When I was growing up a Protestant in Indiana, there were few occasions for exotic meal rituals. In the Midwest, a meal was not a meal unless meat was served, and real meat was red meat. Our meat-and-potato diet was interrupted only on Fridays by a helping of fish in the school cafeteria. We knew this had something to do with being Catholic and nobody seemed to mind, but nobody seemed to know why either. American civil religion tolerated practices like fish on Fridays as long as nobody talked about theology. We were too polite to mix faith with food.
Nowadays, everybody has a theory about what foods you should and should not eat, and you cannot order a hamburger without worrying about offending a vegetarian. Even the simplest dietary choice has become burdened with moral considerations. Yet many Christians are still reticent to mix faith and food.
Before the 16th century, all Christians were known for what they did not eat on Fridays. When the Protestant reformers rejected Rome's authority to regulate European diet, fasting became a sign of Catholic difference rather than Christian holiness. As Catholics and Protestants have grown closer together, practices that separated them have weakened. Fish on Fridays has been sacrificed to the goal of Christian unity. Ironically, Catholics have distanced themselves from the obligatory fasts of their own tradition just as the rest of the world is rushing to rediscover the spiritual basis of diet.
When my school served fish on Fridays, I was able to experience something of what it must have been like to belong to a community that was set apart by its weekly dietary rhythm. In the age of drive-through dining and eating energy bars for breakfast, it has become nearly impossible to maintain dining rituals as a way of passing along religious traditions. Some vegetarians use diet to make a moral statement, but vegetarianism has also become just another dietary option. Can Christian tradition contribute something unique to contemporary debates about what we should eat?
The openness between Protestants and Catholics has motivated many Protestants to rediscover ancient spiritual practices. Protestants are spiritually hungry for more substantial traditions than they grew up with. Protestant theologians once rejected all forms of fasting as superstitious displays of pride, but now fasting is a hot topic. Evangelical magazines and Web sites tout fasting as a two-for-one cure for both moral and physical maladies. With a bit of prayerful abstinence, these evangelicals preach, you can cut down on gluttony (a sin of the spirit) and obesity (a risk to the body) at the same time.
Popular culture is littered with idealistic diets that inevitably fail to deliver the goods. Many health experts argue that it is not the diet but the willpower that matters. So it should be no surprise that megachurches are sponsoring weight loss programs with the theme that only divinely inspired motivation can help you get "slim for Him."
Protestant churches provide a smorgasbord of diets to choose from, but they offer little agreement about the theological reasons for voluntarily embracing dietary restrictions. There is even confusion about what fasting is. What foods should be restricted, when, and for how long? Without a long historical memory, Protestants are often forced to reinvent the wheel.
Vegetarianism is often promoted as a spiritual diet, but without a clear theological foundation, the rationale for vegetarianism is likely to be shaky at best. One common argument for vegetarianism is that it is the diet most likely to lead to a long life, but should we make dietary choices solely on the basis of adding a few years to our life? Sometimes vegetarianism is defended as the most ecologically friendly diet, but if it helps us to live longer, and the longer we live the more we eat, then vegetarianism will actually end up using more of the earth's …