Last Friday night, Atlanta area megachurch pastor Creflo Dollar Jr. was arrested on charges of simple battery and cruelty to children after he allegedly punched and choked his 15-year-old daughter for defiantly attending a party. Never mind that these charges are denied and there’s a dispute over witness accounts, can’t we just chalk this up as another entry in the chronicles of megachurch scandals?
I think we can learn a lot more about the present state of American Protestantism (and not just African-American Protestantism) if we focus on how different this episode is from past megachurch scandals. Far from an instance of moral failing, financial impropriety (though, for Dollar, there may be more to come on this), or general hypocrisy, the domestic disturbance on Friday night and his defiant response from the pulpit the following Sunday morning demonstrated to Dollar’s congregation how culturally fused he is with them.
As I argue in my forthcoming book, Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism, contemporary evangelical megachurches grow by whittling away not just the symbolic but also the geographic boundaries between the sacred and profane. R. Stephen Warner’s claim in his book, A Church of Our Own: Disestablishment and Diversity in American Religion, that “religious institutions flourish when they reflect, as well as engage, the cultures of the people who are their local constituents” has become a common way of understanding this. But what this actually means in a pluralistic, fragmented, and geographically diffuse environment is anything but clear.
That Dollar used his opening remarks last Sunday not only to provide a defense for his actions but to also relate the episode to his congregants’ daily life should come as no surprise. His message was not theological, it was practical: the challenges in one’s life contain within them the resources for their overcoming. Dollar deftly maneuvered from scandal control to his performative bread-and-butter: transforming religious language and narrative elements into practical advice for daily action.
The case study of my book is Rick Warren’s megachurch, Saddleback Valley Community Church in Orange County, California. Although there are vast differences between Warren’s and Dollar’s churches, they share some key similarities: post-suburban location, broad evangelical orientation, and strong commitment to growth. And it is these similarities that lead these churches to be, in effect, workshops for dealing with the variegated demands of life in a deracinated, individualized, fragmented, and center-less landscape.
The institutional structure and cultural performances of these workshops do not center around spiritual problems of salvation, sin, and grace, but rather around the mundane but difficult problems of unsatisfying work, financial debt, family conflict, and, yes, parenting. Dollar’s domestic disturbance was, in this light, tailor-made for his megachurch constituency. In the process of telling his congregation last Sunday that he is innocent of all charges, he related the event to “raising children in a culture of disrespect.” He told a packed house that he, just like they, will continue to “guide and love” and “teach and train” their children to make “right choices.”
From this, we see that his message was not only a personal defense of strict but loving parenting, but also a collective defense. He told his 30,000 members that, in a Christian family, you can be “certain” of one thing: “we win.”
Justin Wilford is author of Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism, forthcoming in November 2012 from NYU Press.