The Morality and Politics of Consumer Religion: How Consumer Religion Fuels the Culture Wars in the United States

By Kline, Scott | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Morality and Politics of Consumer Religion: How Consumer Religion Fuels the Culture Wars in the United States


Kline, Scott, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture


Scott Kline University of Waterloo

Abstract

In his book Consuming Religion (2003) Vincent J. Miller demonstrates how consumer capitalism has been able to commodify religious rituals, symbols, and figures and market them to consumers seeking self-improvement, individual enlightenment, and/or greater spirituality. His thesis is that "consumer religion" is emblematic of a radically transformed social relationship created by consumer capitalism. This article focuses on an element of consumer religion missing in Miller's argument; that is, how commodified, consumer religion enables certain conservative political leaders to claim a tradition as their inheritance and, in turn, mobilize alienated consumers/voters in the US culture wars. In practical-political terms, culture-war conservatives have found a way to consolidate political power by embracing both a free market, which actually erodes local tradition, and traditional values, which provides fuel for culture war battles over popular movies, television, music, and public education.

[1] In the spring of 2005, the North American media were headlining two stories on the impending death of two media fixtures: Pope John Paul II and Terri Schiavo. Because I am an ethicist who works in a Catholic university, located in one of Canada's most highly populated regions, I was approached by a Canadian television network affiliate to tape a three minute segment on Terri Schivao and issues associated with end-of-life ethical decisions. I accepted, and that afternoon we began the taping. After explaining the traditional Catholic position on the moral responsibility to provide the necessities (i.e., water and food) to all, including the sick, the interviewer lunged at me and said, "You know, the pope is dying--and in the news this morning, it appears that only a feeding tube is keeping him alive. Aren't the cases of Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II the same?"

[2] Stunned, I said, "Yes, in a sense they are. The difference, though, is that the pope's wishes are well known, while Terri Schiavo's are mediated through her former husband and her family." It then dawned on me: I should have said, "They are the same in that both Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II are, at this point, little more than media representations, whose real lives are known by a very select few, but still demand the attention of the masses because they embody--at least as far as abstract media images can--the moral and political debates surrounding the right to die a dignified death, the nature of marriage, and a whole host of other issues commonly associated with the so-called "culture wars," including embryonic stem cell research and abortion. In other words, Terri Schiavo and John Paul II are media spectacle; and as spectacle, their meaning and importance correspond to a worldview that justifies a social and economic relationship." Thankfully, for the reporter, I did not make this case--I let the slippage between the media representations go ahead, for I knew it was going to take far more than the remaining 90 seconds of the interview to explain myself. [1]

[3] Herein lies the problem that I want to address. The vast majority of the developed world, and North America in particular, related to the death (and life) of Pope John Paul II (and Terri Schiavo) through mass media representations that are circumscribed by (a) the overarching objective of the mass media--namely, audience ratings leading to advertising dollars; by (b) an ever-growing audience of consumers who think that news ought to be entertaining and, above all, important to their individual lives; and by (c) a consumer mentality that religion is essentially personal and valuable primarily as a general guide to private morality. This phenomenon, I contend, is not morally or politically neutral. To the contrary, consumer culture operates with a certain logic that not only redefines traditional moral and political values, but also exposes them to new forms of political manipulation by apparently conservative leaders seeking to mobilize an alienated voter base. …

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