A nudist church in Virginia where the pastor delivers sermons in his birthday suit. A drive-in church in Florida where parishioners can attend services from the comfort of their cars. A 500-foot-long, “Biblically accurate” reconstruction of Noah’s Ark in Kentucky. These wild and woolly corners of American Christianity are the focal points of French photographer Cyril Abad’s series In God We Trust.
While some two-thirds of Americans describe themselves as Christians, a declining number identify with any specific sect. In 2000, half of Americans belonged to a Protestant denomination; today, that number is down to 30 percent. Many of the rest—one in six Americans—consider themselves nondenominational. These unaffiliated worshippers are the ones targeted by the proliferating number of alternative churches and Christian recreational sites captured by Abad.
“Churches have adopted free-market principles to open up new niches in spiritual beliefs,” Abad says. “If you’re a surfer, there’s a church for Christian surfers. If you’re a biker, there’s a church for bikers. I’m less interested in big megachurches and more interested in these small churches designed to appeal to specific tribes.”
Abad sees these churches as a distinctly American phenomenon; there is no comparable phenomenon in France, he says. He spent almost a year researching churches and Christian-themed attractions all over America before settling on the seven included in the series, which he visited over the course of three visits to the US in 2017 and 2018. The most difficult to get permission to photograph was the Virginia nudist church; to make the parishioners more comfortable, Abad took off his own clothes while taking the photographs.
The series can certainly be funny, particularly the images of the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, a Biblical amusement park featuring a re-creation of ancient Jerusalem and daily reenactments of Jesus’s crucifixion. But Abad insists he doesn’t intend to ridicule the people who visit such attractions. “That’s why I don’t show people crying in the Holy Land Experience—I always show them from the back,” he says.
For Abad, the photographs are part of a longstanding interest in the sociology of religion. “I want people to be amused, but after that to be challenged and start asking deeper questions,” he says. Mocking is easy. Empathy—and understanding—are the hard part.