Thursday, October 20, 2011

Religion in the Free Market

Sean Ewart

Ever since the Protestant reformation the world has seen an increasingly chaotic spiritual arena wherein the various faiths compete for the faithful. Especially in modern America, where the freedom of religion often threatens to nullify our other constitutional and moral obligations, the pulpit has ever become the soap box for evangelical sales-men. From gospel tracts to billboards, student organizations to Friday prayers, America's religions have taken on the appearance of sexed-up infomercials. Dialog between the faiths are often conversations about which is more appealing – how can we make the story of Jesus more relevant to America's youth? Why is Islam right for you? Is Mormonism the American religion? And so on. The showmanship of America's spiritual public relations agents has indeed been enlightening: organized religion is nothing more than a business.

Religious institutions have hit upon a truly exceptional money-making combination: by exploiting humanity's fear, curiosity and emotional instability, the self-proclaimed earthly representatives of god have been able to exchange an imaginary friend for tangible items such as money and property. The Catholic church, for example, had a revenue of $202 million in 2001. Or consider the success of the Protestant Megachurches which saw an average income of $6.5 million in 2008 – nearly half of that money went to salaries. And this is all chump change compared to the Mormon church which has an estimated net worth of over $30 billion (it should be noted that the estimation for the Catholic church did not include its massive property holdings. According to MSNBC, the Catholic church is the worlds largest land owner). This is the ultimate hustle.

America's religious environment is unlike anything ever seen before. While most countries across the globe have a state church (including Britain, although the Church of England isn't compulsory) America has been staunch defender of religious freedom and as such has seen a exponential increase in the number of so-called religious groups. The first amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” All you need are a couple people who think like you, some by laws and 501(c)(3) tax exemption status and you are ready to have your own recognized religion. Its no wonder, given how easy it is to start your own faith, that America is home to some of the most outrageous religions out there.

What is more extraordinary is the way American religion has evolved to adapt to these new conditions. Whereas in the past (and presently in many nations) religion could count on laws that required attendance and provided state subsidies, today's religious organizations have to compete for members. While it is true that 78% of Americans are Christian, for instance, that is no guarantee that they will come to your church. And thus we see no lack of creative marketing strategies. There are an estimated 335,000 congregations in America today, about 1 church for every 900 people in the country, and nearly 217 different religious groups (including different Christian denominations). Clearly the market is wide open. Just look around your college campus, your community, your city; there is no lack of religion – and religious competition – in America. This begs the question: are there really 217 ways to commune with “god”?

“God wants you well. God wants you prosperous. God wants you a whole person.” These are the words of the late preacher/con-man Oral Roberts, the founder of a university by his namesake and a pioneer of the Televangelist movement (basically long infomercials made to look like churches which try to trade you nonsense for money). Oral is famous for telling his followers that he needed $8 million by March 1987 or else he would die. Unbelievably he got his money (a miracle of credulity perhaps). This type of “health and wealth” message is typical of the new wave of American religion where, in order to attract new people, religious salesmen seek to undercut the competition by making their dogma look more comfortable. There are other means of course. The Hell House movement, for example, seeks to scare the public with a terrifying version of hell and then make believers out of them – believers who pay. And lets not forget the Eastern Mystics who preach about happiness and eternal joy. That's nice, but not cheap. Then there are the religious purists who claim to adhere to the original message of Jesus or whoever. They would be more convincing if there were not so many of them... how many original messages can there be? I mean, which is the true version? The Pentecostal Church of God or the Pentecostal Fire-Baptized Holiness Church (personally, the fire-baptized one sounds painful).

America's protection of religious freedom is one of the many things that makes me truly proud to be a citizen here. But the ease with which religions can just spring up out of the ground is telling: there obviously is more at work here than pure spirituality. I think, in fact I know, that there are many well meaning religious people out there who really believe what they say they believe (that is not compliment). The fact, however, that men like Oral Roberts have equal if not greater stage time shows that, at the end of the day, organized religion is nothing more than a free market free-for-all. Organized religion is the play thing of con-men and spiritual entrepreneurs. In the words of L. Ron Hubbard, who orchestrated one of history's greatest spiritual heists, “If you want to make a little money, write a book. If you want to make a lot of money, create a religion.”

Part of a Gospel Tract from This is for real.

Look at how cute and happy Buddha is... don't you wanna join?

I think Jesus would approve of multimillion dollar churches...?

Well that's awesome.

A scene from a Hell House. Yeah, they're for real.

This is brilliant. Less Crap, More Jesus and it still counts as church?!?

The headquarters of the Mormon church. NBD.

Inside an American Megachurch. I'm upset I didn't think of that.

Outside an American Megachurch. No words are needed.



  1. While I don't deny that denominationalism is out of hand, you spend a lot of time focusing on "health and wealth" gospel which is largely marginalized by Christianity. Please remember that there are versions of this in secular materialism that are far more rampant in the United States and elsewhere.

  2. Here are my thoughts...

    I've met thousands of Christians...maybe two or three rich ones. So if the goal is money, it's hopeless. Joel Osteen is a joke to every religious person I've ever met, Christian or otherwise. And pictures of big churches really don't say anything; there are lots of big buildings out there.

    Competition is natural and healthy. NOTHING thrives without it except apathy and laziness. If faiths didn't compete, they wouldn't be faiths, because it would mean the followers didn't believe in their religion.

    Atheist (or people who proudly say they don't know what's going on) can envision nothing better than themselves, so the "something greater" orientation that a person of faith has access to makes no sense to them. Therefore they believe that faith is really a scheme to get money or fame or whatever is the quickest way to be more selfish--after all, that's honestly the best thing that exists for someone who knows of no purpose to life.

    So, I think that this piece on organized religion is the predictable best explanation you can come up with for what you are unable to perceive.

  3. Dave,
    I think that you are right when you say that the majority of religious people are not rich - but then, the majority of capitalists are not rich either, but that doesn't say much about the nature of capitalism just as your diagnostic doesn't say much about the nature of religion. In as much as most religious people are not seeking monetary gain (which is obvious because many give their money away to the faith) religion does provide a fantastic platform for conmen to operate in. In an arena where evidence is shunned, anyone can say anything, and whoever says the thing that resonates with a lot of people can make a killing.
    You indictment of atheists is sort of ridiculous though. Just because we do not recognize a higher power doesn't mean that we do not recognize things greater than ourselves in terms of value. I don't think that "faith" is a money making scheme... I think organized religion is ("Faith" as opposed to "faith" - note the capital F).