Religious Marketing 101
For many years, I've been railing against the rise of the religious right as a political and cultural force in this country. Yes, of course: In many ways, that rise has been the effect of a cultural boomerang, a response to the "relativists" on the left. But this does not make fundamentalism any less of a threat.
The fact that the Bush administration has derived so much of its political power from an evangelical base is something that should give pause to all advocates of individual freedom. Quite frankly, it has greatly irritated me that so many people jumped onto the Bush bandwagon, in praise of its "War on Terror," while sweeping aside virtually all considerations of the administration's ties to the religious right.
As I wrote in my article, "Caught Up in the Rapture":
The Bush administration has thus become a focal point for the constellation of two crucial impulses in American politics that seek to remake the world: pietism and neoconservatism. The neocons, who come from a variety of religious backgrounds, trace their intellectual lineage to social democrats and Trotskyites, those who adopted the "God-builder" belief, prevalent in Russian Marxist and Silver Age millennial thought, that a perfect (socialist) society could be constructed as if from an Archimedean standpoint. The neocons may have repudiated Trotsky’s socialism, but they have simply adopted his constructivism to the project of building democratic nation-states among other groups of warring fundamentalists—in the Middle East.
Bush clearly believes that it is his role as President to change not only American culture but the tribalist cultures of nations abroad in the direction of democratic values. ... For a man who once campaigned against the Clintonistas’ penchant for nation-building, Bush seems to have made the building of nations and the building of cultures a full-fledged state enterprise. Bush’s maxim—that "[t]he role of government is to help foster cultural change as well as to protect institutions in our society that are an important part of the culture"—is an attempt to use politics as a cultural and religious tool.
The rise of religion has both political and cultural ramifications. Indeed, pop culture is an interesting barometer by which to measure the growing influence of religion on American life.
Today, "Good Morning America" featured an interview with Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the immensely successful Left Behind series (which I discuss in my Rapture essay). They stopped in to promote their newest book: The Regime: The Rise of the Antichrist, which is the second of three "prequel" novels to the 12-volume Left Behind collection. These books have sold in excess of 60 million copies over the last decade. This new book comes on the heels of the third film release in the series, "Left Behind: World at War," starring Kirk Cameron. (I liked him better on "Growing Pains.")
With a lot of natural disasters in the news, such as tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, and many human disasters as well, like war and terrorism, everybody, it seems, is worried that the End of Days is near. (If you ask me, I'd tell you to worry more about those human disasters.)
LaHaye argues that this is probably the "stage setting" for the end. But since the Rapture has yet to take place, we're not quite there yet. LaHaye, who is 79, thinks he might live to see it, however.
Jenkins was a bit more conservative in his estimate. He confessed that only God knows when the end will come, and it's "folly" to set a date. "It seems like we're heading toward something," however.
I'll give this much credit to Jenkins: He recognizes that in a pluralistic society, this Rapture thing can be a "divisive" and "offensive" message. Jenkins does not wish to be "condescending or spiteful or hateful" toward those of other faiths, though he does celebrate the fact that Christian fundamentalists are not like the "fundamentalists of other religions [who] become terrorists. You won't see evangelicals ... becoming terrorists because the whole point is people have the right to choose, they have free will, and if they decide to disagree, we still love them and care about them. We just worry."
Well, I can deal with Jenkins's worry. Bottle up your message of pluralism and disagreement, Brother Jenkins, and send it to the jihadists in the Middle East, if you please.
Despite the fact that our homegrown fundamentalists are a lot less lethal than the ones abroad, I have no doubt that I would not wish to live in a society dominated by them politically or culturally. Right now, however, religion is not merely a rising political or cultural force; it is a rising force in marketing and economics as well.
From the TV show "Revelations" to the new writings of Anne Rice, who, as Jason Dixon reminds us, has Left Behind the Vampire Lestat to embrace "Christ the Lord" ... "it seems like we're heading toward something, indeed.
That ol' time religion has even affected the "Material Girl," Madonna, who found Kaballah some time ago. Even Madonna is starting to sound like the preachers of fire and brimstone. As Rush and Molloy report in the New York Daily News:
Once, she told papa not to preach. But now, at 47, Madonna has come down from the mount with a message for you sinners. People "are going to go to hell, if they don't turn from their wicked behavior," the singer proclaims in her new film, "I'm Going to Tell You a Secret." Despite her many homes, the former Material Girl says she has renounced "the material world. The physical world. The world of illusion, that we think is real. We live for it, we're enslaved by it. And it will ultimately be our undoing."
I can't wait for her to start unloading her earthly riches! I can think of a few dialectical projects that need funding.
Rush and Molloy continue:
Reading from Scripture at one point in the film, the mother of two—who won't let her children watch TV or eat ice cream—says, "I refer to an entity called 'The Beast.' I feel I am describing the world that we live in right now." All this seems to have come from her embracing the mystical Jewish teachings of the Kaballah. But it might seem strange to those who remember that the Catholic girl, confirmed as Madonna Louise Ciccone, used to go out of her way to shred the envelope with nose-cone bras and three-way "Sex" shots. Catholic League President William Donohue likes Madonna's new morality: "For her to have this sudden wakeup call—that the kind of behavior for which she is infamous is not salutary for young people—is refreshing."
But he doesn't like her proclamation, also made in the documentary about her 2004 Re-Invention tour, that "most priests are gay." Donohue adds, "We're glad to see she is no longer with us. Jews will have to make up their own mind about whether they're going to welcome her. Lots of them don't want to." But Madonna is clearly beloved at the Kaballah Center in L.A.
Well, okay, the Catholics don't want her, the Jews are ambivalent. What's a No-Longer-Material-Girl to do?
In the end, you see, much of this can be filed under "Religious Marketing 101." Whether we fear being Left Behind or we just want to Shake Our Behinds on the Dance Floor ... the marketplace is meeting an ever-growing demand for this "product."
And God help us.