R. Laurence Moore. Selling God. American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture. Oxford University Press. New York, 1994.
A lot of times do I ask myself the question how things got to be the way they are. That is by no means a question I care to ask within the domain of religion alone. However that domain is one in which fascination prompts this question most urgently in my experience. An answer to this question then is presented by R. Laurence Moore in his book Selling God.
Before I deal with the answer that I understand Moore arrives at in this book, let me first note that the tone of the book is very enjoyable. I don’t really know how to accurately describe it but scholastic wit might hit close to home. An example of this might say more than trying to describe it. In the introductory chapter he writes: “No one dares suggest that neon signs blinking the message that “Jesus Saves” may be false advertising.” (p. 7) Right away I knew I was in for a treat.
Let this light tone that is chosen not be misleading though, it is by all means a thoroughly researched, profound and nuanced analysis of the way in which the market and religion have interacted and have influenced each other in the United States of America. It is in fact a dazzling voyage through American commercial history. Most perplexing seemed all the nineteenth century developments and figures. Religious figures that can almost do no else but amaze such as George Whitefield, Charles Grandison Finney, P. T. Barnum, the Fox sisters and Frances Willard. Not to be outdone almost by some other secular ones such as the writer Mason Locke Weems and the entertainer P. T. Barnum.
Arbitrary bewilderment aside though, what conclusion does his analysis lead him to? The answer seems to begin with the fact that the separation of church and state left all denominations unprotected and depending on charity. The pluralist situation then demanded that all denominations compete with one and other. By any means necessary. Those who embraced popular and commercial means in fact then fared better than those who didn’t. As Moore puts it in his epilogue: “Religious leaders perceived the decline of spiritual power and decried the loss in their sermons. Piteous breast-beating, however, was not an effective reaction. Along with everyone else, clerics were left with no choice except to slip by steady degrees into an affectionate embrace of the world. They were forced into postures of selling annually religious doctrines that could keep up with the competition. Religious leaders could either give in to the sway of the market or watch as their churches died.” (p. 269)
It is a strong conclusion but by no means covers all the whys and hows treated in the book. The narrative is very broad and while being introduced to the fiction writers, entertainers, providers of recreation, prophets of health and even Muscular Christianity, things that you find in contemporary Christianity tend to fall into place. It would almost make one stand in humble understanding rather than burst out in laughter when faced with a painting of Stephen Sawyer. Almost.