Macaroni and cheese? Praise the Lord!

Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture

By Daniel Sack St. Martin's Press 262 pp., $24.95

As a lover of all dishes spicy and rich, I now know who to blame for America's yen for macaroni and cheese, turkey on Wonder Bread, oatmeal, jello salad, and meatloaf with mashed potatoes: the Protestants.

In "Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture," Daniel Sack skips theology and goes straight to the centerpiece of Protestant community: the table. More than a meditation on the moral properties of cheese casserole, his book explores the relationship of mainline American Protestants to food - that is, to social causes, personal ethics, and world hunger.

Sack explores the debate over wine versus grape juice in Communion services, the way church suppers reinforce the American family unit and gender roles, the Christian sense of duty to the world's poor and hungry, and the ethics of enjoying America's abundance while much of the world mires in starvation.

The Protestant tradition is, by definition, one of reform. Ever since idealistic British settlers founded America, that impulse has found expression through mainline Protestant attitudes toward food.

For instance, in the early days, when settlers each consumed about five gallons of rum a year and addiction threatened family stability, alcohol came to be seen as the drink of the devil, Sack explains. Evangelical reformers fueled the temperance movement - which forced churches to reconcile their use of wine in Communion services. The man who devised the first alternative to wine was a temperance advocate named Dr. Charles Welch, whose grape juice business was an immediate success.

Food is synonymous with community in Protestant congregations. Ever since the British settlements, church members have gathered as much for community as for worship, as an antidote to isolation. The social congregation, with church suppers and post-worship coffee and donuts, is a uniquely American invention, Sack says.

Because American culture encourages competition, because Americans must travel greater distances to get to church, and because they have many faiths to choose from, food provides a practical and appealing connection to Protestant congregations. Many of today's "megachurches" even offer food courts.

In addition to bringing people in with food, Protestants have a long tradition of feeding the hungry. Based in part on Biblical precedent, Sack says, this ethic is also rooted in another phenomenon: "For most of American history, Whitebread Protestants have been the establishment - the social class that has set standards for society," he explains. "This belief has instilled in Protestants a sense of noblesse oblige - a sense that they are responsible to make sure that the poorer sort are taken care of."

While many faiths encourage feeding the hungry, Protestants have turned these ministries into institutions. From neighborhood soup kitchens and drug treatment centers to international aid organizations such as Church World Service and the Heifer Project, mainline Protestants have attempted to change political and social structures that cause hunger.

Finally, the book traces the ways Protestants have felt they "should" eat. In the early days, it was thought that consuming excessive amounts of animal meat would cause excessive "animal urges." Spices were exotic and unwholesome. Those beliefs fell away (thank goodness), but in the past 30 years, the issue of eating meat has become politicized because of the problem of world hunger. Several influential Protestants have urged vegetarianism as a solution. A slew of educational materials and Sunday school programs reinforce this view.

"Whitebread Protestants" offers a unique window on American culture. While certain parts are tedious, like the 29-page debate over the use of a single Communion cup versus a shared one, most of it is highly readable and worthwhile.

As a Protestant himself, and associate director of the Material History of American Religion Project, Sack has the perspective of an insider. Nevertheless, Protestant values have helped form the warp and weft of American culture. Readers of all faiths will find nuggets of insight in "Whitebread Protestants," and perhaps even a new appreciation for creamed tuna on toast.

Julie Finnin Day is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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