uncategorized.

Hmmm….one of the things about Asian American churches is the food…either the pot-lucks with plenty of roast duck (I don’t even want to talk about Korean Churches where they deck the basement with wall to wall food and garbage cans that are larger than most Chinese sanctuaries)…I guess that is part of what is happening here…we are getting fat and this is like the admonishment by Paul…have we become a culture of decadence in the midst of so much poverty?
By Cathleen Falsani

Chicago Sun-Times

Back in the decadent early 1980s, New Wave rocker Adam Ant mocked clean living in his maddeningly catchy song, “Goody Two Shoes.”

“Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do ya do?” Ant taunted.

A new Purdue University study may hold the answer to Ant’s question.

If they don’t drink and don’t smoke, what do they do?

Eat, apparently.

“America is becoming known as a nation of gluttony and obesity, and churches are a feeding ground for this problem,” says Ken Ferraro, a Purdue sociology professor who studied more than 2,500 adults over a span of eight years looking at the correlation between their religious behavior and their body mass index.

“If religious leaders and organizations neglect this issue, they will contribute to an epidemic that will cost the health-care system millions of dollars and reduce the quality of life for many parishioners,” he says.

Casserole as sacrament

Ferraro’s most recent study, published in the June issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, is a follow-up to a study he published in 1998, where he found there were more obese people in states with larger populations of folks claiming a religious affiliation than elsewhere — particularly in states with the most Baptists.

So it’s not surprising that Ferraro’s latest study found that about 27 percent of Baptists, including Southern Baptists, North American Baptists, and Fundamentalist Baptist, were obese.

Surely there are several contributing factors to such a phenomenon, but when Ferraro accounted for geography (southern cooking is generally more high-caloric), race and even whether overweight folks were attracted to churches for moral support, the statistics still seem to indicate that some churches dispense love handles as well as the love of the Lord.

Having attended a Southern Baptist church for most of my formative years, I was hardly shocked by Ferraro’s discoveries. From the coffee (and doughnuts) hour after Sunday-morning worship, to the huge potluck dinners and the Sunday-night ice-cream socials, there was always food around, and it was rarely the lo-cal variety. Ambrosia salad. Seventeen different kinds of chicken/broccoli/cheese casserole. Banana-and-Nilla-wafer-pudding. Fried chicken. Barbecue chicken. Sweet tea.

Those were the elements of our social sacraments at the Baptist church.

In religious traditions where drinking alcohol, smoking anything and even dancing are vices regularly preached against from the pulpit, overeating has become the “accepted vice,” Ferraro says.

Or, as Homer Simpson so eloquently put it on his way to a First Church of Springfield picnic: “If God didn’t want us to eat in church, he’d have made gluttony a sin.”

‘Overgrazing of the flock’

Food often is substituted for alcohol at Baptist and other conservative Protestant gatherings, Ferraro says. I once attended a wedding at a conservative Bible church where, instead of an open bar or champagne fountain, the bride and groom toasted their new beginning with a massive ice-cream sundae buffet.

I kid you not.

“Baptists may find food one of the few available sources of earthly pleasures,” Ferraro says.

Exhibit A: The Rev. Jerry Falwell, Baptist king of the Christian right. Falwell has been accused (rightly) of being many things.

Chubby, for instance.

He may not drink or smoke, or think lusty liberal thoughts, but it looks like the good reverend has never met a plate of cheese grits he didn’t love. And it may have cost him. Falwell, 73, was hospitalized last year for acute congestive heart failure. His hefty weight, doctors said at the time, wasn’t helping matters.

“Baptist and fundamentalist Protestant leaders may want to consider interventions for the ‘overgrazing of the flock,’ ” Ferraro says.

No Protestant dietary rules

While some megachurches have fitness facilities and long have offered exercise classes as well as Bible studies, in most congregations you’re still more likely to find a bake sale than a spinning class on any given Sunday.

Ferraro’s study also found that about 20 percent of “Fundamentalist Protestants,” (Church of Christ, Pentecostal, Assemblies of God and Church of God); about 18 percent of “Pietistic Protestants,” (Methodist, Christian Church and African Methodist Episcopal), and about 17 percent of Catholics were obese.

By contrast, about 1 percent of the Jewish population and less than 1 percent of other non-Christians, including Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others), were tipping the scales with commensurate gusto.

“In my mind, one of the distinctive things about Christianity, particularly American Protestant Christianity, is we don’t have any [dietary] behavior codes,” said Daniel Sack of Chicago, a historian and author of the 2000 book, Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture.

“Islam does, Judaism does, Catholicism does, but basically there’s nothing scriptural and in most [Protestant] traditions as long as you don’t drink, you’re fine. Particularly in that Baptist cohort, that’s the only real rule.”

This is true. Even on the Sundays when we celebrated the “Lord’s Supper,” i.e., communion, we had thimble-sized cups of Welch’s grape juice to go with our chunks of home-baked white bread. No Jesus juice allowed.

Often gathering around food

“Food plays an important social role in the life of a religious community, particularly in the Protestant tradition,” said Sack, an ordained United Church of Christ minister. “In Judaism and Catholicism, [religious celebrations] are largely family-oriented and so they’re home based. Typically Protestant food practices tend to be much more congregational.”

And that might have a lot to do with how most Protestant congregations are formed. Increasingly they’re not geographic. People will drive for miles to attend the church they like. Theologically speaking, this kind of community is called a “gathering congregation.”

“A gathering congregation has to gather around something, and it’s often around food,” Sack says.

Perhaps, as Ferraro suggests, more churches might want to consider turning the fellowship hall into a gym, putting down the Krispy Kremes, and gathering instead around a plate of crudite before taking a brisk walk with the pastor after church.

Because, ya know, blessed are the weight watchers.



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