Dr. Graham is professor of religious studies at Michigan State University, East Lansing.
This article appeared in the Christian Century March 17, 1982, p. 306. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Our consumption-based society’s basic assumption: all needs require instant gratification. What we see in our country today is a perfectly good economic process — the mechanisms for producing and consuming goods — made into a religion.
Those who rush to other gods bring
many troubles on themselves.
I will not take part in their sacrifices;
I will not worship other gods.
[Ps. 16:4 (TEV)]
Recently I graded the final exams for a Christian ethics course. On a question about premarital sexual intercourse, I found that I was generally giving higher grades to students who took the position that for Christians sexual intimacy is to be entered upon only after marriage. Concerned that I might be grading according to my own ethical values, not according to classroom standards of analysis, use of resources, and the like, I reread a number of papers.
After examining the essays afresh, I was satisfied that most of the students who argued the traditional position had, indeed, been more analytic and had struggled more intelligently with the issue. Those who had argued in favor of premarital sexual relationships — many of them Christians — had tended to make assumptions about human relationships which allowed them to avoid analysis and struggle. Why? Because, I think, they simply accepted our consumption-based society’s basic assumption: all needs require instant gratification.
My students are products of a culture that does not question that constantly repeated theme. Neil Postman, professor of “media ecology” at New York University, estimated recently that children in America see 750,000 TV commercials during the formative period of their lives from six to 18. Is it any wonder that immediate gratification is built into our perceptions? It is an idea taught 15 times an hour, six hours a day, seven days a week.
What we see in our country today is a perfectly good economic process — the mechanisms for producing and consuming goods — made into a religion. Production is good: How could humans live without producing food, clothing, housing? Consumption is good: How could we live without consuming food, wearing clothes, living in dwellings? The means by which we produce such abundance are good: Who would argue against making human toil easier by means of machines? But taken together, they constitute America’s other religion. The struggle between consumer religion and the Christian faith is a battle at least as old as that of the prophets against Baalism or the early church against the divinized Roman Empire.
Indeed, we have only to look at the change in Rome from the year 58 or so, when St. Paul wrote Romans, to about 85 when John wrote Revelation, to see a good thing become bad by assuming an aura of divinity. In Romans 13 Paul calls the empire’s officials “ministers [deacons] of God to do his will.” Twenty-five years later in Revelation 13, Rome has become “the beast,” the creation of the devil, with an accompanying beast that stands for the religion of the empire: “He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed” (Rev. 13:15 [NIV]). From the reign of Domitian onward for over 200 years, Christians were killed for refusing to offer a pinch of incense to the religion of the empire. Like our modern “beast,” a good thing had arrogated to itself divine powers and had to be resisted.
For the modern Christian who does not want to worship God and Mammon, the difficult thing is to recognize that our system has gradually taken on divinity. Note that it fits these characteristics of a religion:
1. A religion responds to basic human anxieties, such as feelings of guilt. Christians once called gluttony a sin, something to be guilty about. But our system of instant production, consumption and disposal makes us feel guilty if we do not consume. “I owe it to myself,” we are taught to say about vacationing in the south in winter or owning the latest gadgets, the right auto, the proper food supplements. It makes a difference to a young person whether her jeans have “J. C. Penney” or “Calvin Klein” imprinted on the rear. “Ring around the collar” is shameful. Our new religion defines guilt and sells the products that will purge the soul.
2. A religion brooks no rivals, but destroys or converts or lives in uneasy tension with different ways of understanding human life and destiny. It rewards faithfulness and punishes the slacker. One has only to look at those who cannot produce or consume in quantity to see that punishment at work. Children produce nothing and consume little; we have moved from the youth-regarding society of the 1950s to the youth-denying society of today. Fewer people want children; no one wants very many. When America reached a state of zero population growth a few years ago, the cheers were heard from all sides. For this society has made it all but impossible for a young couple to have children and yet maintain the requisite pace of consumption. Both spouses must work, unless one of them has an exceptionally large income. Luxuries are beyond the means of a one-income family. The successful family — the one rewarded in our new religion — works hard at two jobs, postpones childbearing and plans for a one-child family. Even that child will be raised mostly outside the home. What to women’s rights advocates is the right to a meaningful career is, seen from another angle, simply worship of the Baal of consumption.
The new religion destroys the symbols of the old. A good example is the holy day. If Christmas has become a purely pagan spectacle, look what has become of national holy days. Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving — all are simply occasions for travel, consumption and waste. Before the advent of televised football on Thanksgiving, that day remained the “purest” mixture of civic and religious celebration in the land. Now, it is a day for a hurried meal and hours in front of the TV screen, watching football and absorbing the urgings to buy. (Football, with its long moments of inaction — plenty of time for commercials — could almost have been invented as a part of America’s other religion.)
Indeed, a religion seeps into all human activities. For instance, the religion I refer to permeates athletics so totally that it is almost impossible to separate the two. That is why college athletics has become so professional, and why only losers seem to follow the NCAA rules for recruiting players.
It is not facetious to call our system of technologically stimulated production and consumption a religion. An economic process defines for millions of Americans what it is to be truly human, what the meaning of life is, how to avoid guilt. This system punishes the unworthy — consider the situation of many older Americans who neither produce nor consume, and are cast away as unnecessary.
As often happens, this religion has formed a syncretistic bond with a strong rival, in order to destroy the enemy from within. The rival is evangelical Christianity. The high priests of consumerism, who are bona fide Christians, confuse us about their ultimate loyalties. A “born-again” entertainer or athlete hawks gasoline or cosmetics or beverages. Jesus is portrayed as approving of our opulence and waste. People whose books declare their allegiance to Christ reveal, by their televised salesmanship, the true identity of their God. Evangelical Christianity’s many converts and sudden success may disguise a virulent and unsuspected idolatry.
It would be simple to fight this homegrown religion if we could figure out whom to blame. But we can’t. Each person is partly responsible. One makes a product, or part of one. Another transports it. Another advertises it. Another sells it. Another buys it. All of those “anothers” are ourselves. As we see the devastation this religion is working upon our lives, America tries to find scapegoats. But we are reluctant to blame the system itself. So we blame the Arab oil barons, Ronald Reagan, or American companies growing rich from scarcity. We turn with relief to a real enemy — Iranians holding Americans hostage or the government in Poland, for example. Political aspirants blame present political leaders for unemployment, inflation, social breakdown. None of them sees that the whole lifestyle of consumerism is that of diseased religion. It is no wonder Americans complain that the political parties give us no real choices in office-seekers. For all worship the beast, some more fervently than others. Dorothy L. Sayers, who saw this time coming, probably placed the blame where it really belongs: we are to blame, she wrote, because we have succumbed to the deadly sins of avarice, greed, the desire for many things.
Even our course of action is unclear. Like the early Christians who had no way of removing themselves from the Roman Empire, we have no way of removing ourselves from the system. As Rome, “the beast,” protected its citizens from barbarity and total social collapse, so our system feeds, clothes and houses us. Were it to be destroyed overnight, who would provide the minimal necessities for life in a society far removed from the soil or the sea, where basic human needs are met? Helpless to grow our own food — mechanization has destroyed the family farm, and we live mostly uprooted in cities and suburbs we are dependent upon the religion that threatens our faith. In this respect we are again like the early Christians. Rome threatened to destroy the faith; Christian books were seized and destroyed and Christian leaders put to death; still, all Christians were at the same time Romans. So it is with us.
What we can do, of course, is refuse to worship the beast. We can live in this world but “seek another city.” We can turn off the bread-and-circuses of television. We can make ecologically wise decisions — to insulate our homes, drive less, return to the Christian simplicity of our forebears. We can share our appliances and develop community approaches to social problems. In doing these things, however, we shall be prone to the legalism that always haunts movements away from idolatry and false worship. We must avoid regarding our neighbor as unchristian because he or she has a large auto, or keeps the air-conditioning going, or travels to Florida each winter — or whatever concession we have determined not to make. We shall be tempted to find that gnat in our brother’s or sister’s eye while ignoring the log in our own.
Finally, we can hope. It must have looked to the early Christians as if the death of Rome would be the death of civilization. It turned out not to be so. It looks to us as if the death of our false religion of production/consumption will be the end of global life as we know it. That need not be so either. Rome remained intact in its religious harlotry for about 200 years. We and our children can wait that long, if we know what we are doing.