Katharine Shilcutt's excellent post from last week, Depart From Me! I Never Knew You, Eaters of Bacon, in both its content and the commentary it generated, raised a very interesting question:
Why would mega-pastor Joel Osteen decide to preach (dictate?) to his flock about what they should and should not eat?
There were several suggested explanations. The Bible, of course, is laced with dietary guidelines. But Biblical scholarship is in general agreement that such strictures are outdated and not necessarily followed by most God-fearing Christians.
Another explanation is that Osteen was just trying to offer "lifestyle" tips on how to lead a clean and healthy life. But are lifestyle tips really a good topic for a Sunday morning church sermon?
Somehow these explanations felt insufficient. Osteen's rant about pork and shellfish seemed completely out of left field.
And then, as if on cue, an essay was posted on the Internet that landed like a bomb in the middle of the seemingly disparate areas of food blogging, religious trends and partisan politics. Although it may not be directly related to Osteen's rant, it certainly offers some context for what may be happening with the "morality of food." The title of the article:
Written by Mary Eberstadt, a research fellow at the uber-conservative (and uber-eggheady) Hoover Institute, the essay argues that social morals that once restricted how we have sex have been transferred to how we eat food. In the world of egghead-speak, this is called transvaluation.
In other words, government and religion have shifted from dictating who you put in your mouth to what you put in your mouth.
Even that august sage and arch-conservative egghead George F. Will chimed in to sing Eberstadt's praises.
Food bloggers, especially those with a progressive bent, howled with indignation. So now conservatives are going to tell me what I can/can't do in my kitchen in addition to what I can/can't do in my bedroom?! Not. Gonna. Happen.
It is important to note that at no point did Eberstadt or her conservative brethren blatantly advocate for restrictions on how and what we eat. Rather she just framed her essay as an analysis and description of a trend she has observed.
So are her observations correct? Is there evidence of a transition away from social, government and religious restrictions on sex to greater restrictions on food?
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There certainly appears to be. As a flip side to Osteen's appeals for self-restraint through food, other prominent evangelicals have been advocating for their (married) parishioners to engage in as much hanky-panky as possible.
And city governments have recently started introducing legislation to restrict the number and density of fast food restaurants in certain neighborhoods, just as they used to do with sexually oriented businesses.
That said, is this some kind of conservative-government-religious conspiracy that some progressive foodie types would lead us to believe? Certainly not. If anything, these new restrictions on food have practical roots -- health, obesity, diabetes. Ironically, the most ardent "food police" groups -- PETA, Slow Food -- are dyed-in-the-wool liberal.
And although we may continue to see mega-preachers like Osteen clumsily beseech their flock to employ food as a means to self-enlightenment, it's unlikely we'll hear the likes of Rush Limbaugh rail against the evils of red meat, shellfish, or cloven hoof goodies. Somehow I just don't see El Rushbo giving up cigars and pork chops.