Just in time for Narinimania, The December 3 Economist has a story on the bustling, hot new market segment in America, Evangelical Christians, who in their bottomless thirst for social recognition apparently enjoy being marketed to (the more proseltyzing they experience, the better?) and make for “incredibly loyal” consumers. Churches are not houses of worship, per se, but a “ready-made distribution channel” and pastors are not spiritual leaders but “pyromarketers” looking to spread the word about some choice Jesus gear.
It seems that the merging of commercial and spiritual interests, rather than threaten the sanctity of the religion, merely serves to reaffirm its potential to take up a central place in every aspect of everyday life; it suits the evangelical dream of theocracy. So evangelicals don’t find books like What Would Jesus Eat?, a diet book, or “praise the Lord backpacks” to be vulgarizing and insulting, they don’t find it a travesty or trivializing; instead they likely see it as the inevitable conquering of the quotidian, and their religion assuming its rightful omnipresence. Such items are altogether appropriate devotional objects in a commercial consumer culture—evangelical Christianity doesn’t seek to change this quality of culture, it merely hopes to assimilate it, merge with it, spiritualize it. This may be why it is growing; it works well with the status quo economic organiztion of American society, it affirms what already exists and spiritualizes it. Christian commodities are an affirmation of the way spirituality can inform all of life’s decisions. Hence in the South, certain billboards are marked with crosses to confirm their evangelical-friendly business practices. I always have assumed specifically Christian products are automatically inferior, because they are relying to some degree on your faith in their quality. You are not buying them for their inherent utility but for a faith-based nontangible quality added on by the means of its production. In other words, the companies who make this junk are exploiting one’s Christianity, taking advantage of an established cultural identity and latching tokens of display on to it, trying to create the impression that you are not a “true Christian” if you don’t have a Jesus backpack or a Jesus chain or listen to Jesus music. (Kind of like how I had to listen to the Cure to justify my bad haircuts in 1985 and prove my alternativity.) You have to display who you are on the surface of your life through consumer goods; that is the definitive tenet of faith of the consumer society. But really, buying Christian is not so different from buying NewBalances because you are against unfair labor practices. Now, I wouldn’t personally see eating chicken sandwiches as an especially righteous act, but maybe those who eat at the thoroughly Christianized Chik-Fil-A fast-food restaurants (so pious they are closed on Sunday) do. Chik-Fil-A’s “first priority…has never been just to serve chicken,” according to founder Truett Cathy’s book Eat Mor Chikin: Inspire More People, “It is to serve a higher calling.”
It is easy to be cynical of such statements, and of the way evangelical Christians often preach profit-making as an emblem of righteousness. But those worried about church and state separation breaking down should also be worried about the commercialization of Christianity as well, not because it is trivializing faith, but because business is the State in America, and if Christians control the markets, they pretty much will control our lives.