Tag Archives: food and drink

Stephen Prothero on Indiana’s RFRA

There’s been some discussion on my Facebook wall about this USA Today editorial by American religious historian Stephen Prothero in support of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I haven’t been able to pin it down yet, but something strikes me as “off” about this particular analogy Prothero makes:

We would not force a Jewish baker to make sacramental bread for a Catholic Mass. Why would we force a fundamentalist baker to make a cake for a gay wedding?

And then there’s definitely a longer conversation to be had about why Prothero is willing to let a fundamentalist baker refuse to bake a cake for a lesbian couple, but would not let a fundamentalist restaurant owner refuse to serve those same lesbians a meal:

There is no excuse for refusing to serve a lesbian couple at a restaurant and to my knowledge no state RFRA has ever been used to justify such discrimination. But if we favor liberty for all Americans (and not just for those who agree with us), we should be wary of using the coercive powers of government to compel our fellow citizens to participate in rites that violate their religious beliefs. We would not force a Jewish baker to make sacramental bread for a Catholic Mass. Why would we force a fundamentalist baker to make a cake for a gay wedding?

I understand the logic of the distinction Prothero wants to draw: The fundamentalist who has to bake the lesbians a wedding cake is being compelled to “participate” in a “rite,” whereas the fundamentalist who’s compelled to serve them dinner is not. But three questions about this distinction:

First, is baking a wedding cake participating in a rite? (I guess this is part, at least, of what feels “off” to me about the analogy to sacramental bread.)

Second, are we sure that serving the lesbians dinner is not participating in a rite? (What if they’re celebrating their wedding anniversary?)

Third, would this distinction hold up in court–ergo, is it even relevant?

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Booze and the Mainstreaming of American “Ethnic” Holidays

Walking into today’s session of my course on “Religions of the American Peoples,” I bellowed, “Mardi Gras! Woo-hoo!” in honor of the holiday. After students’ nervous we’d-better-humor-the-professor chuckles had subsided, I remarked, “So–is Mardi Gras an ‘American’ holiday?” That was an allusion to a thought exercise students wrote their first short paper on: Is Hanukkah an “American” holiday?

Suddenly, I had one of those brain flashes that can follow when I throw my inhibitions to the wind. Why do certain “ethnic” holidays–like Mardi Gras–become mainstreamed into more broadly “Americanized” holidays?

My brain-flash hypothesis: Booze.

Think about it. Mardi Gras. St Patrick’s. Cinco de Mayo. There’s a pattern there.

Bars as a driving force in the Americanization of minority cultures. Bars as a site of lived religion. There’s a course offering that would fill–especially if we did field work.

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Halal at Walmart

The student newspaper announced today that our local Walmart will now be selling halal meat, sparing Muslim students a two-hour round trip to the nearest provider in Cincinnati. Store management made the choice in response to a student petition. Our local Kroger (the major supermarket chain, for those in other parts of the country) and the Moon Co-op (which caters to the locally grown, organic crowd) have not responded to the petition, according to the article.

Read the story here: Walmart to sell halal meat option

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Ramadan etiquette?

I encountered an etiquette issue yesterday which for me, at least, was a first: Should you eat in front of someone who’s fasting during Ramadan?

The situation arose because I was at a luncheon being held as part of the Study of the U.S. Institutes, a State Department-sponsored program that brings foreign scholars to the US to learn, in this case, about religion in American society. I found myself seated next to two Muslim scholars. Because of the Ramadan fast, they weren’t partaking of the luncheon, but they were sitting with me because I was supposed to be fielding questions they had about American religion.

As soon as I realized that they weren’t eating, and why, I didn’t feel comfortable eating while we talked–so I just talked. Eventually a server started removing untouched salad plates. I told him to leave mine–I’d eat it later. At that point, my conversation partners urged me to go ahead and eat. So I took some bites of salad and drank a little bit, but I left the main plate alone when it arrived. The server brought it to me boxed, actually, unsolicited.

After a while, the Muslims in the group left to attend Friday prayers at a local masjid, at which point I ate my boxed-up meal while chatting with folks who had remained behind.

A different religion-and-food etiquette question that’s poked at me periodically for a few years: Was it wrong of me to order an entree with bacon when I was taken out to eat on the tab of a Jewish studies seminar I used to work for?

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Protestant Influence on the Contemporary American Diet Culture

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).

Protestant Influence on the Contemporary American Diet Culture
By Charles Getz

Have you ever wondered why so many Americans are obsessed with dieting? Even though the United States is the 2nd most obese nation on earth, many Americans spend a great deal of money on diets and health programs each year. Have you ever wondered why this phenomenon exists? Is it our culture? Our religions? Our fascination with celebrities? One could think of many possible reasons. If analyzed, the American interest in diet programs can be closely linked to the Protestant teachings that helped shape the ideals of our nation and its history.


Since European colonists traveled across the ocean in search of a better life in America during the Colonial Period, Protestants have been the dominant religious group. Of the first thirteen colonies, a total of nine had Protestant establishments. As a result of this prevalence, it can be argued that Protestant ideals have helped shape the values and norms in the United States today.

Beginning with the Constitution, principles such as freedom of the individual and the right to pick your own religion can be traced to Protestant teachings. The ideas of liquor laws, book clubs, and competition in sports are part of our culture which can all be linked back to Protestantism.

For many years Americans have been obsessed with their outward appearance and have attempted to perfect their bodies. This has resulted in countless dieting books, videos, and programs. Such a commitment to one’s body could not be any stronger than it is today. According to Marketdata Enterprises, Inc., there were 108 million dieters in America in 2012. Those dieters were expected to produce a weight loss market that reached $66 billion in 2013. Clearly, this proves Americans are dedicated, or at least hope to be, to having a fit and healthy body.

It can be argued that this idea of perfecting one’s body is a result of the heavy Protestant influence in America. They believe in maintaining a healthy body and soul to honor and worship their God. As a result, Protestants have gotten into the dieting industry and have created quite an impact. In her book Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity, R. Marie Griffith points out that the largest Protestant dieting program of all time written by Gwen Shamblin, The Weigh Down Diet has sold millions of copies and is available in seventy countries. Hundreds of thousands of Americans take part in diet programs like Shamblins today, and millions of American Christians have turned dieting into a religious duty. (1)

The remainder of this essay will consider such questions as: What about these diet programs makes them Protestant? Can they be closely linked to teachings in the Bible? Has Protestantism influenced dieting culture as a whole or has it created a separate one?

Dieting from the Beginning

Long before dieting was a fad in America, Protestants have been using scripture and prayer to shape their bodies. This form of dieting is known as devotional dieting and it involves the pursuit of “bodily fitness as a vehicle for developing close, satisfying relationships with a beloved whom they aim to please through obedient self-discipline.” (24) Griffith suggests that “What marks religious diet culture as devotional is the addition of expressive relationships with sacred figures such as God or Jesus, accompanied by the belief that the human body’s fitness affects such relationships in direct and indirect ways.” (24) For Protestants, the goal is to create this “satisfying relationship” with their God and savior.

One of the earliest ways Christians focused on their body to worship their Lord was through fasting. By abstaining from food, they attempted to prove their strong sense of discipline and focus on their relationship with their God. Early Protestants such as Martin Luther and John Calvin were two well known theologians in support of abstinence. Luther urged fasting “both to curb distracting physical desires and to take care of the body so that it might minister to others’ needs.” (24) Calvin was more of a strict supporter of fasting “as a necessary discipline for appeasing God’s wrath.” (24)

In America, early Christians reframed fasting as a way to shape their appetites as well as form a devotional relationship with their God. “From these practices emerged an array of historically influential and resonant modes for enacting spiritual control over bodily desire.” (25)

Dieting Culture Today (Protestant)          

Marie Griffith suggests the contemporary Christian diet culture we see today found its beginnings in the post WWII America. It was then that Christian dieters began to desire disciplined lives to obtain a relationship with their God and form a group of holy people pleasing to him, rather than focusing on individual pleasures.

At this time books like I Prayed Myself Slim by Deborah Pierce, a southern Episcopalian, and Pray Your Weight Away by Presbyterian minister Charlie Shedd gained great popularity in America. They key to these diet books, which can be noted in their titles, was prayer with God. (162)

Along with prayers, Pierce’s book included a month long diet program that held to a strict calorie count. Prayer was then used to fight off the urges of consuming more calories. These prayers, Griffith explains, were “set to liturgical cadences and meant to be repeated throughout the day for humility, recollection of gluttony as sinful, and strength to overcome it.”(162)

Shedd’s book spoke of fat as sin, encouraging readers to weigh themselves and declare each pound they were overweight as sin. If they could see the fat (or sin) they could take care of it with prayer and self discipline. He promised his readers weight loss through “sustained prayer, devotion to the Bible, and faith in thinness as a sign of sanctity.” (163)

It should be pointed out that these Protestant programs do fall in line with traditional Protestant teachings and can be backed by verses in the Bible. In Shirl James Hoffman’s book Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports it is pointed out that “The Bible speaks of the body as one of God’s highest creative acts that, in some inexplicable way, reflects the Creator’s image.” He goes on to write “the Bible also condemns harmful gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins (Proverbs 23:1-3), describes the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, and urges believers to glorify God in their bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).”

Another aspect of the Protestant diet programs which made them more popular was that the authors linked the Christian aspects to other secular diet programs of the time. While prayer was the key to success, secular activities of the day also played an important role. Important aspects of health such as exercise and healthy nutrition were included in the programs which made them even more attractive to the people attempting to lose weight.

One of the most popular Protestant diet programs of contemporary times is the Weigh Down Workshop created by Gwen Shamblin, a nutritionist and fundamentalist, in 1986. It is the largest devotional diet program ever and by 2000 it was offered in thirty thousand churches, seventy countries, and sixty different denominations. At first the diet program was secular until Shamblin made it explicitly Christian in 1990. (177)

Shamblin said she asked God for guidance and took the Weigh Down Workshop to churches. After publishing her first book, The Weigh Down Diet in 1997, Shamblin gained great popularity and success. Her book quickly reached sales into the millions and she was given great media attention from companies such as CNN and ABC.

Like previous Protestant diet programs, Shamblin taught the important of prayer in losing weight. What made her diet so different is that she did not believe there were good and bad foods. She only wanted people to eat less.

Dieting Culture Today (Mainstream/Secular)

It is no secret the dieting industry in the United States today is a very successful one. With 108 million dieters in 2012 and revenues approaching $66 billion for the year 2013, it is clear Americans hold quite an interest in their physical well being.

While most of the secular dieting programs do not explicitly suggest the use of religion in losing weight, many bring up the topic of spirituality. These programs teach the usefulness of meditation, mindful exercise, and the spirituality of food to their readers.

Griffith reports that prominent public figures “such as Oprah Winfrey and Norris Chumley enduringly preached the necessity of harnessing spiritual forces for the purpose of weight loss.” Also, books employing spirituality like “Think Yourself Thin: The Visualization Technique That Will Make You Lose Weight Without Diet or Exercise” by Debbie Johnson and Daily Word for Weight Loss: Spiritual Guidance to Give You Courage on Your Journey by Elaine Meyer have gained great popularity.

This method of using spirituality and the mind to lose weight can be connected to the Protestant diet programs which also teach in such ways. While it may be unfair to suggest that these programs have been created as a result of the Protestant programs, there are certainly points that suggest Protestant teachings have helped to shape them. In the future, it will be interesting to see whether the Protestant diet culture and the mainstream diet culture in the United States become more or less similar.

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Lucky Charms and fundamentalist Christians

luckycharmsA while back, my husband saw me eating a bowl of the generic Kroger-brand equivalent of Lucky Charms cereal. (When I indulge in my vices, I indulge cheaply.) Because my husband and I are nerds, talking about the cereal prompted one or the other of us to wonder if there are fundamentalist Christians who don’t want their children eating Lucky Charms for fear of promoting magic–like the fundamentalists who famously disapproved of Harry Potter.

I became genuinely–not cattily–curious about this. Is boycotting Lucky Charms, in fact, a symbolic boundary that some fundamentalist Christians have erected to distinguish themselves from mainstream American culture?

So I went to the Internet, source of all arcane knowledge, and Googled “lucky charms cereal bible.” I figured if there was a website out there citing biblical authority to urge parents  not to buy Lucky Charms for their children, those search terms would turn it up.

Well… It appears that a month ago there was some media flap, to which I was oblivious, about conservative Christians expressing dismay about a Lucky Charms ad released by General Mills in connection with gay pride. So most of my hits were about that. If you, too, missed out on this little cultural fireflash, you can get quickly up to speed over at Mediaite.

But digging through the hits further, I did turn up some curiosities:

* A December 2010 blog post by an evangelical who uses Lucky Charms cereal as a hook to explain why belief in luck is unbiblical:  “Lucky Charms! They’re magically delicious. . . . Do you believe in lucky charms? No, I am no longer talking about the cereal. . . .” He disapproves of lucky charms (lowercase), but if he extends that disapproval to the cereal, he doesn’t actually say so.

* A March 2011 blog post from “The Christian Nerd,” who complains that on St. Patrick’s Day, “everyone focuses on Lucky the leprechaun instead of looking at St. Patrick and his mission and ministry to the people of Ireland.” This post is hard for me to interpret, even after reading more of the blog to get a feel for its tone. I assume there’s an element of tongue-in-cheekness here; but I think he’s sincerely lodging his basic complaint. Again, he’s not actually disapproving of the cereal, but the Lucky Charms leprechaun serves for him as an icon of society’s inattention to the things of God.

* A 2012 memoir about a very young child’s out-of-body visit to heaven. During the visit, Jesus asks her “what I would want if I could have anything in the world.” The child replies that she wants Lucky Charms. Jesus promises her Lucky Charms. Her mother tells her she can only have them if they’re on sale–and the next time they go to the store, the cereal is on sale. This is not parody, in case I need to clarify that. The moral of the anecdote is that “Jesus cares about the thoughts and desires of a two year old. I am grateful for all the Lord provides, with or without Lucky Charms. If you could have anything you wanted, what would you ask the Lord for?”

* The closest I found to an online fundamentalist voice disapproving of Lucky Charms cereal is a countercult website which claims that Jehovah’s Witnesses (who aren’t what we normally mean by “fundamentalist Christians,” I know) won’t eat Lucky Charms because of the association with magic. That sounds plausible to me, but the countercultists don’t provide documentation for the claim.

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Marketing halal

My husband is coeliac and therefore requires gluten-free foods. This evening, he was trying a new brand of gluten-free chicken tenders from a company called Saffron Road. I noticed that the box was marked “halal certified.” I flipped over to the back of the box and found the following explanation:

Saffron Road celebrates the memorable meals and mutual values families and friends of all cultures share around the dinner table. . . . All our chickens are Certified Humane and sourced from small sustainably run farms with 100% vegetarian feed and are never given antibiotics. Our Halal tradition demands their proper care and welfare.

Halal is a tradition that has nourished billions of people over the last 1,400 years. Halal promotes the sacred practices of respect for the land, fair treatment for farmers, humane treatment of livestock and wholesome food to eat. You’ll be amazed how good such carefully prepared food tastes and how it genuinely replenishes the body and soul!

I’m intrigued to see how halal is being marketed as world cuisine, organic food, and fair trade. I’m also intrigued that there are no overt references to Islam–although the reference to “billions of people over the last 1,400 years” and to “sacred practices” hints at that. Why the circumlocution? An attempt to avoid controversy? A complicated bid to pitch the food as culturally specific (for the sake of the “world cuisine” appeal) while avoiding association with a specific religion (which might impede the effort to crossover to a non-Muslim clientele)? Note how the company pitches halal as an expression of “mutual values” shared by “families and friends of all cultures.”

I’m curious to know–has kosher food ever been cross-marketed like this?

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Lenten advertising

I don’t have photos to show, but today as I was out driving, I saw two signs marketing food products appropriate for Lent. A Skyline Chili by the highway was advertising “potatoes and tuna” as a “Lenten special.” Out in the country, between towns, there’s a little roadside restaurant that was advertising six different fish dishes “special for Lent.”

This is a first for me. Growing up in Utah and Idaho, I didn’t see Lenten advertising. Nor did I see it while attending graduate school in North Carolina–a sign of Baptist dominance, I presume.

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Kosher Indian food

Shortly before the last semester ended, I went out with some colleagues to an Indian restaurant in the nearby urban center. That location had been chosen because one of my colleagues is an observant Jew, and this restaurant is certified kosher. As I understand the situation, it’s one of the few kosher restaurants in our area.

During dinner, the conversation turned to what is required to certify a restaurant as kosher–in particular, how often does the restaurant have to be inspected? My Jewish colleague wasn’t certain, but he figured it must be frequently, at least once a week. That was more frequent than I would have expected. Someone caught the hostess’s eye as she passed and asked her. She said the rabbi came to inspect at least once a day. In fact, she said, he’s here now–and pointed to a table in the back where two youngish middle-aged men in suits were sitting.

My Jewish colleague smiled and shrugged. “It’s a racket.”

“Hey, free Indian food every day,” said the South Asianist.

Later I got to wondering if the presence of images in the restaurant is a potential problem for this Orthodox Jewish-Hindu symbiosis. If the owner has an image of Krishna on display, for instance, or a shrine to Ganesha in the back–would idolatry on the premises render the restaurant halachically unacceptable?

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