Review of Selling God by R. Laurence Moore

WWJD? Most everyone has probably ran across those letters in the past 10 years, and they can tell you they stand for “What would Jesus do?” Bracelets with those four little letters can cost up to $5, T-shirts can cost up to $15, and hats can cost up to $10. Many people, upon seeing the price of that merchandise simply say “Jesus wouldn’t pay $15 for a T-shirt.” One of the reasons the United States was founded was for religious freedom. Ever since the founding of this country, there has been religion entering the marketplace. There are no clear boundaries between religion and commodity. There is Clothing, music, books, television and radio programs, theater performances, and revivals (to name a few) all having to do with religion. These things cost money. In his book Selling God, American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture, author R. Laurence Moore explores this phenomenon.

R. Laurence Moore starts out by writing about the religion in the days of revivals. In a time when theater was considered to be evil, a preacher by the name of Whitefield turned his sermons into a performance. It transformed church into entertainment. Whitefield earned money off his sermons. People paid to see this “entertainment.” He was criticized for these sermons; the same way televangelists are criticized today. These eventually led to religious revivals. The revivals were a competition for people’s opinions. One of the major themes of this book is that since the United States has no national religion, churches must compete with each other to get patrons. They do what they can to get the attention of possible customers. When countries have a state church, it relieves the pressure of the church to get members. The stress to get members is gone. The United States did not have this. So these revivals shoved American religion into the marketplace of culture. Many churches criticized these revivals, saying they gave people a sense of being at something theatrical, due to the drama and entertainment. They brought the godly into contact with “atheists and scoffers.”

Despite this supposed “separation of church and state” in the United States, there is a linkage between churches and politics. Organized churches have acted as political lobbies. Churches could lose their tax-exempt states for engaging in too much political activity, though few churches are threatened by this. Religion was beginning to take on aspects of a commodity. They were coming up with marketing strategies, advertising, and distribution networks. Churches started to make adjustments on their stance on the theater. Originally the theater was seen as an atmosphere not suitable for Christians. This atmosphere began to change. As a place where more than play occurred, they were able to increase ticket prices. They searched for mediums that were morally suitable for women and children. Theaters stopped selling alcohol and the third tier was cleansed of its traffic in sex and it was renamed “the family circle.” After these changes, many church leaders dropped their position that the theater posed dangerous competition to religious worship. They also dropped the fear that people valued the Bible on for its resemblance of style to their favorite play and that people valued a sermon only by the degree of stage effect which accompanies its delivery. Since the adjustment of these attitudes, other factors were affected. The theater was making money by selling religion, so other people could make money off of selling religion. This opened up a new door of selling religion beyond the theater.

The Mormons had a different view that other Protestants. The Mormons liked amusements. They had a social hall for fun and socializing outside of church. They believed that religion covered all activities. The Lord made play, and he made it essential to human happiness. Ministers in other denominations eventually adopted this idea. They decided that recreation was necessary. It was an essential part of a good life, designed by God.

Central Park was originally designed as a place of leisure, not working. People could experience “passive enjoyment of a quiet, natural setting that induced orderly and contemplative habits.” The architecture was designed to control public pastimes and “sacrilizing leisure.”

Charles Willson Peale developed a business venture in the mode of a museum. This museum was an attempt to combine education, moral uplift and amusement. Peale was a businessman though, and he needed to make money. So he started displaying tawdry attractions in order to sell tickets. By the 1840’s, this cheap attractions threatened to take over his entire museum. A more widely recognized religious business venture that Moore wrote about was the Young Men’s Christian Association, or the YMCA. This organization tried to legitimatize leisure.

After the Civil War, there were some new changes in the world of profiting from religion. Society was more focused on endless pleasure seeking. To those people, church going was just another social activity that kept life interesting. Culture industry and religion learned from and adjusted to each other. The Methodists developed the Chautauqua Association. Its original purpose was to provide a program of mental training for Sunday school teachers of all denominations. It needed an audience though, so it quickly moved beyond its original purpose. Many Methodists disapproved of this organization. They thought its goal was more social that religious.

Many women suffered from boredom, so they formed their own groups that merged socializing with religion. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was one such group. This group had many purposes. They hoped to combine its religious aims with legislative goals, as well as giving women a chance to socialize outside of their homes. Christian culture was prevalent, but unlike church sermons, there was no heavy hand of prayer or theological sermons. These were social settings that brought people together, but they did have the Christian undertone, unlike other activities, such as gambling or frequenting bars.

A book of the commodification of religion would not be complete without a section of Christmas. Christmas is a store owners dream. By the end of the 19th century, Christmas was a legal holiday in all US states. It was becoming more than just a day, it was becoming an entire season. The church asked that people “put the Christ back in Christmas.” This only stirred up a market for manufactured nativities, religious cards, and recorded sacred music. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol reminded readers to remember the poor on Christmas. By the mid 1800’s, Christmas Cards were becoming increasingly popular. Department stores turned Christmas into a commercial event. The owners of these stores saw nothing wrong with this. There was nothing awkward about promoting their faith with a boost in profits. The miracle of Santa flying referred back to the miracle of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem in advertising.

After World War II, religious books started making it onto the best seller lists. One of the books that R. Laurence Moore writes about is the book Protestant Catholic Jew, An Essay in American Religious Sociology by Will Herberg. Moore calls Herberg’s book the bleakest assessment of the decade American religious landscape. The books are related in some ways. Herberg wrote about how religion was changing in America. The traditional content was being eaten away from within. Religion in America was a melting pot, and becoming generalized. Religion was losing content, and having little to no real impact on people’s lives. Herberg and Moore both analyze the way religion has developed in the United States. They both acknowledge that the media has played some role in the forms that religion has taken. Religion has taken a dramatic role, and some of that is due to the media’s influence. People also depend on religion to help them be healthy and happy. For some people, religion is a service that provides benefits. The two books also parallel each other in that believing religion is becoming corrupt and less pure. Religions are getting less pure with time. They have to make money somehow though. Religions and those advocates of religion are more concerned with drawing a crowd and earning money instead of spreading their religious messages. The lines between different denominations of religions are becoming blurred. Protestant evangelicals for example, can be divided into fundamentalists and Pentecostals. Although there are some evangelicals that fit into neither of those categories. With each generation, things within the church change, and people become religious without religion. They devote an hour each week to worship, and little else.

The book Selling God deals with religion in the milieu of society. Society is what causes the people Moore wrote about in this book to be in mortal danger, but at the same time, without society, this book could not be written. Moore spent a lot of time writing about how people interacted with each other while still maintaining a chaste lifestyle. The church changed their position on this though, as people’s behaviors changed. There were theater performances, social halls, and organizations like the WCTU and the Chautauqua Association.

Moore also touched on technology. I think that if his book would have been written ten years later, he would have included a lot more about technology since that is the direction our society is headed. He did write briefly on subjects like televangelism. This created some problems for Protestants. They believed that televangelism took away church members, and with fewer members came less donations each week. According to Moore, religion hasn’t completely transformed into a technological institution. It still remains a social institution. However, technology is about efficiency, and many Christians realize this. Some Christians have their own radio and television stations. This way, people can listen to the word of God all week long, instead of just at church services on Sunday mornings. This book was written just before the Internet really came into its own. However, if it were written just a few years later, I would be interested to hear what Moore had to say about religion on the World Wide Web. On the Internet, there is no FCC to control what goes up, like there was with radio and television. Even in the years since this book was written, society has become more and more dependent on technology.

There are some rituals that Moore writes about. Religious revivals were in some form a practice of the sacred. Not everyone saw revivals as a way of worshipping God. There were those who compared these revivals to the theater. They said the pulpit was transformed into a stage. For the believers, these revivals were a ritual. God was the sacred, and the revivals were worshipping God.

I really did not like the book Selling God at all. I am not really sure what I expected when I started it, but it wasn’t this. That is not the reason I did not like it. It seems like Moore is more concerned with providing the readers with a complete history of religion and how it developed. I think his point would have been made clearer if he would have provided a little less detail. I felt like I was having to read through a bunch of irrelevant information to get to the point of what Miller was trying to say. He provides a lot of detail to prove his point, but it seems like overkill after a while. The book itself is very dry, and reading example after example became very tiresome. I found this to be almost a flaw in the argument. I know it sounds ludicrous to say too much evidence can weaken an argument, but for me anyway, this makes it harder to find the point of the book. The evidence he provided was sufficient for his conclusions, but it was just hard to find the conclusions through all the other information provided in the book. I felt like I was reading a very uninteresting history book. The topic of the book is something that could be a very interesting subject. Maybe it was just because I was expecting something different, but I thought the author missed writing about what could have been a very interesting book, by providing the reader with an overload of information. Maybe the book would have been more convincing if Moore would have narrowed the topic down a little bit. He seemed to try and cover a lot of information for one book.

Despite my opinion of the book, it is informative and provides the reader with a lot of information on how religion came into the marketplace. Religion will always be a commercial commodity as long as there is money to be made off of it. So much has changed even in the years since this book was published, and as long as society and technology keep changing, the way religion is marketed will keep changing too.

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