mainstream religion, inc.
The current issue of Christianity Today magazine has an important message for any evangelical promoting the religion. God is not a brand name and it’s important not to market the faith as much as reveal its merits and its underlying message. This is how religion is supposed to differ from a corporate syndicate selling subscriptions to a service or a motivational product. But this warning is a reaction to the fact that in many ways, religion is a marketing venture for many and Jesus and the Bible are already brand names in their own right.
Let’s start with the Bible. Since it was first put together in the fourth century, it hasn’t been out of print. Having been around this long, it’s been translated again and again and repackaged in almost countless ways. There’s a Bible for kids, academics, new converts, aspiring scholars of Christian theology, lifelong faithful, snowboarders, surfers, teens going through their Gothic phase and the tech savvy millennials. It’s available in all kinds of trims and formats and special editions in just about language in the world. And for every edition, cash changes hands. When I bought my Bible, I spent over twenty minutes looking through all the versions which ran from about $20 all the way to $250 leather bound tomes. Every time one of these Bibles intended for some specific demographic is purchased, money changes hands. Salvation in the words of the Scriptures is available to any target demographic with just a flick of your credit card across the cashier’s magnetic reader.
The same phenomena can be seen with religious fiction books which are bought because they are supposedly based on the Bible. The success of Tim LaHaye’s apocalyptic tomes is due in no small part to his readers’ thoughts that Left Behind is an accurate description of what happens to the world after the Rapture. For the faithful, religious literature is no mere tale. It’s based on nothing less than the word of God. Gospel and religious music falls into the same category. It’s aggressively marketed to the faithful and musicians who aren’t that well received in the world of secular entertainment can create nearly life long careers singing at churches and hawking a massive CD collection of generic lyrics sang to genre specific melodies. Just like with the many editions of the Bible for any demographic of their choice, religious music ranges from classical gospel to heavy metal and hip hop. If it’s hot in the secular world, it’s been adapted by religious artists for selling more tickets and albums.
Last, but certainly not least, are churches. Without the donations of their congregations, they’re in trouble. There would be no way they could pay their staff and organize plays or major events at which religious singers and writers get a shot at boosting their bottom lines as well. And you can forget about expanding them into sprawling mega-complexes which have everything from schools to gyms to coffee shops to stadium sized arenas. It costs millions to build something even close to a megachurch and it’s all built on the congregation’s dime as well as profits from book sales and other commercial ventures given the seal of faith for a tax free cash flow. In the past, churches used to tax the local populace to fill their coffers. Now, they ask worshippers to invest in God. Just take a look at the popular and controversial Prosperity Doctrine which often gets described as a divine ponzi scheme by secular writers and traditional theologians alike.
When vast wealth and power is built from sales of products that bear the seal of a religion or an enterprising televangelist because people are drawn to the idea that this product carries within it a higher message and divine influence, religion becomes a cash cow. Marketing products to a population of believers and recruiting new members into the faith by appealing to their tastes with custom made products, borrows from the same playbook that corporations use to create revenue streams and expand by wielding popular brand names. Warning about something like this decades after it’s begun, is a little like running after an exotic car peeling out of a driveway and yelling “oh and make sure you don’t stomp on the gas pedal, this thing’s got 500 hp!”