The Religious Marketplace -- From New Contributing Editor Phillip Sinitiere



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Editor's note: Yes, I admit it, the trainer has been administering those steroid and HGH shots again, hence the added muscle and firepower of this blog yesterday and today. Today we introduce our new contributing editor Phillip Sinitiere, aka the Baldblogger, together with his first post!


Phillip Luke Sinitiere is a Ph.D. candidate in American religious history at the University of Houston where he’s in the final stages of a dissertation on congregational conflict, church scandal, and pastoral dismissal in colonial America. He also teaches world, U.S., and European history at a college preparatory school in Houston. His research interests include American religious history, religion in world history (with a focus on Africa), and the pedagogy of religion, and recent publications examine religious identity in contemporary evangelicalism, global Christianity and teaching, and a forthcoming book with NYU Press titled Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (co-authored with Shayne Lee).

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Cashing In or Selling Out?: Spiritual Marketplaces and Religious Economies
By Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Is the United States a spiritual marketplace where “religious capitalists” compete for religious consumers? Does a viable religious economy exist in America where the most effective spiritual firms carve out their niche to offer religious goods and services that meet the tastes and desires of spiritual consumers? Are such formulations useful for teaching, simple or reductionist descriptive devices, or can scholars craft meaningful and convincing interpretations of American religious history by imagining this country as a spiritual marketplace? (For teaching and the religious marketplace, see parts IV, V, and VI of “Deg’s Dispatches” below) Or, perhaps, given the reach of globalization and the reality of international commerce, is there a global religious marketplace? Perhaps so, since recently scholars have found religious economies in Latin America, and spiritiual marketplaces in China and Africa, and even among some Muslim martyrs.

Famously argued by sociologists of religion Rodney Stark and Roger Finke in The Churching of America (1992; 2nd ed. 2005)—with due regard to Max Weber and Peter Berger—and subsequently refined by fellow sociologists such as Wade Clark Roof, Robert Wuthnow, and Stephen Warner, to name only a few, historians have found a religious economy in the archives as well. R. Laurence Moore’s Selling God (1994) comes to mind, as does Nathan Hatch’s Democratization of America Christianity (1989), and Terry Bilhartz’s Urban Religion (1986), among many others.

Even some contributing editors offer thoughts on the subject: Matt Sutton’s book has a great chapter on Sister Aimee’s deft marketing strategies, for example. John Turner’s fine book finds that Bill Bright and Campus Crusade were to some extent into selling Jesus, and Darren Grem’s fascinating article on the business behind Jim and (the late) Tammy Faye Bakker’s spiritual empire shows that the bottom line competed with the Bible. Even Ed Blum’s fantastic book on Du Bois addresses the topic—albeit indirectly as the American Prophet had nothing but spiritual rage and righteous indignation for masquerading prophets, pastors, and religious leaders working only to make a profit. Katie Lofton’s keen look at pastoral self-promotion in her 2006 Religion and American Culture article, “The Preacher Paradigm: Promotional Biographies and the Modern-Made Evangelist,” creatively finds consumer-driven spiritual commodities in multiple contexts. (One also imagines that her forthcoming work on Oprah and religion will provide yet another stellar contribution to the field.)

So, if the spiritual marketplace fits as a helpful way to teach American religious history, and if there is a growing body of work on the subject offered by historians, sociologists, and religious studies scholars, who are the religious capitalists, the spiritual merchants who are about the business of faith in a religious economy? George Whitefield? Dwight Moody? Billy Sunday? Carrie A. Nation? Norman Vincent Peale? Fulton Sheen? Eddie Long? Rick Warren? Juanita Bynum? T.D. Jakes? Paula White? Luis Palau? Joel Osteen? This list could go on and on. And where does religious architecture, or religious language or spiritual practice fit into such an interpretation? What about the role of electronic media in/on a spiritual marketplace?

Since I’ve posed questions that would take many more blogposts to answer, not to mention several books, it is only appropriate I end with one more: how effective a formulation is the spiritual marketplace and/or religious economy as both scholars and students labor to imagine and understand American religious history and its infinite complexities and contradictions? Why or why not?

5 comments:

Edward J Blum at: May 21, 2008 at 3:25 PM said...

I wonder how we can fit the "spirit of capitalism" into the notion of a spiritual marketplace?

rjc at: May 21, 2008 at 7:34 PM said...

Great point, Ed. And so often talk of a religious marketplace model or metaphor seems to lean toward free market ideologies. But if it's a marketplace, what are its particular politics? If we're going to use this model, we need to take seriously not only self-promotion, but also the ways that religions create desires, trade in images, and manufacture their products; how they consume, exploit, and transform resources, and how they are shaped by the logic of particular contexts of competition. In David Chidester's terms, we really need to be examining the political economy of the sacred.

deg at: May 22, 2008 at 8:02 AM said...

This is blatant self-promotion, but I'd suggest Dominic Janes, ed., Shopping for Jesus: Faith and Marketing in the USA. The table of contents can be accessed here. My piece on Heritage USA is in there, but there's a lot of other insightful articles that try to follow Chidester's suggestions. The essays on the Lord's Gym and The Passion of the Christ are great.

To piggyback on both Ed and Phil's questions, I'd question who we mean when we're talking about religious capitalists. In an increasingly corporate-centered, hyper-consumer society like modern America, should we just think of preachers and their patrons as religious producers? I'm looking forward to reading Katie's thoughts on Oprah because I think she's on to something that 19th historians have pointed out, but 20th historians have too often overlooked. Can a businesswoman like Oprah be a religious producer just as much as Joel Osteen or Brian McLaren? What about companies that explicitly promote certain religious groups and politics?

Since I spend most of my non-teaching days thinking about them, most of those questions are self-serving, I'll admit. But I think they're necessary ones for understanding the connections between the "spirit of capitalism" and the "spiritual marketplace," and I'm glad there's some good work coming down the pipe that will address them. I'm thinking here of Bethany Moreton's book on Wal-Mart, Darren Dochuk's new stuff on oil and evangelicalism, Tim Gloege's manuscript on the origins of "corporate fundamentalism," and Eileen Luhr's book on the business of evangelical youth cultures.

phil at: May 22, 2008 at 8:20 AM said...

Ed, good question, and Chip—I’m in full agreement with your observation. And Darren, I think your question is critically important.

On the one hand there is of course the statistical argument about the existence of a religious economy (i.e., Finke and Stark), so heavily criticized by historians.

On the other hand—and pardon the pun—one might say that the enduring value of the marketplace approach comes with (as DEG and Chip seem to suggest) a more finely textured analysis of the particular historical moment, and the meaning(s) inscribed into the (spiritual) firm/entrepreneur’s idiom, practice, image-making, branding, production, marketing, etc.

Hector Diego at: July 12, 2008 at 9:22 PM said...

Question--can someone explain to me the connection between the rational choice, cost benefit analysis approach to religion and the sect to church or cult to church paradigm as Stark argues for these terms?

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