Religion and Theology Paper

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The interaction of religion and secular society- Commercialism as it affects Religion in America.

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Title: The effects of Commercialism on Religion in America

 

Contents

Introduction. 2

Overview of commercialism and its effects on religion in America. 3

The interaction between religion and secular society in America. 6

Conclusion. 10

References. 11

 

Introduction

A large section of the population in the United States practices one religion or the other (Einstein, 2008). In fact, this religious population is one of the highest in the industrialized world. About 84 percent of Americans view themselves as Christians, with 57 percent of them belonging to the Protestant denomination (Einstein, 2008). There is a growing interest in the interaction between religion and secularism in the US. One of the debates that have emerged out of this phenomenon is the impact of commercialism on religion. In this debate, it is important to examine whether religion is becoming increasingly commercialized. It is also important to determine whether religions and denominations are being packaged the way one would package any other brand in the market. One may even go to the extent of examining whether religion is being secularized and if so, to determine the role that commercialism plays in this whole process.

A number of theories have even been developed to describing the changing religious environment in the United States of America. One of these theories is the secularization theory, which is based on the proposition that as societies become more industrialized, they tend to become less religious. The objective of developing such theories is to attempt to come up with a valid explanation of growing commercialism in the world of religion. This commercialism is evident in the emergence of new industries that thrive on the sale of religious publications, the popularity of televangelists who are routinely criticized for materialism and lavish lifestyles, and the annual rush by corporate entities to make maximum profits from sales of religious products such as Christmas gifts. The aim of this paper is to investigate the effects of commercialism on religion in America. In this discussion, the issue of the interaction between religion and the secular society is examined.

Overview of commercialism and its effects on religion in America

            One of the most popular religious events in the US is Christmas. Christmas is a religious holiday in which Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. According to Gallup & Jones (2000), many people complain that the way Christmas is celebrated across the country has changed, such that it is not accorded the religious importance that it commands in the Christian faith. The Christmas season has become a demonstration of the peak season for the American capitalist culture. Commercialism is viewed as one of the most crucial highlights of this season to the extent that it seems to overshadow the real purpose of celebrating Christmas.

According to Einstein (2008), Americans celebrate Christmas in a way that makes it seem like an expression of market capitalism. For many people, Christmas is the opportune time to arrange family get-togethers and to give gifts. Many people become too immersed in festivities and the fun it brings to find time to attend Christmas services. By so doing, people seem to have “plucked” Christmas out of Christianity with the objective of achieving their own commercial gains. They view Christmas as an opportune moment to do what they could not have done in the course of the year. Yet the main reason why people may not have arranged for family get-togethers and Christmas vacations is simply because they were busy in their careers and businesses.

The case of Christmas and how Americans celebrate it these days is just one of the numerous examples of the changing interactions between religion and commercialism and the mediating role of secular society. Indeed, one may want to attribute commercialism and its impact on religion to growing secularism. To this extent, commercialism may be viewed as a sign of secularization. However, it may be wrong to blame atheism or secularism for the decline of what may be referred to as “organized religion” in America.

As commercialism creeps into the religious realm, it seems that the tendency by people to appreciate “the sacred” in an honest way is waning. To this extent, one needs to look at how commercialism has contributed to this changing phenomenon. The loss of appeal in organized religion in America is part of the changes that continue to unfold in society. However, it is wrong to assume that the changes should automatically lead to the inability by religious people to advocate for their spiritual experiences.

In a commercialized society, people are likely to become satisfied in their quest for a belief system without necessarily attending a religious ceremony in the context of a traditional religious setting. Technology has greatly contributed to the growing popularity of televangelists across the US. Many people prefer to watch these televangelists on TV instead of attending a religious service across the street. The televangelists provide these viewers with numerous platforms through which they can send their offerings. When such non-traditional methods of practicing religion become the norm, concerns about commercialism are likely to be raised. The changing trend creates the impression that pastors are more interested in making money than in spreading the gospel of God.

There is a tendency by scholars to look at the issue of commercialism by examining different perspectives, for example the supply-side and demand-side religion (Mahmood, 2009; Wilson, 2003). In the new paradigm that encompasses the propagation of commercialism, supply-side religion is largely viewed as a major catalyst for change. Prior to the emergence of commercialism, traditional religious settings remained largely unchanged largely because of the demand (societal) side. When a televangelist creates new opportunities for believers to go through a sermon without setting foot in a traditional church setting, this type of change is attributed to the supply side. In contrast, the demand side comes into play when conservative believers launch campaigns that advocate for the preservation of religious practices in their traditional form.

The “supply-side” concept was first used in literature in 1986 by Terry Bilhartz (Wilson, 2003). Subsequent elaborations of the phrase yielded new terminologies that allude to the existence of commercialism in the world of religion such as “spiritual entrepreneurs” and “religious marketplace” (Mahmood, 2009). In today’s globalized world, new “suppliers” have emerged. Religious leaders have found new, innovative ways of reaching out to believers. This change should be viewed in the context of concurrent changes in all other aspects of social life. However, it is sometimes construed as a sign that religion is being commercialized. As religious leaders compete to market their platforms of choice through which to reach out to believers with religious teachings, a new religious culture that resembles market capitalism emerged. This is precisely what has happened in America today. In America, religion, just like market capitalism, has come to acquire all the features of a free enterprise; the market in which it is practiced is unregulated, different producers with varying value propositions exist, and the rational choice theory is normally applied (Mahmood, 2009). In this theory, an individual selects a religion on the basis of how best his individual goals and needs are served (Mahmood, 2009).

It is difficult to assert with certainty the power of commercialism to kill religious traditions in the US. This is because the changes that are unfolding today constitute an integral component of social dynamics. Throughout history, religious changes have tended to be interlinked with changes in social fabric. However, viewing the problem from this perspective does not ease the worry for many religious people and scholars in the US. For them, the harsh reality is that religious observances such as Christmas have been transformed into commercial and consumer holidays. This is evidence in the near-nonexistence of religious elements in these holidays. The only exception is for the few who feel that it is necessary to observe the occasions in a religious manner – and actually ahead to do. Unless one belongs to a well-regulated religious setting, which is increasingly rare to find in the US these days, one does not have to go out of his way to demonstrate a religious gesture as a way of appreciating the sanctity of his religious beliefs.

The interaction between religion and secular society in America

At the heart of the commercialism debate is the ways in which religion interacts with society in America. Every American citizen has an inalienable right to either belong to a religious grouping or to belong to none. No one regulates religion in the country. This situation may be said to have contributed to claims about the growing influence of commercialism on religion. In this claim, one must build his argument on the assumption that commercialism is a symbol of secularization. This is not necessarily the case in the US and indeed elsewhere in the world. However, religious people may be said to be promoting secularization if they are too preoccupied with commercial exploits even in religious settings. In regards to the argument about the unregulated religious environment and the growing influence of commercialism, it is inaccurate to argue that the secular society is a representation of the prevailing forces of commercialism. This is simply because religious leaders are an integral part of the society that continues to embrace and promote commercialism.

It is normal for religion to be influenced by the secular society and vice versa. In the context of commercialism, one may talk about the “market” for religion. This so-called market cannot exist in a vacuum; it is always situated in a social setting. During the different times when the US government sought to influence the way religious activities were being carried out, pivotal social changes that necessitated these adjustments seem to have occurred. For example, during the colonial era, the parish system was being promoted. In this system, clergymen were being encouraged to maintain a monopoly in their areas of jurisdiction. In another example, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established new regulations that required broadcasters to free up more time for preachers. These regulations were introduced soon after the emergence of the television. This demonstrates that changes in the secular society more often than not necessitate change in the way religious activities are conducted.

Einstein (2008) observes that people who focus too much on how religion has been changed by the secular society are likely to get more worried about the impact of commercialism. They are likely to see the contemporary religious practices as nothing more than a product of capitalist market forces. However, it is also likely to bring new insights into the analysis of why religion has historically been subjected to marketing efforts and why it continues to flourish in the US.

The market model may be used to explain how the church continues to change in response to the whims of the secular society. In this regard, clergymen may be viewed as producers who choose which products to introduce to the market and how to design various marketing programs. On the other hand, the believers and the secular society  are both viewed as consumers who must choose which religious belief, if any, to hold onto and their level of participation in it (Einstein, 2008). In the resulting competitive environment, only those religious entities that offer the most attractive products end up flourishing. The resulting culture of competition among the clergy manifests itself as a manifestation of commercialism.

This relationship between religion and the secular society can be broken down even further by looking at the benefits and attributes of religion. In most organized religions, the main attributes include written texts and hymn books that provide information to believers. These attributes are beneficial because they bring about interaction, fellowship, and a sense of community and well-being. Virtually all religions tend to have these as some of the main benefits. They also share similarities in terms of the objectives that they hope to achieve, including spirituality, social wellbeing, and a sense of destiny. The only differences that arise relate to the way the information is packaged, the type of music played, and the content of one’s beliefs. Incidentally, these similarities and differences put religion in juxtaposition with other social exploits aimed at achieving a sense of well-being, interaction, and a sense of destiny.

In America, the similarities between religion and the secular society has driven many religious leaders into contributing to a process that ultimately facilitated the pursuit of spirituality among Americans in a manner that is congruent with the country’s individualistic market economy. Irate followers of the religious beliefs being promoted by these religious leaders criticized this move by arguing that the leaders were striking deals with wealthy American capitalists to protect their positions within the American religious environment. In many instances where the popularity of these religious leaders has shrunk, they clergymen have turned to the goal of wealth, which glorifies the achievements of wealthy people in return for financial assistance, and protection. Many Christians who belong to the Christian faith may relate to this phenomenon. However, what such Christians may not know is that such struggles were common among church ministers even during the nineteenth century.

In the contemporary context, one gets the feeling that if American religions have ended up operating in a business-like manner, it is because this is the best way of getting things done. In their justifications for the pursuit of commercial exploits, many religious leaders argue that they are simply adopting a proactive role by being pragmatic about the most effective way of driving change through social transformation. They shrug off fears among believers that their actions are likely to sink moral standards in the American society.

In efforts to determine whether commercialism among religions in the US is inevitable, one may also need to examine the extent to which the secular society affects religion. The secular society affects religion in a very significant way in the US because historically, religion has been a core component of personal identity. One’s denomination continues to be as much a defining feature as one’s social class or language. This essentially means that Americans are largely driven by social forces to belong to one religion/denomination or the other.

It is not possible to talk about one’s personal identity without talking about his social identity as well. A person’s identity is an inward reflection of the social context in which he interacts with the world. It is only after reflecting on one’s self-concept that a person can endeavor to project it to the world by belonging to one religion or the other. Once everyone adopts this process, the overall outcome is one where everyone has a role to play in project the image of the ideal religion. Therefore, when somebody asserts that commercialism has found its way into a religion, the reality of the matter is that a significant number of people who subscribe to that religion have chosen to embrace commercialism. In other words, the attributes that characterize a religion are a reflection of the attributes of the believers who subscribe to that particular religious faith in their individual capacities.

From this perspective, the interaction between the secular society and religion becomes clearer. For instance, the marketing mentality that continues to pervade the church is viewed in terms of its origin in the secular society. Conventionally people in the secular society tend to pursue competitiveness in the capitalist market with reckless abandon in the quest for survival. In religious contexts, this quest for survival continues to be pursued but in a restrained manner that is concomitant with the reserved demeanor that everyone is expected to adopt in such settings. However, when church ministers and other religious leaders stop exercising restraint and dignity in marketing their faiths to their congregations, fears of growing commercialism tend to increase.

Conclusion

Although religion has become commercialized in America today, this is a new phenomenon; it existed as far back as during the nineteenth century. The phenomenon is in congruence with the American culture of pursuing individualism in the capitalist market-driven economy. Religion continues to interact with the secular society in numerous ways. One of the outcomes of these interactions is the rise of commercialism. This situation has greatly contributed to the emergence of negative perceptions towards religion.

Different people hold different views regarding the extent of religious commercialization in America. On the one hand, there are those who look at the impact of religion on society. This view is primarily for people who view religion as a social mandate. On the other hand, there are those who describe religion using the market model. In this view, religious leaders are viewed as  producers who choose which products to introduce to the market and how to design various marketing programs. In both cases, interactions between religion and the secular society are essential to the emergence of various religious changes such as the current increase in the level of commercialism.

 

References

Einstein, M. (2008). Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. New York, NY: Routledge.

Gallup, G. & Jones, T. (2000). The next American spirituality: Finding God in the twenty-first century. Washington, DC: Pearson Books.

Mahmood, S. (2009). Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide? Critical Inquiry, 35(4), 836-862.

Wilson, J. (2003). Religion and the American Nation: Historiography and History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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