Retail Religion

An Economist special report this past week included a great discussion of religion and public life. One of the articles discussed why Americans, and people across the world, seem to be so darn religious these days. The answer? The invisible hand of market freedom, baby! In particular, the authors noted that the U.S. Constitution, by divorcing religion from state control or compulsion, enabled a great explosion of religious variety.

As a refuge for dissenters, America was always closer to [Adam] Smith’s vision, though it was not quite the religious city on a hill its boosters claim. The early Puritans were soon swamped by more venal colonists: in Salem, the zealous town in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, 83% of taxpayers in 1683 had no religious allegiance. Most of the Founding Fathers thought religion was useful in a squirearchial sort of way, but they were not particularly godly: George Washington never mentions Jesus Christ in his personal papers.

Thus, the First Amendment—“that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—was a compromise between dissenters (who wanted to keep the state away from religion) and more anti-clerical sorts like Thomas Jefferson (who wanted the church out of politics). Yet it became the great engine of American religiosity, creating a new sort of country where membership of a church was a purely voluntary activity.

That last point — religion as a voluntarily activity — is important.  By turning people loose to pursue their religion (or nor religion at all) as they wish, the First Amendment’s promise to keep church and state separate creates an open market in religious ideas.  A secular government, rather than creating a secular society, is in fact essential to permitting private religious expression to flourish even while society progresses.  As the article puts it:

Choice is the most “modern” thing about contemporary religion. “We made a category mistake,” admits Peter Berger, the Boston sociologist, who was once one of the foremost champions of secularisation but changed his mind in the 1980s. “We thought that the relationship was between modernisation and secularisation. In fact it was between modernisation and pluralism.” Religion is no longer taken for granted or inherited; it is based around adults making a choice, going to a synagogue, temple, church or mosque.

This has a profound affect on public life. The more that people choose their religion, rather than just inherit it, the more likely they are to make a noise about it.

Religious people would do well to consider this when tempted to push their faith into the halls of power. Recall the European example. In many parts of Europe, churches are either expressly part of the state (as in England), or are supported by tax dollars (as in Germany). Throughout Europe, pews sit empty and religion plays a waning role in the life of the people. America is different, the Economist authors argue, precisely because the state plays almost no role in religion.

There is another, less savory aspect of the religious marketplace, however. America has seen the proliferation of what I call “bumper sticker Christianity,” in which catchy phrases and rote memorization of talking points substitutes for real thinking about religious issues. “Jesus Christ is the only Lord and Savior” proclaims a billboard on I-95 near my house. “In case of Rapture this vehicle will be unattended” declares a popular bumper sticker. And my all-time favorite, “God doesn’t believe in atheists.” This is the easy, comforting religion of peppy worship music, coffee and donuts at the door, the “prosperity Gospel.” It is often shallow, demands little of its adherents, and tends to divide people into camps, us v. them, believer v. atheist, the “Kingdom of God” v. “the world.” Indeed, the maintenance of conflict may be essential to these movements’ ability to compete in the religious marketplace. The Economist describes this as “heat” in religion, but notes:

But heat in religion does not necessarily generate light. Relatively few Muslims have actually read all of the Koran, and although 83% of Americans regard the Bible as the word of God, half of them do not know who preached the Sermon on the Mount. American evangelicals are so worried by fundamentalists being ignorant of the fundamentals that they have set up refresher courses in Bible knowledge.

Nor does the heat always last. “You don’t see many graveyards in megachurches,” say the sceptics. Emotional, unhierarchical religion may be gloriously customer-centred, but it lacks a control mechanism. Pentecostal pulpits have been a home to some almighty rogues, and many Muslims would like to bring radical imams under control.

I’m happy to live in a country where people can believe what they want, or not at all. As I’ve noted in another post, I consider it a patriotic duty to maintain that freedom. Even for the yahoos with those damned bumper stickers.


One response to “Retail Religion

  1. We must maintain our religious freedom, and abide by the separatism of church and state, for the sake of humankind.

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