Man asks of religion, "What is it for?"
Religion asks of man, "What are you for?"
he dialogues that take place among organized religions matter less than the dialogue, such as it may be, that each religion has with the institutions and attitudes of international secularism. Within the life of any organized religion, those most exposed to secular institutions and most imbued with secular attitudes are likely to be young adults, some of whom will be making their way from the more or less religious homes of their youth into the larger culture in which they will make lives and homes of their own. Therein lies the originality and relevance of an encounter drawing together bona fide representatives of major organized religions not, for once, to talk about their own theological similarities and differences, their own historic quarrels and reconciliations, but about their common encounter with this larger culture. The larger culture is represented here twice: first, in absentia by the young themselves, once and perhaps future members of religious congregations; and second, in operation, by academic research looking on religious attitudes among the young, religiously affiliated or not, with secular detachment. Yet in both the students and the studied, the contemporary puzzle or paradox of double allegiance, secular and religious at once, is variously on display.
What initially sparked this gathering was the anecdotal but widespread observation that in the United States young people between the ages of eighteen and thirty tend to drift away from the religions of their family heritage. The question that this observation immediately provokes is simply: Why?
Economic conditions surely are a part of the answer and indeed have generally been taken as the larger part of the answer, at least for the middle class. For that class of Americans, the experience of “going away to college” has been thought a salutary separation away from childhood itself, a coming of age, a major forward step in individuation that would properly include a stock-taking with regard to religion no less than to other aspects of prior personality formation. But because American education has been growing longer and more costly, this interruption between childhood and achieved adulthood has been growing longer as well. American marriage has been taking place later, and parenthood has come later as a result. In an earlier era when college education, marriage, and first parenthood were all accomplished by age twenty-five, the early adulthood hiatus frequently enough ended with a religious wedding ceremony that was simultaneously a kind of spiritual homecoming. Now the seven years have grown to twelve or fourteen or more. And the longer the hiatus lasts, the more likely it is to become permanent.
And yet whatever the merit in this kind of socioeconomic explanation, the broad philosophical and political considerations that in the seventeenth century played so large a part in what historian Herbert Butterfield called “the Great Secularization” are surely with us still. American religious history continues the European story and bears in rarely recognized ways on the religious condition of the age group under consideration. Polling information about the actual attitudes of young Americans vis à vis religion gives us invaluable material for the writing of the very latest chapter in the story. Yet for me, I confess, the most fascinating aspect of this latest chapter is the question: Who, if anyone identifiable, gains when religion loses? The question of what is happening to religion strikes me as inseparable in our day from that of what is happening to secularism. Both are troubled, and it may well be that neither is troubled only or principally by the other.
If religion and secularism divided the ideological terrain between them in such a way that a gain for one was inherently a loss for the other,1 then the question with regard to eighteen-to-thirty-year-olds could be put quantitatively in terms of leisure hours and leisure dollars. Does this pivotal demographic group withdraw time and and money from church, synagogue, or mosque in order to spend it on anything analogous? There have been revolutionary moments in other times and places when an organized and identifiable cultural winner stood standing in inverse relationship to religion as loser. The French Revolution, with its national cult of Reason and its Voltairean cry of Écrasez l’infame against the church, was such a moment. The Italian Risorgimento, waging literal war against the Papal State, was another; if Camillo Cavour was your man in the 1860s, Pio Nono was not. The Russian Revolution, inspired by the most evangelically atheistic political ideology ever to take power, was yet another, as was the Cultural Revolution in Communist China, with its Mao cap set so fiercely against Confucianism. Down the list, and the list can easily be lengthened, there has typically been something to join—something more often than not nationalist—as well as something to quit. But in the twenty-first century United States, does religious disaffiliation lead to any identifiable new affiliation? And if not, if there is—in organizational terms—no entrance corresponding to this exit, is there at least a reasonably comprehensive, coherently, and socially available default ideology? And if there is neither a clear organizational nor a clear ideological alternative, then how can religion’s loss coherently be regarded as secularism’s gain?
I began these remarks by stating that the encounter of any organized religion with the institutions and attitudes of international secularism was more important than its encounter with another organized religion. I believe that that observation still has merit, but my thesis is that in the United States the encounter of religion with secularism has been overtaken by the encounter of both with American consumerism. Consumerism is as subversive of, and yet as compatible with, secularism as it is with religion. It is consumerism, then, rather than secularism as traditionally understood that gains when organized religion loses.
This picture, as we shall see in due course, can become rather bleak, but for the purposes of the present inquiry, at least, there is a bright side to it as well. For all the erosion that American consumerist culture brings about in religious commitment, it does facilitate at least the first stages in interreligious dialogue. Listening to the addresses given during this conference and, perhaps even more, to the discussion following the addresses, one cannot fail to notice that the same common culture that may separately undermine the appeal or the credibility of different religious traditions also gives them a common idiom in which to address a common challenge.
A common idiom does not, of course, guarantee a common effort. A great scholar of comparative religion once observed of interreligious dialogue that each side typically compares its own noble ideals with the other side’s shabby performance, never its own shabby performance with the other side’s noble ideals. I would add that the cleverest polemicists do not stop there but go on to pervert even the other side’s cherished virtues into disguised vices. Yet in the American context, where everyone learns quite early just how to be a smart shopper, canny tactics tend quickly to be recognized as such and foiled when they deserve to be foiled in the interest of an enlarged self-interest.
A story making the rounds just now bears amusingly on this. It seems that a certain balloonist was blown off course and didn’t know where he was. He lowered his altitude until he spotted a fellow in a boat below and then shouted out:
“Excuse me, but can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”
The boatman consulted his portable GPS and replied, “You’re in a hot air balloon approximately 30 feet above a ground elevation of 2346 feet above sea level. You are at 31 degrees, 14.97 minutes north latitude and 100 degrees, 49.09 minutes west longitude.”
At this, the balloonist rolled his eyes said, “You must be a Democrat.”
“I am,” replied the other, “but how did you know?”
“Well,” came the answer, “everything you told me is technically correct, I presume, but I have no idea what to do with it. I still have no idea where I am. Frankly, you’ve not been much help to me at all.”
At this, the boatman smiled and said, “You must be a Republican.”
“I am,” replied the balloonist, “but how did you know?”
“Well,” replied the boatman, “you don’t know where you are or where you’re going. You’ve risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise that you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. You’re in exactly the same position you were in before we met, yet somehow now it’s my fault.”
This joke strikes me as apt for inter-religious dialogue because it can so easily be run backwards, as follows:
A balloonist was blown off course and didn’t know where he was. He lowered his altitude until he spotted a fellow in a boat below and then shouted out:
“Excuse me, but can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”
“Let’s see,” replied the other, “you don’t know where you are or where you’re going. You’ve risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise that you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. You must be a Republican.”
“I am,” replied the other, “and it would be just my luck that you’re a Democrat, but can you help me anyway?”
“With pleasure, my friend,” replied the boatman, consulting his portable GPS, “You’re in a hot air balloon approximately 30 feet above a ground elevation of 2346 feet above sea level. You are at 31 degrees, 14.97 minutes north latitude and 100 degrees, 49.09 minutes west longitude. And have a wonderful day!”
Both interreligious dialogue and the more fateful encounter between religion and secularism depend on the participants’ capacity to read their own stories backwards as well as forwards—from the inside looking out but also from the outside looking in.
And much is gained as well when, bracketing the question of whether religion or secularism deserves to fail or succeed, all parties turn their attention to the practical measures by which each makes its way forward. Some years ago, I was surprised to learn that a certain Ph.D. candidate did not read the Sunday New York Times Book Review.
“But your field is English literature!” I objected.
“Yes,” she replied, “but my period is Nineteenth Century.”
I was speechless for the moment. Only later did I manage to fit an argument to my objection, and it was that the historical understanding of literature is a two-way street. My friend expected, and rightly so, that contemporary writers would learn from the writers of her chosen period. But critics who, like her, live and work, mentally, among the creative writers of the past will understand them better by considering the writers of the present. We learn what our own writers are like by learning what their forebears were like, but we recognize the seeds that the forebears were planting by observing what has flowered in the offspring. It is this living, reciprocal exchange that gives life to the entire undertaking.
Among all contemporary social phenomena, religion has the longest history and the strongest proclivity to bring its past forcefully into its present. Those who study this phenomenon but never darken the door of a church, synagogue, or mosque are at least in some danger of being like the Ph.D. candidate in English who never reads the New York Times Book Review.
In a similar way, art museums, carefully preserving works centuries or even millennia old, have one meaning in a world where contemporary art still matters and another in a world where it does not. Those who run the museums gain an enriched understanding of their proper work when they occasionally visit the galleries where contemporary work is bought and the studios and ateliers where it is made. At the Getty, where I work, nothing so heartens me as the annual Getty Underground show. The Getty is built along a mountain ridge, and below the plaza level where one enters the Museum are four lower levels built into the mountainside. For eleven months of the year, the rarely visited lowest corridor, called L4, is a weird and silent concrete tunnel, its high ceiling draped with mysterious conduits and cables. But for one month, its gray walls come to life as Getty employees display their own artwork, and one discovers that one’s colleagues—often at the lower as well as the higher reaches of the organizational chart—are, so to speak, churchgoers as well as students of religion. The special strength of those gathered for this conference is a strength of this sort.
ut having now mentioned the Getty, let me relive a moment in its life that first captured, for me, what I have come to regard as distinctive about the twin encounters of secularism and religion with American consumerism. The time was the autumn of 1999. The Getty Museum in its dazzling new mountaintop location had been open for two years. The flood of first-time visitors had abated. Ahead lay a bright future as a normal, if highly visible, cultural attraction. Speaking on the occasion I wish to recall was Deborah Gribbon, then associate director and now director of the museum. Debbie is an unfailingly gracious woman one of whose many talents is a gift for concise and sudden candor. On this occasion, what she said was “The Getty Museum is just one among many competitors for the leisure time of Los Angeles.”
What could be more obvious, you might ask, or more unobjectionable? And yet a tremor passed through the room. In attendance, as I recall, were a number of younger employees whose dedication to the preservation and diffusion of artistic beauty approached the religious, or so it seemed to me, and who seemed faintly scandalized to hear their leader speaking of the Getty’s mission so crassly as a mere leisure time activity competing for local market share with other such activities.
No one took issue with her, however, because in the first place there was something obviously true about what she had said and because in the second place adequate language scarcely exists in which to raise an objection that would seem even to those making it to be like complaining about the weather. And yet a deep intuition exists all the same that the objection that would so like to find adequate expression is far more serious than just complaining about the weather.
In a rather mournful article published in the Oct. 3, 2004 New York Times Magazine, James Traub made a valiant effort to step into this linguistic breach. In this article, Traub confessed himself troubled that the art museums of New York are no longer the hubs of reverence that they once were. They still look the same on the outside, these “massifs of limestone and marble, with their regal borders of open space amid our dense forest of skyscrapers,” but inside something is going on that Traub cannot help but find unbecoming. His case in point, at the New-York Historical Society, was an Alexander Hamilton exhibition that he describes, in part, as follows:
The second, and principal, room was a long gallery with documents and artifacts lining one wall and more giant video screens filling the others. The first screen, bafflingly, featured a contemporary image of the White House, which gave way to the words “Rule of Law” and then to one of Hamilton’s fine sentiments on the subject. Others illustrated or evoked or somethinged “The Free Press” (newspapers flying through presses), “Defense” (fighter jets) and so on. Here was an exhibition of America’s most brilliant polemicist apparently mounted for the functionally illiterate. 2
Traub does not wish to be and truly is not a snob. He gives ample acknowledgment to the treasure alongside the tinsel in this exhibit. Unlike some of today’s art critics, he welcomes didactic signage. And yet something sends the same tremor through him that I felt that day at the Getty.
When the Historical Society mounted its Hamilton exhibition, it plastered a blocklong facsimile of a $10 bill (the one with Hamilton on it) along the Central Park side of its venerable beaux art home. Traub writes:
That was all unthinkably garish and self-aggrandizing for an institution accustomed to a high-minded diffidence toward the public. But it was just this decline of an old diffidence and the rise in its place of an aggressive market-orientation that were the kernels of this institutional drama.
I submit that the institutional drama evoked in this article is structurally akin to the one in which organized religion finds itself. The difference between the secular and the formally religious is real, and it still matters, but within American culture another struggle is under way between commitment and unchecked commodification.
This is the conflict that is captured in the cliché question “Is nothing sacred?” That question tends to be asked, often cynically or facetiously, as some revered source of meaning and value other than the conventionally religious turns out to be caught up, after all, in the Great American Hustle. The usual timing of the question suggests that the sacred, in our culture, is virtually defined as that which, one way or another, escapes the logic of the market. The question, of course, is whether anything ever does manage that escape.
Traub makes a grand claim for the art museums of Manhattan near the end of his article when he writes that “New York has both a Catholic and an Episcopal cathedral, but they don’t impinge on the city’s consciousness the way these secular cathedrals do.” Personally, I suspect that St. Patrick’s Cathedral may impinge on the working-class Roman Catholic consciousness of Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens rather more than the New-York Historical Society or even the Metropolitan Museum does. But to the nation and the world, Manhattan undeniably matters more than Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens do. If art museums impinge as cathedrals upon the consciousness of opinion-makers like James Traub in America’s largest and culturally most influential city, then perhaps, after all, there is something analogously religious to which a defector from traditional religion might still defect. But then again, Traub’s thesis is that Manhattan’s museums are decreasingly available—he stops just short of using the word worthy—of accepting such defectors. “Museums may continue to thrive as civic places and as sites for leisure activities,” he sighs, “but not as secular cathedrals.”
hat I called, just now, the question of commitment vs. commodification is the question, finally, of whether a great institution offers a product or commands an allegiance. The rule in business is that the customer is always right. But can that authentically be the rule in art or education or government or, finally, religion? Are we not depressed when politicians offer the voters what they think the voters already want rather than telling the voters what they think the country needs? A now retired editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times used to tell a joke about a politician of which I remember only the punch line, delivered always in a more-or-less Strom Thurmond accent: “Ah kin lead yew anywheah. Jes’ tell me wheah yew wawnt to gaow!”
The generic American religiosity that Christian Smith, summarizing the findings of his research, characterizes as moralistic therapeutic deism is fairly characterized, I submit, as customer-is-always-right religiosity. The young survey respondents analyzed in the National Study of Youth and Religion see themselves as potential customers for the therapy that religion offers; and whether they avail themselves of it or not depends on how effective they happen to find it. They are customers of morality as well, we learn, at least to the extent—evidently considerable—to which they assign themselves authority in specifying what the deity is understood to require in terms of moral behavior. And their awareness of religious diversity, whatever its other-than-consumerist dimensions, surely bespeaks a customer’s awareness that there are many stalls in the religious bazaar.
Smith is at his best crystallizing the earnestly but inarticulately expressed responses assembled by the NYSR. If I were to challenge his work anywhere, it would be at his claim that his respondents’ reasons for their religious worldview are “quite unlike those of the historical religious traditions with which most Americans claim to identify.” 3 If I am right to hear these responses as market-shaped, then their roots would reach back to the era when the American religious market came into existence.
And when was that? The marketization of American religious freedom dates back to the individualization of American religion after the ratification of the American Constitution. Nancy Ammerman writes:
The Protestant Reformation had introduced Europeans to some modest notion of religious pluralism as the monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church was broken. There were new dissenting sects, but most of the new Protestant movements in Europe responded by setting up their own exclusive domains—Lutherans in Germany and Scandinavia, the Anglican Church in England, Reformed (Calvinist) protestant domains in Switzerland and the Netherlands. Only the “radical” reformers (Mennonites and Baptists and Brethren, for instance) argued for complete separation from state power. Only these separatists ventured complete reliance on voluntary membership, on spiritual rather than earthly persuasion. And in the U.S., those radical impules won the day. Other traditions have often complained that they have been “protestantized” as they have accommodated to American culture. Whatever else that has meant, they are right that they have been pushed to adopt a basic commitment to live peacefully alongside religious others. 4
I would offer a partial dissent from this picture of how American pluralism, which I see as the religious market by another name, came into existence. Rather than the triumph of radical Protestantism, the American Constitution represented, I believe, the high tide of Enlightenment thinking in the United States. The Founders had much to say about religion, but little of what they said breathes the atmosphere of Mennonite or Baptist piety. The Founders did indeed take a large step beyond the Treaty of Westphalia in guaranteeing that the federal government of the United States would establish no religion within the borders of the federation. However, they stopped well short of requiring the same disestablishment of religion in the thirteen constituent states taken separately. To the states was reserved the right, which some of them exercised for a good while after ratification, to impose, for example, a religious test for public office. Essentially, the Constitution as originally ratified reserved to the American states the same religious powers that were reserved to the signatories to the Treaty of Westphalia in Europe. And in that sense, it was statist rather than individualist Protestantism that played the larger role in the formation of American religious polity.
New England Puritanism and Virginia Anglicanism, the same two religious parties that had battled each other to a draw as Roundheads and Cavaliers in Britain, knew that neither could impose its will on the other on these shores either. Looming in the background was the far larger continental conflict between Roman Catholicism and all forms of Protestantism that had also ended in a standoff after the horrors of the Thirty Years War. Westphalia stood for neither party’s concession in principle but rather for the exhausted admission of both that neither could dictate to all Christendom. Our Founding Fathers decided to skip the religious war stage and proceed immediately to the exhausted admission.
And yet Ammerman is right in that individualist Protestantism did win out in the long run anyway and indeed as a direct result of the polity that Enlightenment political thought had put in place over a substratum of statist Protestantism. The prestige of the Constitution’s settlement of the notoriously difficult religious question was such that, moving beyond law, it became a pervasive civic culture in the United States. As this happened, the more statist Anglican and Congregational forms of Protestantism, now progressively stripped of the states that had been their vehicles, lost much of their ascendancy, while dissident forms of Protestantism like Methodism and Baptism that had never enjoyed state sponsorship gained at their expense, particularly on the American frontier. Thereafter, the stage was set for other competitors, similarly without state sponsorship, to arise and thrive.
The Second Great Awakening, running from the 1790s through the 1830s, was thus not just a romantic, emotional, and pietist reaction against the rationalist, analytical, and deist or humanist political establishment. As that, it paralleled closely enough developments in Europe where in 1799 Friedrich Schleiermacher captured the public mood perfectly with his famous “On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.” There certainly were elements of what has been called “Romantic Religion” in the United States, perhaps most especially in Transcendentalist circles in New England. But further West, in rough-and-tumble Jacksonian America, the time of the Second Great Awakening was the birth moment of the great American market in religion. Then began the bewildering proliferation of new forms of religion that remains so distinctive of American Protestantism and that has gone so far beyond anything European Protestantism has witnessed then or now. In the United States, to a degree unparalleled anywhere in the world, even in Great Britain, religious consumers dissatisfied with what the existing producers were offering could and did go into business for themselves; and the pattern established then has continued right down to the present.
The market dominance established in religion has been rich on consequence for the whole of American life. For if market success can be made the only validation that ultimately matters even in so august and tradition-bound a domain as religion, then the marketization of the entire culture is essentially accomplished. Thus, the early marketization of religion portended the marketization over time of everything in American life, including notably anything that, like an art museum, might claim to function as religion for those children of the Enlightenment who would prefer to practice no religion. Is nothing sacred? Once religion is profaned by its transformation into a religion market, what other institution can hope to hold out?
One may grant that something like this has been the outcome without asserting, whiggishly, that the outcome has been a triumph. Peter C. Phan, among all the participants in this conference, is the most forthright in withholding his applause and the most astute in recognizing that such a triumph can only be a defeat for any religion whose understanding of itself is stated in terms of intrinsic rather than extrinsic or instrumental goods. Phan notes, however, that the same rampant and omnivorous marketization that bids fair to devour organized religions may threaten mere individuals all the more, and therein he sees an opportunity. The challenge, as he sees it, for traditional religion lies in devising ways, different in every case, to turn the personal crisis of an individual young man or woman experiencing dehumanization in the American marketplace into a “teaching moment” for the rediscovery of religion as an alternate conception of self and society to the one the market imposes. 5
Though this is a large pedagogical challenge, Phan seems to me to have correctly identified the point where organized religion not only can mount a counter-offensive against marketization but has, in fact, done so in the signal instances presented at this very conference. The phenomenon of Taizé—aesthetically fascinating to me for the way that an essentially Protestant spirit has redeployed the forms and usages of Catholic monasticism—speaks most strongly to the young for a reason that has nothing to do with consciously recognized Protestant or Catholic usages. As Brother John explained to the conference, the young who visit Taizé in such numbers are touched by its liturgical and communitarian practices precisely because these are not undertaken for them. The word experience is a favorite these days in the promotional literature for posh spas. But Taizé is not a spa. The experience available there is not a product delivered up to a clientele for a price but a brief participation in a practice, a way of life, engaged in 365 days a year by the hundred resident monks. The monks intend to live the sanctified life that they have chosen whether or not any young pilgrim shows up to take part in it or not. It is thus for the paradoxical reason that the young, though warmly welcomed, are not catered to at Taizé and are not its raison d’être that mediates for them a brief, blessed escape from the commercialization that elsewhere feels so inescapable.
One heard something strikingly similar in Rabbi Roly Matalon’s explanation of why “BJ”—Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—is winning young adult adherents when other synagogues are losing them. “BJ” does not exist to enable religious Jews to meet others like themselves, Rabbi Roly insisted. Networking is not its point. Neither is Jewish education for Jewish children or the propagation of a new generation in American Jewry. Neither is social service the point, whether to the “BJ” community or to the larger Manhattan community. All this happens around the edges of the community, but its core is worship; and for those who brought the community into existence, or brought it back into existence, worship will continue so long as a minyan shows up to carry it forward.
Worship at “BJ” is aesthetically synthetic in ways that bear intriguing comparison with Taizé. As at Taizé, worship at “BJ” is both scriptural and sacramental, both rational and mystical, both structured and improvisational, both traditional and innovative, both calming and cathartic, and so forth. But the taproot of their similarity is that each proceeds by witness touched with mystery rather than by argumentation, much less by seductive salesmanship. Their market success arises from their refusal to engage in marketing.
And I note that it was just this refusal to engage in marketing that made the “implacably rooted” museums that James Traub remembers from his childhood—“archaic places, with an archaic regard for chronology, compendiousnes, categorical crispness”—sacred in a way that today’s museums are not. Those museums did not come to you. You went to them.
This consideration may properly return us to Nancy Ammerman’s reminder that Protestantism has gone first where all American religion is eventually forced to go. On first acquaintance with them, American Protestant ministers do seem to immigrant clergy from other religious traditions rather like bright-eyed and bushy-tailed American salesmen. But recall that the Americans as a people have seemed to visitors from abroad like an entire nation of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed salesmen. Read Charles Dickens on his American travels. For that matter, read the ever abashed and exquisitely sensitive Henry James. If the Jewish clergy has gone Protestant with less resistance than other immigrant clergy, it may be merely because the Jewish community as a whole has gone American more quickly and thoroughly than other immigrant subcultures have done.
I have been intrigued to read parts of a work in progress by Ross Miller advancing the claim that little of the overbearing rabbinic establishment as it existed in Russia and Eastern Europe crossed the Atlantic with the great wave of Jewish immigration from that part of the world. Miller argues that American Jewry, less channeled and checked by clerical supervision, has the more exuberantly made American civic institutions and civic usages its own.
Alexis de Tocqueville saw voluntary association, not least in its religious form, as distinctive of American society and an essential corrective to its otherwise all-corrosive American individualism. But precisely because the Protestant clergy seemed somehow the normative or “official” clergy in the United States, theirs would be the model of clerical behavior that an aggressively Americanizing community would spontaneously adopt as its own. This being the case, the corrective that “BJ” represents within American Jewry applies to American Protestantism as well, even as the corrective of Taizé applies to American Jewry. One notes with interest that Rabbi Roly is Argentine, while Brother Roger, the late founder of Taizé, was Swiss. Though nothing is more global than marketization, the triumph of the market may have gone further, earlier in the United States than it did anywhere else—to the point that correction could only come from abroad.
Pluralism is both the polite and the political word—recall that polite and political come from the same Greek root—for a reality whose ruder name is the market. The adjustment of immigrant groups to the American religious culture is, as regards pluralism, an ordeal of civility, to borrow the title phrase of a penetrating book by John Murray Cuddihy. The ordeal consists of learning to say, for example, as John Kerry did in one of the 2004 presidential debates, “I happen to be Catholic.” Kerry did not mean to reduce his religious commitment to a matter of happenstance. He was merely playing by Protestant rules. And American culture has benefited incalculably from having those rules in place. But under its ruder name, the American religious market remains a far more taxing ordeal.
urviving the ordeal begins with trusting that sooner or later, even the coolest customer wants to be told something other than that he is always right. And there may be good counsel as well in recalling that well short of any such Kierkegaardian moment, raw market considerations are not always determinative. Something more psychological than economic—something like a market society’s romance with numbers—is at often at play as well and may be more easily tamed. We have acquired in the United States the habit of acting as if more is better even when, deep down, we believe otherwise. Thus, the desire of the Getty to attract substantial audiences to its exhibitions does not arise from fear that it will go bankrupt if the gate drops. The Getty is generously enough endowed to hold itself above such considerations. Even the more strapped New-York Historical Society, Traub asserts, “didn’t need a blockbuster to stave off ruin.” Many cultural institutions—above all, in the present context, many struggling religious congregations—do indeed live or die by their attendance and must fear even desperately when older congregants are not replaced by younger. But there remains a risk that more will be thought to be better even when more is not a matter of life and death.
I repeat that I do not minimize in the slightest the real day-to-day and week-to-week difficulty that attends the life of any voluntary organization at this moment in the history of the United States. Ours is a country that has almost certainly passed its peak as an economic power. The pie that was once expanding rapidly is shrinking because of world labor competition and the related world scarcity of essential resources. The ominous escalation in oil prices is quite probably the first of many such escalations. The “jobless recovery” rather than an aberration may be a new paradigm by which the stock market and the employment rate will no longer rise or fall together. Americans, always inclined to be hustlers, are hustling faster because they know that little or nothing will be done for those who do not make the grade. They don’t have to look over their shoulder, they know that something is gaining on them. And by most empirical measures (average work week, number of paid holidays, etc.), they have less free time than do the citizens of other developed countries.
But this brings me to what will be my final point.
The triumph of the market has lately morphed into the triumph of entertainment. For “The customer is always right,” we may now increasingly substitute “The audience is always right,” and the audience is increasingly an audience of one. That is, collective entertainment is yielding steadily to technologically privatized entertainment. I recently read with grim interest an article in the August 2004 Wired magazine entitled “The Lost Boys”. The lost boys of the title are lost not just to high culture, not just to political responsibility, not just to religious commitment but even to broadcast television and to films in theatrical distribution. The 18-to-34 demography group that advertising researchers call (a bit ominously if you ask me) “the Millennials” amuse themselves on the Internet, watch cable television by preference, and only then make a little room in their schedules for a sampling of network television. Videogames, moreover, are gaining steadily on network television, and from there the drop is steep to such old-fashioned diversions as films in theaters. As for what subject matter attracts the Millennials as they build their entertainment cocoons, the top four spots go to pornography at 71%, music at 53%, auctions at 51%, and sports at 48%. Depressingly, only 30% spend any media time even on their own careers.
This is surely a picture of American culture at its least appealing. “The moronic inferno,” Saul Bellow called it in his greatest novel, Humboldt’s Gift. What is a struggling pastor or rabbi or imam to think hearing such numbers? My own mind flees to a Shakespeare sonnet (65):
Since brass nor stone nor earth nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’ersways their powers,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
Commodification was bad enough. The privatization of entertainment reduces everything and everybody not merely to a product but to an amusement, and woe to those who are not ready for prime time. In his landmark book Entertaining Ourselves to Death, the late Neil Postman made much of the phrase on the evening news, “And now this.” A news report of plague, famine, pestilence, or war—or just now a fateful election—yields in those three words to, for example, an evocation of heartwarming camaraderie at McDonald’s. What’s the harm in the alternation?
Just this: Nobody has to buy a Big Mac. You can take that kind of food or leave it. But when take-it-or-leave-it offerings become the paradigm for the entire hour and, in effect, for the whole world, everything becomes optional. You can take the entire show or leave it too. And now, if you don’t like all the channels, you can load your video game or take in an on-line orgy. It’s all up to you because, by common but powerful consent, it’s all offered for your amusement and for no other reason. You are the audience, and the audience is always right.
Where is the thread that leads out of the moronic inferno? I suggest that we find it in examples like that of Taizé, “BJ,” and Muslim Youth Camp, particularly when the campers rise at dawn to hear the Qur’an chanted in the cold of first light. The studied indifference of young people in the survey research reported on in this conference toward religion and even toward the questions being asked about religion comports very well with the data reported in Wired about the difficulty that anyone selling anything in our society has at this time reaching “the lost boys.” But behind all those “whatevers,” there lies, according to one of the advertising researchers, a great thirst for “authenticity.” And perhaps the biggest surprise: “There’s a huge lure to obscurity. That’s one of the keys—giving people something to discover, which is the antithesis of the way most advertising works.” Religious institutions, even making the most active use of showbiz techniques, cannot possibly compete in that game. But mystery is their own game, and perhaps they need to return to it.
As for that hunger or thirst for authenticity, let me suggest that it arises as the cry of the oppressed from the maw of the same omnivorous commodification in which our young people find themselves. Relentlessly prepped, tested, evaluated, sorted, and ranked, they are forced to such a considerable extent to think of themselves as commodities—and to fear that the market may not want what they have on offer—that an escape into another kind of relationship and another way of life, however dimly grasped, surely must have its appeal. Organized religion cannot effectively offer this escape if it goes too far in commodifying itself. Paradoxically, however, if it asks more, then even if it attracts fewer, it may succeed in watering an oasis in the desert of our wandering.
1 In The Secular Revolution; Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public, edited by Christian Smith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), the thesis is pursued that “the historical secularization of the institutions of American public was not a natural, inevitable, and abstract by-product of modernization; rather it was the outcome of a struggle between contending groups with conflicting interests seeking to control social knowledge and institutions” (p. vii). Against this agonistic vision, Martin Marty argues that only a new, more syncretic model can account for the mixtures of secularism and religion that are encountered in “the world that we actualy inhabit,” which “is neither exclusively secular nor exclusively religious, but rather a complex combination of both the religious and the secular, with religious and secular phenomena occurring at the same time in individuals, in groups, and in societies around the world” (Daedalus, Summer 2003, p. 42). In the Muslim world, the likelihood is vanishingly small that pluralism can be achieved through anything other than some blend of Muslim religion and secularism with an Islamic face. Cf. Abdulahi An-Naim, Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995). And the Muslim world is no longer a place apart from the West.
2 James Traub, “The Stuff of City Life,” New York Times Sunday Magazine, Oct. 3, 2004, pp. 23-28.
3 Christian Smith, “Is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism the New Religion of American Youth? Implications for the Challenge of Religious Socialization and Reproduction,” p. 26.
4 Nancy Ammerman, “Journeys of Faith: Meeting the Challenges in Twenty-First Century America,” p. 7.
5 Peter C. Phan, “Religious Identity and Belonging Amidst Diversity and Pluralism: Challenges and Opportunities for Church and Theology,” p. 6.