I happened on a conversion scene the other day. It was taking place the public library, of all places. An older guy with a silvery brushcut and a big grin was working over a hardscrabble couple in their thirties. He sat between them. The man and woman weren't smiling and they weren't looking at each other. Me, I, just stood there pretending to look for a certain volume on the shelf. But I was fascinated. Who comes to the library to find Jesus?
I guess their sorrows had brought this couple to the point where they were ready to try anything, but they sure didn't look happy about it. All that would change, the older guy promised them.
"Before I got saved," he was telling them, "I done everything bad there was to do. Got to the point where I didn't want to go on. But something pulled me up from the depths. Something called the Lord." He beamed his big smile on each of them in turn.
"Your lives will change, too. You'll see. All your troubles will go away if you give them up to Jesus. God has a wonderful plan for your lives. And," he added, beaming at the Mrs., "our church shows biblically correct movies for the youngsters every weekend. You're gonna love it."
At this moment, I was seized with a powerful urge to pull up a chair and butt in. Of course, I didn't -- my mother raised me right. If I had, though, I would have said something like this.
"Hold on a second, folks. Before you sign up with the Jesus dealership, have you considered all your options? How about Hinduism? Of maybe you'd like to be Muslims? But what am I saying? When I look at you, sir, I see a man of discriminating taste. Not just any old religion will do for you. No sir, for you we've got something special: Zoroastrianism! Comes complete with both fire and water rituals. So, what'll it take for me to put you behind the wheel of a new faith today?"
It used to be that religions proselytized with promises about the hereafter. If there was a present-day benefit to be gained, it was generally something like not being tortured or put to death. But all that has changed.
Like everything else, the competition for souls has gone global, and marketing reigns supreme. As in so many other areas, America has led the way when it comes to the commercialization of religion. Almost from the inception of the republic, there has been a strong streak of salesmanship in American religion. It started with Great Awakening, gained momentum with the televangelist, and only got stronger with megachurch. And so we have come to this: Coupon Clipper Christianity.
Money-Back Guarantee: Prosperity Gospel churches have a deal for you! Give them your money, and God will give you back even more! The most successful of this line of preachers, Joel Osteen, explains it this way:
"I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college."
But wait, there's more! Today's customer-focused Christianity tries to make being a believer a totally worry-free experience. In just three easy steps, you are assured, you can get instant freedom from loneliness, anxiety about the future, and a guaranteed place in heaven. Oh, and God will be your personal butler, delivering whatever you demand:
Know for sure that you are saved!
You can now know for sure that you are saved. The scripture gives you many verses that will confirm this fact. "I write this to you who believe in the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life. And we can be confident that he will listen to us whenever we ask Him for anything in line with His will. And if we know he is listening when we make our request, we can be sure that he will give us what we ask for." (1 John 5:13-15 LBT).
The late Stephen Jay Gould made a now famous argument for the compatibility of science and religion. He said they occupied "nonoverlapping magesteria," by which he meant different realms. (Gould would rarely use plain words when he could get his hands on what Mark Twain would have called "gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar" ones.) Gould's idea, which some would call wishful thinking, was that science tells us how the natural world works, and religion tells us how to live in it. Empirical description on the one hand, morality on the other. Many critics objected that religion doesn't stay on its side of border but attempts to tell believers exactly how the world was, is, and will be.
With the rise of for-profit theology, however, we have to ask whether religion is still in the morality business at all. Coupon-clipper Christianity seems to be all about babying the customer. Why worry about anything when forgiveness is just a ritual away and you are *guaranteed* whatever you want? What's morality got to do with it?
Oh, there are a few rules: don't have an abortion, don't be gay, and don't vote for a Democrat. If you want to know why not, you don't need to think or read philosophy, you just need to believe that all of the above are "an abomination unto the Lord."
Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that all Christians subscribe to this kind of banal, market-driven theology. I'm not saying that all evangelicals believe this way. And I'm most definitely not saying that only Christianity makes use of marketing. But it is a fact that adherents are peeling away from mainstream denominations like bandaids on a hot summer's day, while the slick megachurches grow.
Maybe none of this worries you too much. After all, America is the world's leading free market for religions. Here, as in no other country, you can join whatever religion you like, belong to more than one, or quit them all. But we should worry, and here's why. If you can combine the manipulative power of marketing with the totalizing ideology of religion, you can get a person to say, do, or believe anything. One grotesque example is the Westboro Baptist Church, which has gained fame by protesting at military funerals. Why? Their website address says it all: www.godhatesfags.com.
Painful as that may be, a far more dangerous instance is the marketing savvy of al-Qaeda and its many spinoffs. Islamist extremists have learned how to combine violent imagery (of their own making!) with religious messages, music, and symbols to recruit successfully worldwide -- even here in America.
The only way to respond to this onslaught of marketing and its potentially devastating consequences is to give people -- especially children -- the mental tools they need to fend off improbable claims. Suspect enticements range from "God will grant whatever you wish if you say these magic words" to "God will give you a big reward if you strap explosives to your body and blow yourself up in an airplane." One is more deadly than the other, to be sure, but they both represent harmful ways of believing. So, here's a simple start: if it seems too good -- or bad -- to be true, then it's almost certainly false.
Follow Clay Farris Naff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/claynaff