The faithful are fatter than ever—at least in this country—according to Kenneth Ferraro, a sociologist at the University of Purdue. His analysis of data from two national surveys, published in the Review of Religious Research last March, shows that religious people tend to be more corpulent than their nonreligious counterparts. His findings apply to all major religions in the United States, though American Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists on average weigh less than American Christians.
States with a high rate of religious affiliation—Mississippi, Michigan, and Indiana—have heftier citizens than such strongholds of secularity as Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Colorado. And among denominations, Southern Baptists are the real heavyweights.
Having eaten at Southern Baptist tables every day for the first two decades of my life and intermittently thereafter, I think I know the reason: the food is irresistible. "Southness," in fact, shows up as an indicator of obesity in Ferraro's study. While a person may possibly sustain life on the Lutheran fare lampooned on Prairie Home Companion—tuna hot dish and Jell-O salad—when you eat Sunday dinner at my relatives' tables, you see the point of going to heaven. I grew up believing the celestial banquet table would be spread with fried chicken, buttered biscuits, and pecan pie throughout all eternity.
If Southern Baptists had an official patron saint, it might be Thomas Aquinas, whose 300-pound bulk led his fellow students to nickname him Ox. To judge by the paintings of emaciated saints of the period, however, the massive Aquinas was a rarity in the Middle Ages. Indeed, until recently, our models of piety have been hollow-cheeked, verging on gaunt, as portrayed by painters from Giotto to El Greco. Fasting and toiling at good works appears to have kept the pious whittled down to size in the past. Not having potato chips and ice cream readily available probably didn't hurt, either. Actually, Christian aversion to fat began even earlier, when a fourth-century monk named John Cassian included gluttony on his list of the Seven Deadly Sins, reflecting the monastic movement's grounding in asceticism.
All the same, the word fat is never mentioned in the New Testament, with the exception of the "fatted" calf the Prodigal's father kills to welcome his son home. Though Jesus was accused by his enemies of being both a drunkard and a glutton, famine appears to have been a more pressing problem for the early church than weight-watching.
It's quite a different story in the Old Testament, however. The Israelite economy was based on cattle and farming. Taking their cue from prudent farmers and herdsmen who stored up food in barns or silos for the future, the general populace figured that extra pounds might insure their survival during periods of crop failure and famine. Reflecting this positive attitude toward plumpness, the Old Testament has at least ten different words for fat, the largest proportion appearing in Leviticus where butchers are instructed to leave the fat on animals slaughtered for sacrifice. Presumably, the "sweet smell of sacrifice" resembled the tantalizing odors drifting from the steak- house grills today.
Eglon, the king of Moab, is the only person specifically described as fat, in the third chapter of Judges, where Ehud, a Benjamite, under the guise of bringing tribute to the king, uses the occasion to assassinate him. As Ehud plunges his 18-inch dagger into the king's stomach, "the fat closed over it," hilt and all.
In contrast to this gruesome scene, most of the references to fat in the Hebrew Scriptures are favorable, a sign of prosperity and well-being. Cattle, pastures, even the land itself are all—when in good condition and well watered—described as fat. In Psalm 92 a tree, used as a metaphor for the righteous, is "fat and flourishing." Fat, instead of being a sign of neurosis or a weak will, was virtually synonymous with being successful and rich. And Proverbs, with its usual benevolence toward the hard-working and upstanding citizen, promises that "the soul of the diligent," as well as the one who "putteth his trust in the Lord shall be made fat" (Prov. 13:4; 28:25). Likewise, "a good report maketh the bones fat" (Prov. 15:30).
Only when the prosperous become arrogant and oppressive is fat negatively nuanced. The eyes of the arrogant affluent "stand out with fat" (Ps. 73:7), and their hearts are either "as fat as grease" (Ps. 119:70) or "inclosed in their own fat" (Ps. 17:10). Though Isaiah castigates the heedless Israelites for having fat hearts (Isa. 6:10), the prophet also characterizes the future blessedness of the redeemed as a time when the Lord will "make unto all people a feast of fat things" (Isa. 25:6).
I should point out, though, that you will find these references to fat—whether positive or negative—only if you're using the Authorized Version of the Bible, otherwise known as the King James Version. Completed in 1611 during the age of Shakespeare, its vocabulary usually sticks closer to the Hebrew text than most later renditions. The Renaissance scholars and poets who produced the Authorized Version did not shrink from using a word that, for some reason, has been shunned by later translators.
I suspect that fat has melted from the pages of both the Revised Standard Version (1952) and the New International Version (1978) for reasons other than literary taste. Neither of those versions employs the more accurate term fat in any of the texts I have cited above, nor in many others like them. Instead, fat is universally rendered "rich" or "prosperous" in those passages, despite the fact that Hebrew is also well stocked with words specifically equivalent to "rich" or "prosperous." Indeed, in the RSV and NIV, the word is applied only to the hapless Eglon and to livestock, including the calf destined for the Prodigal's banquet. Isaiah's messianic banquet, however, is fat-free. The God-fearing good citizen of Proverbs is not allowed an extra ounce. And the arrogant rich of the prophets and psalmist, rather than having greasy and fat-encased hearts, are simply called "callous."
What changes in our economy and our cultural attitudes does the disappearance of fat from twentieth-century Bibles reflect? For one thing, that it's easy to be fat in America today. The ancient world may have been populated with lean farmers and herdsmen, struggling to eke out a living, but our citizens today work mostly indoors and sitting down. For another thing, poor people are statistically more likely to be overweight than rich people, even the ones we call "fat cats." Also, the more education you have, the fewer pounds you carry. A factory worker is almost certain to weigh more than the ceo who runs the company. Thus, the whole fat-equals-rich equation of the ancient world has been reversed.
Besides the socioeconomic stigma attached to fat today, obesity has become one of the few sins recognized in the secular realm. Perhaps sin is too strong a word. But ask any lean jogger or hardbodied weight lifter which they'd rather be—fat or unfaithful, chubby or a tax-cheat, obese or ornery—and see what answer you get. Fat, if not sinful, is at best unfortunate, at worst obscene. In this culture, we pity the anorexic, but we avoid the obese.
Despite this relatively recent reversal in cultural attitude, our pews groan under the corpulent. In fact, the Purdue study shows that, even when such factors as ethnicity, education, income, and socioeconomic status are adjusted for, religious people in America still show a greater tendency toward obesity than their secularized counterparts. (Marketers must also be aware of this trend; I recently heard a commercial on a Christian radio station for a "dietary supplement" called Fat-Absorb.) In fact, the more religious you are, the fatter you tend to be. (I suspect a minor flaw in the researchers' techniques on this point was using as one of the indicators for a person's piety "watching or listening to religious tv or radio." All couch potatoes are probably roughly equivalent in bulk, whether they are watching Pat Robertson or Monday Night Football.)
Still, the study raises all sorts of unanswered questions. What accounts for the increase in total poundage of church membership today? There appears to be no New Testament precedent for particularly plump Christians. Besides, the tendency applies to adherents of all religions in this country. Does twentieth-century spirituality exert some strange gravitational pull on larger bodies? Are fat people in our culture simply prone toward piety? Is overweight indeed the sign of a weak will, which Nietzsche claimed was a characteristic of the religiously inclined?
The Purdue sociologist found yet another arresting piece of data in his study, though, which further complicates the issue. For while religious people are demonstrably fatter, obesity seems to have fewer ill effects on active church members than on either their secular counterparts or the nominally religious. Of course, earlier studies have already shown that, in most cases, actively practicing one's religion is the most consistent predictor of overall well-being in our culture. Such an effect has generally been attributed to healthier living among the faithful—less smoking and alcohol consumption, abstention from drugs and casual sex. But the Purdue study shows that religious overeaters somehow escape the ill effects of their bad habit—specifically, depression and a diminished sense of well-being.
In other words, forget trying to find comfort in church if you only intend to be a passive pew potato. But practice what you preach—or at least join a Bible study as well as show up for worship services—and you'll be both healthier and happier, even though you don't lose a pound.
It would be easy to give such results a triumphalist twist: calories don't count—at least for true believers. But Ferraro suggests another reason that church members are fat and happy. Though he hesitates to infer that "religion may actually promote higher body weight," he does suggest two possible causes for the increase in total volume of church members. First, while Christians generally hold the line against alcoholism, smoking, and sexual promiscuity, they have tacitly agreed to strike gluttony from the list of the Deadly Seven. Indeed, the study showed "no evidence of religion constraining body weight in America." Fat is rarely railed against from the pulpit. (I could add that it's also harder to hide than other bad habits. Overeaters cannot really be anonymous.)
Second, Ferraro suggests that religion's current "emphasis upon tolerating human weakness" leads to larger members. At present, the primary theological theme in both liberal and conservative churches is unconditional love, being accepted just as we are. Ferraro credits "the silence of many American denominations on excess body weight and religion's function as a vehicle of social acceptance" for providing a safety net necessary for catching the really big fish.
Should we feel glad or guilty that the church has become a haven for heavyweights? Or should preachers rev up their repertoire to take on gluttony—perhaps after paring down their own paunches? Should churches launch a "Just Say No to Potlucks" campaign? Answer "diet" to the question "What Would Jesus Do?"
On my shelf of cookbooks, between Betty Crocker and Larousse Gastronomique sits a copy of First Place Favorites, a collection of low-fat recipes published by the First Baptist Church of Houston. It was given to me by a 78-year-old friend who has been one of the spiritual giants in my life. She weighs roughly 250 pounds. A couple of years ago, she lost 50 pounds by attending a Christian version of Weight Watchers at her church, an experience she found physically, socially, and spiritually exhilarating. Unfortunately, she gained the weight back after she graduated from the program and hasn't lost an ounce since. Through thick and thin, however, she remains one of the most devoted, compassionate, and guileless Christians I know.
I don't know the answer to the question the Purdue study raised. I do suspect churches of complicity in promoting gluttony. Practically every circle, study, and board meeting seems to require trays of tea sandwiches or donuts, depending on the dominant gender in attendance. Church members who would blanch at Bingo in the fellowship hall don't bat an eye at church suppers, despite Paul's explicit directive to the Corinthians: "If any man hunger, let him eat at home."
Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine those words coming from the mouth of Jesus, who showed up at dinner parties so often he was accused of being not only a glutton but a drunkard and a "friend of sinners." We now pride ourselves on avoiding such epithets. But maybe this is where corpulence, being such an outward and visible sign, can be of spiritual help. If fat people are the new class of outcasts, maybe they can bring us back to our calling of associating with the socially unacceptable.
What would Jesus do? Take a fat person to dinner.
Virginia Stem Owens is author of Daughters of Eve (NavPress) and Looking for Jesus (Westminster John Knox), to be published this spring. She lives in Huntsville, Texas.
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