Books in Review
Selling God

Copyright (c) 1994 First Things 45 (August/September 1994)

Hustling the Religious Product

Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture. By R. Laurence Moore. Oxford University Press. 317 pp. $25.

Reviewed by Mark A. Noll

In holy writ, the conjunctions between authentic faith and the worlds of commerce are strangely varied: the Hebrew Scriptures contain much in the Pentateuch on the protection and use of property, but a different realm of existence is central to the prophets: "Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters, and he who has no money, come, buy, and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." (Isaiah 55:1) In the words of Jesus, nothing could be stated more definitely than that "a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." (Luke 12:15) Yet from the selfsame authority we hear that the End of the Age can be compared to a man who chastises a servant for not putting "my money with the bankers" so that he could have "received what was my own with interest." (Matthew 25:27)

These biblical words do not directly answer modern questions about how to organize economies, nor do they provide the believer with easy guidelines to the practical conundrums thrown up for faith and morals by the need to live in a modern economic world. They do, however, show that biblical writers regarded economic and spiritual analysis as overlapping, and yet distinct, modes of reasoning.

R. Laurence Moore's Selling God is an extended historical meditation on religious experience in the United States, where, from the start, the two spheres of reasoning "religious and commercial" have occupied almost identical territory. The larger canvass of the book is Protestantism, which from its sixteenth-century beginnings Moore regards as "an exercise in efficiency and bureaucratic streamlining that appealed to Europe's commercial bourgeoisie." But the specific focus is the manifold ways in which the story of religion in the United States may be written as a story of "commodification." Moore, a veteran interpreter of American religion who teaches history at Cornell, states his thesis at the start or close of almost every chapter: secularization in America has never meant a zero-sum struggle in which the "world" and the "church" battle to control the same bit of turf. Rather, secularization has always been a much more nuanced reality, with the gains and losses for religion attending the same set of circumstances. It is "religion's systematic and expansive complicity in mechanisms of market exchange" that provides Moore his argument and dictates the arrangement of his evidence.

This study is quite a bit more subtle than other recent books that have also featured the market orientation of American religion like Roger Finke and Rodney Stark's The Churching of America, 1776-1990, which celebrates the struggle of denominations for "market share"; or Michael Scott Horton's Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism, a bracing jeremiad bemoaning exactly what Moore describes. The subtlety in Moore's book comes from the recognition that in the United States, it could not have been any other way. A free society, which prohibits a state church and discourages most kinds of governmental assistance to religion and a society, moreover, which, at least after the 1790s, organized itself in accordance with the reasoning of free markets is a society where, as Moore puts it, "Either religion keeps up with other cultural aspects of national life, including the commercial forms, or it has no importance." The citizens of the United States "remained a religious people because religious leaders, and sometimes their opponents, found ways to make religion competitive with other cultural products." Put in these terms, the process Moore describes has an air of inevitability about it and so deserves to be explored before it is celebrated or condemned.

The fact that Moore himself admits to a "secular" standpoint actually helps to clarify his interpretations. Moore does comment more extensively on how commodification affects the ability to apprehend transcendence than his purportedly secular standpoint would lead readers to expect. But for the most part, he succeeds in treating the subject in terms of historical forces instead of divine reality a strategy that, ironically, only sharpens the impact of his book on those who do believe.

If Moore comes close to overkill in repeating his thesis, his evidence is strikingly diverse. The book's first five chapters treat ways that nineteenth-century Protestants (with a concentration on circumstances before the Civil War) carried out the commodification of faith. The last four treat twentieth-century matters and expand coverage to Jews and Catholics, while also noting the very different forms of Protestantism that have emerged in this century. Throughout, Moore readily acknowledges the insights of earlier scholars on the particular topics he treats; his contribution is not so much fresh research as large-scale synthesis of individual themes that the burgeoning scholarship on American religious history has made available for such a purpose.

For the nineteenth-century United States, Moore argues his thesis by examining salient examples of religious-market interaction. He begins with activistic Protestants, led by the American Bible Society and the American Tract Society, who exploited new capacities for popular print to reach the country's rapidly expanding audience of readers. He then describes the way that urban revivalists adopted theatrical methods for their own tasks even as they combatted the evils of the stage. Moore shows how the Protestant mobilization for evangelism and reform provided models for the organization of America's first political parties and then outlines ways in which political salesmanship may have doubled back to influence the churches. He reviews the tangled story of why Protestants first resisted the exploitation of leisure but then became earnest advocates in market competition for leisure time. This section closes by examining the way that Protestant leaders self-consciously used religious controversy to "sell" their distinct beliefs and also to distribute books and periodicals, market their meetings, finance their church buildings, and meet budgets.

Moore's case studies provide intriguing vignettes: from the instincts of Washington biographer Mason Weems, who was almost as capable a salesman for the idea of lively, dramatic, popular literature as he was a seller of such works himself; through the reluctant accommodation of evangelical Protestants to the idea that fiction and the visual arts could be enlisted for religious purposes; to the way in which republican civic humanism worked to inspire audience-oriented market thinking for both Protestant reform societies and the great political parties of the antebellum period. But his overarching conclusion is more important: even to have a chance at preserving a substantial place for religion in American society at a time when most European nations were witnessing steady decline in religious adherence, the question was not whether Americans would market their faith but how.

The arguments of the second half of the book may not be quite as compelling, since (as Moore recognizes) immigration, splits within denominations, and adaptability to modern realities have led to a tremendous diversity in religion throughout the United States. Still, by focusing on mainstream liberal Protestants identified with the Federal and National Councils of Churches, the Protestant evangelicals who have most aggressively exploited the popular media, and those Catholics and Jews who have participated most visibly in popular culture, Moore sustains his argument down to the present.

For the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he shows how the Chautauqua movement brought together into a seamless whole an unlikely combination of traditional Protestant uplift and equally traditional Protestant suspicion of organized holidays. As a counterpart Moore suggests that working Americans, especially the growing numbers of Roman Catholics, made their own adaptations of religion to laborers' needs in ways that were neither as orderly as contemporary religious leaders hoped nor as filled with bad faith as later Marxist interpreters contended.

The book closes with strong chapters examining full-scale liberal Protestant commitment to the big-time advertising of the 1920s and the similarly unreserved exploitation of television and radio by evangelicals in the last half century. In these chapters, Moore is very hard on the liberal Protestants, especially for their painstaking efforts to remove the inconveniences of faith. In this context, Moore summarizes Reinhold Niebuhr's complaint about Protestant liberalism: "The problem was that they had exchanged the emotional fervor of Christianity, its deep and moving feeling for the terrible burden of human depravity, for a breezy faith in efficiency." And he says of efforts by the Federal and National Councils of Churches to retain free air time by accommodating to the wishes of the networks and the Federal Communications Commission: "The effort not to antagonize an audience (listeners after all only had to turn the dial) seemed a strange extrapolation from the life of a crucified Christ." For some reason, Moore expresses warmer feelings toward the evangelical entrepreneurs of radio and television who, in their own way, have out-liberaled the liberals in orienting their message to what could pay.

In a revealing epilogue, Moore tries to take the sting out of a book that could be read as a massive indictment of the churches. What we have seen in the United States is new, Moore argues, only as it represents a new way of brokering the accommodations that have always occurred between church and world. "Although the nature of organized religion's "secularity has changed in the past two hundred years," he says, "that . . . is not by itself a reason for scandalized outcry." "The particular form of worldliness that churches in the United States have exhibited by entering the marketplace of culture has only displaced earlier forms of church worldliness: direct political involvement in the domestic and foreign policy of states, conspicuous displays of non-bourgeois pomp and wealth, and heavy investment in the higher forms of philosophical and scientific knowledge."

But despite a great capacity to treat such matters analytically, and with much deference to the ongoing spiritual mission of religious groups, Moore cannot hide his alarm as the book draws to a close. He asks where religious bodies will obtain "transformative power" where they will find "the paradigm-busters" and "the real religious prophets" if the churches are so thoroughly integrated into the system that the effort to market consumes their whole vision.

This provocative book raises, but does not itself answer, several vitally important questions. First, it draws attention to the more general worldwide context in which religious bodies now struggle to exist. That context may be put in the form of a conundrum: from the experience of the last two centuries it would seem to be the case that for churches to engage without reserve in the world of laissez faire markets is to lose their souls (mostly the experience of the liberal West); on the other hand, for societies to seek an alternative to laissez faire economic organization is to destroy bodies along with souls, for churches and individuals alike (mostly the experience of the communist East and the tribal South). For churches in the West, the spiritual lesson of Selling God would seem to be that there is no point in opting out of the market relationships that define such a vast proportion of western life. At the same time, opting in must be regarded as a dangerous matter where the stakes, as stated long ago, are ultimate: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Matthew 5:21)

A second effect of Moore's book is to raise curiosity about other ways of organizing religion that have embodied alternatives to the commodification of faith. Historically, these alternatives have included primarily varieties of established religion and of radical sectarianism. Neither of these alternatives is flourishing today. The Roman Catholic Church is the prime instance of a body that once insisted upon the principle of establishment, but now increasingly acknowledges the importance of freedom in the choice and expression of religion. Sectarianism (at least of the sort that abandons market concerns) also seems like an increasingly difficult road to pursue in a world so insistently networked as the globe has become at the end of the twentieth century. Yet it may be that seasonings of an establishment mind, or hints of sectarian subversion, may still retain some potency and, if pursued by religions in the marketplace, may enable believers to sell their wares with more integrity than otherwise might be the case.

Finally, almost despite himself, Moore pushes believers to a fresh evaluation of the "product." In the end, if what churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious organizations have may be marketed, then there is no purpose in wringing one's hands if it is marketed. But there is every need to see clearly what is going on, and to strive valiantly against simply equating the marketable with the real. One of Moore's most provocative assertions heightens the issue: "Religion in the marketplace of culture has become an ordinary commodity. It might seem a high-class product or a low-class product, just like automobiles and cheeses. Jim Bakker is Velveeta; Norman Vincent Peale is sliced Swiss in plastic wrap; Reinhold Niebuhr is Brie. Without an official role to play, religion's power lies in what can be claimed through advertising. Conservative evangelicals and liberal Protestants are essentially doing the same thing. Imitation breeds imitation, and so it will go into the future." In these terms, everything hinges on the implications of the word "ordinary."

Mark A. Noll is Professor of History at Wheaton College and author of A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Eerdmans).