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Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture.

Why do more Americans than Europeans identify themselves as religious? Given that a central tenet of the Constitution is the separation of church and state, how has religion nevertheless managed to pervade American culture, politics, and identity? And why, in a nation of believers, has religion taken the kitschy forms of Christian theme parks, Hollywood Bible epics, and New Age crystal shops? Does the pervasiveness of commercialized religion in America indicate that, despite the protestations of the vast majority of Americans that they are religious, Americans' practice of religion has become so entwined with leisure and consumption that true religion in America is dead?

In Selling God, R. Laurence Moore explains the pervasiveness of religious self-identification among Americans, and the intense commodification of religion that characterizes the American landscape in terms of the absence of a state-supported religious establishment in the United States. Because American religious leaders have been unable to rely on state sanctions to bring in congregants, they have had to compete for followers, not only against each other, but also against a full array of worldly snares and amusements.

The results of religious leaders' neck-to-neck competition in the "marketplace of culture" have been the excesses that some feel are characteristic of American religious practice. If American religion appears barely distinguishable from the larger commercial world, it is because American religious leaders, desperate to attract the attention of new audiences, have frequently drawn upon the very worldly pleasures their doctrines condemned. Early-nineteenth-century evangelicals may have been suspicious of leisure, but they provided music, action, and spectacle at their revival meetings on a scale that dwarfed all competing amusements in rural America. Preachers who condemned the theater for its artificiality nevertheless studied the arts of performance and oratory in order to keep their own audiences spellbound. And some Christian authors attempted to promote chaste behavior by writing lurid tales of the evils of sex and violence that, but for the tacked-on tale of redemption at the end, could easily be mistaken for the racier literature they overtly condemned.

Moore does not view these compromises as evidence of American religion's victimization at the hands of commercial culture, as some would argue, nor as evidence of its triumphant sacralization of culture, as an earlier school of historians might claim. Instead, Moore depicts American religious leaders deeply engaged with popular culture as both innovators and incorporators. Protestant leaders (and Mormons, to a lesser extent) not only incorporated the tactics of their worldly competitors, but also led the way in new market techniques that would later be copied in the larger marketplace. Protestants' market innovations were most dramatic in the early to mid-nineteenth century, when Methodist circuit riders pioneered new methods of door-to-door communication, and the American Tract Society and American Bible Society instituted methods of mass production and distribution of printed material that would later be picked up by salesmen and political campaigners of all persuasions.

American religion affected American culture in ways more profound than blazing a trail of persuasion for later advertisers to follow. Moore argues that religious leaders' competitive energies left an imprint on numerous aspects of American life. American denominations' intense but orderly competition with each other both provided a pattern for and helped to legitimate the competitive energies of American political parties. The scandal sheets recounting "true tales" of polygamous Mormons, suicidal Millerites or lecherous ministers served as "serialized best-sellers" and provided Americans with a forum to discuss issues of sexuality as well as physical and mental sickness and health. And pressure from religious leaders led to elevated moral tones (and prices) in those popular amusements religious organizations could not stifle or incorporate, from boxing and saloons to movies and vaudeville. These shifts in tone, Moore argues, ultimately made these pleasures more amenable to both working-class and middle-class audiences.

Moore recognizes the negative aspects of religious leaders' eagerness to market their "product." When religions are marketed to appeal to broad audiences, they are inevitably watered down and commodified. Moore warns, however, against snobbery; there is no reason to assume, he asserts, that spirituality cannot be expressed through mass-marketed forms of religiosity.

Indeed, Moore claims that widespread social benefits accrue from religious leaders' involvement in the marketplace of culture. Religious affiliations generated by competitive religious leaders provide individual Americans with a much-needed sense of belonging and identification in an otherwise free and disordered landscape. More dramatically, Moore asserts that competitive religious behavior leads to religious toleration. "[T]he market model assisted the spread of toleration by legitimizing competition. When people think of religion as something to be sold rather than as something imposed . . . religious toleration advances" (p. 272). It is the "market side of American religious life" that has spared the United States the religious and ethnic violence that "tears apart Ireland, Iraq, Bosnia, India, Afghanistan, and other large sections of the world," Moore claims (pp. 270-71).

Selling God is a highly ambitious book. Moore's topic is American religion and its reflective and formative interaction with both folk culture and commercial entertainment over three centuries. On the whole, Moore succeeds in his aims. Selling God conclusively demonstrates the intimate interaction of religious and commercial culture. It proves that many religious leaders were immersed in the gaudy secular culture they claimed to oppose, and that a wide array of American commercial and political institutions grew from religious roots. Moore's tone is lively, and he writes with an ease that belies the vast synthesis of material his work contains.

Moore's thesis, nevertheless, is quite simple. Americans are religious, he claims, because religious leaders, forced to compete with one another and with the broader world of amusements, succeeded in making religion entertaining enough to hold its own against all competitors. One wonders if that simple formula could explain the widely varying forms of religious identification held by Americans, from Pentecostals to immigrant Catholics, from Unitarians to the Nation of Islam. Moore's book does not answer this question. Despite the broad focus on "American religion" claimed by the book's subtitle, Moore writes almost exclusively about evangelical and liberal white Protestants. Other peoples and religious traditions, no matter how central their activities might be to Moore's theme of the interaction of religious faith and American commercial culture, get short shrift. (Moore's last book, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, 1986, dealt with "outsider" faiths such as Catholicism. Judaism, and African American Christianity.) Moore does devote several fascinating pages to Mormonism, and New Age puts in an appearance at the book's conclusion. African American Christianity, however, is allotted just four pages, mostly concerned with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Moore's treatment of Catholicism is limited to brief discussions of Terence Powderly and the 1930s Legion of Decency. Although Moore states that twentieth-century "mass commercial culture" was "unthinkable without the Jewish contribution" (p. 202), Judaism does not receive even a paragraph of sustained treatment in the book.

Providing a welcome alternative to most historians of American religion, Moore consistently highlights the entertainment value of ostensibly serious religious activities. Moore comments, for example, "It is hard to read through these accounts [of early-nineteenth-century revivals] without thinking of modern rock concerts" (p. 49). Yet surely the draw of religious events and organizations lay not merely in the entertainment they provided, but in the picture of the world they articulated. Unlike commercial amusements, religious controversy and religious literature were (and remain) compelling to Americans because they touch upon almost every aspect of life, from the way to raise children to the proper response to sickness or death, from the meaning of power and powerlessness to the political tactics one is willing to embrace, from one's response to nature to one's attitude towards the body and sexuality. This broader function of religion is entirely omitted from Moore's account.

Moore admits from the start that his analysis "does not pay much attention to the intricate appeal and complexity of religious ideas" (p. 8). But rather than simply bracketing it, Moore comes close to saying that religious thought is a contradiction in terms. Summing up the views of a critic of revivals, Moore writes that revivalist preachers' emotional speaking style "crushed intellectual understanding and any resistance to sensuality" (p. 49). The arguments of nineteenth-century lyceum speakers, whose religiously charged oratory on topics ranging from spiritualism to abolitionism held mid-nineteenth-century Americans rapt, were often "trumped up, philosophically empty and intellectually jejune," Moore writes (p. 60). And he states that nineteenth-century popular fiction that treated, not women's sexual trials, but their religious ones, was just a big bore. "Unviolated and untempted chastity no longer provokes much interest," he comments (p. 25).

Other scholars analyzing religious revivalists, spiritualist lecturers and sentimental fiction writers have found that their debates and concerns, far from being "trumped up," often illuminated central tensions of nineteenth-century American culture. Revivalists' insistence upon the individual's responsibility for damnation or salvation both expressed and promoted the dramatic, century-long shift from a corporate to individualistic worldview.(1) Spiritualists' radical assertion of individual autonomy led them to promote abolitionism, women's rights and health reform, and to oppose evangelical efforts to enforce Sabbath rules.(2) Sentimental fiction, which narrated a young girl's struggle to master her unruly self, portrayed and promoted the eroticization and internalization of self-discipline that shaped the identity of the Victorian middle class in general, and Victorian middle-class women in particular.(3) Although Moore alludes to this scholarship, he doesn't allow it to qualify or render more complex his account of religion's appeal for Americans.

Moore's book is not written against "mentalite" historians of American religion. He instead positions himself against the reductionists and "socialists" who argue, he writes, that capitalists promoted a "religiously tamed commercial culture" in order to rob workers of their "capacity to make independent moral assessments" (p. 190). In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find any such assertion in historical studies published during the past fifteen years; not because historians have become more sensitive to religion (Moore is completely justified in chastising them for downplaying the constructive role of religion in popular culture), but because in the past decade historians have become more sophisticated about the workings of ideology, particularly in the realm of popular culture. Fifteen years after the first English translations of Michel Foucault, and five to ten years since the works of Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, John Fiske, and other scholars of popular ideology have become influential, few historians of leisure and popular culture would argue, as Moore claims they do, that capitalist-sponsored revivals "automatically and everywhere produce[d] a population of gulled workers who failed to understand their own self-interests" (p. 178). Instead, most of the recent studies footnoted in Moore's text carefully trace the way popular culture and popular ideology are compromises that gain their strength not from their ability to crush workers' autonomy, but from the emergence of unlikely coalitions that appeal to the perceived self-interest of broad cross-sections of the populations. Just as Moore downplays the complexity of his subjects' attraction to diverse forms of religious expression, so does he dramatically simplify the arguments of the historians he takes to task. This simplification is unnecessary, and distracts attention from Moore's own arguments.

Finally, Moore's assertion that free competition, or the "market," is the key to the order, harmony, and religious toleration he believes characteristic of the United States, seems shaky at best. (I was not convinced that religious disestablishment and market competition fully explain the absence in the United States of ethnic conflict on the scale found in India, Iraq, or Ireland.) The contemporary American religious scene, furthermore, provides evidence to the contrary. The disparate Christian groups forming today's Christian Right, while clearly highly competitive with one another, with popular culture, and in the forefront of market innovation, are also doing all they can to impede toleration of difference in all its forms.

Selling God is rich in anecdote, impressive in its synthesis of a wide range of secondary sources, and valuable in its sharp focus on the issue of the interaction of religion and commercial culture. Much remains to be done, however. I hope Moore's book will encourage historians to examine the ways that diverse American religious traditions - each with their own internal structures of authority, theological worldviews, ritual practices, historical and national traditions, and distinctive race, class, ethnic and gender compositions - faced the challenge of maintaining loyalties in light of the bewildering temptations of other religions and of commercialized leisure. This line of questioning, explored in studies that range from Donald Meyer's The Positive Thinkers (1965) to James T. Fisher's The Catholic Counterculture in America (1989), is still far from complete today.

1. Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: the Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (1981); see Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (1985).

2. Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (1989).

3. Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (1985); Richard Brodhead, "Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America," Representations 21 (1988): 68-92.

Beryl Satter, Department of History, Rutgers-Newark, is the recipient of a 1994-95 Pew Program in Religion and American History Faculty Fellowship. Her work-in-progress is entitled New Thought and American Culture, 1875-1940.
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Author:Satter, Beryl
Publication:Reviews in American History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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