Sunday, 27 February 2011


Is organized religion in America more immersed in materialism today than it has been in centuries past in Europe and around the world, thus reflecting current cultural trends? Is religion more hypocritical claiming piety while swimming in sin as it defines it, thus guilty of hypocrisy? In a statement after president George Bush's visit to the Vatican in June 2004, Pope John Paul II advised that the US must end the war in Iraq and allow for national sovereignty, and that the American people should be less materialistic and seek contentment in spirituality. Although such a statement may appear rather typical, I found it intriguing because public opinion polls indicate that between 80 and 90 percent of Americans identify themselves as religious while only a small percentage of Europeans.

Is this a reflection of the level of American political, social, and cultural conservatism in comparison with Europeans? Or is it the case that American churches operate as free enterprises, more competitive and adapt to the community than European churches?  Although Americans identify themselves as religious, they have the reputation as the quintessential hedonists on the planet, and they are unique in so far as they justify money as piety with which corporate America and the political establishment identify.

Interestingly, Pope John Paul II had the same perception as the rest of the world that American society is immersed in materialism and a culture of hedonism, despite the public proclamations of religious convictions and religiously-based political conservatism. In a public opinion poll 83% of Americans claim to belong to some religious denomination (76% Christian), with 40% attending services regularly, and only 13% list no religion. At the same time, 89% of those polled agree that society is too materialistic and 74% believe that materialism is a social problem detrimental to the cohesiveness of family, and 92% concurred that poverty is a very serious social problem.

In the same survey, however, 78% responded that having new and beautiful things was important to them, while only 71% agreed that freedom was important. Besides corporations selling products and services and popular culture inculcating materialistic values in the American people, the clergy itself is largely to blame; about half the population see the churches as far too interested in money and less in spiritual aspects of the faithful.

Religion in general and religious holidays like Christmas specifically are so commercialized that they have become almost indistinguishable from secular institutions. The commodity that religion sells is spiritual salvation, and it could be argued that there was always a price attached that the faithful has to pay at least in institutionalized Christianity. Just as important as the history of Christian materialism, the Christian church invariably plays a major role in the political arena, as it has through the centuries, and it is intertwined with politics serving an agenda that is far removed from spiritual concerns of the faithful. That the more successful churches are more political is not a coincidence, nor is it surprising that many people regard the wealth of the church as a sign of its secular (un-spiritual) mission.

Considering that Calvanism prevalent in America views wealth as a sign of divine favor, that wealthy Americans like John D. Rockefeller who was Baptist believed that God gave him the money he made, and Ronald Reagan lectured that money is not a sin, it is no wonder that this mindset has trickled down to the general population that has accepted 'pious materialism' and wants to emulate the rich instead of castigating them. The legitimacy of 'pious materialism' therefore stems from the financial and political elites, but also from clergy that have adapted to the culture of materialism and politicized churches and transfer such values to their followers by example, no matter what is spoken during the sermon.

The American tradition of marrying religion, politics and business goes back to the 19th century, but especially the 1920s when Jesus and business became intertwined when New York ad executive Bruce Barton who argued that Jesus was the father of modern business. Oddly enough, Barton's promotion of corporate capitalism as an integral part of Christianity coincided with the Scopes trial (creationism v. Darwin's theory of evolution), and with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan carrying out numerous violent racist campaigns.

With the widespread perception throughout the world that the US is indeed the most materialistic and by implication least spiritual society, do the American people agree that money is pious blessed by Jesus? Do they believe that God has chosen America whose destiny is to remain dominant in the world, thus proving it has been predestined by Divine Providence? Amid an intense global competition and the recent global economic contraction are Americans convinced that the church has guided them toward the righteous path and onto to truth, or has it has deceived them about man's relationship to societal institutions?

Are India and Brazil, and the entire Third World, more spiritual because they have the vast majority of the poor on this planet, so people turn to religion as a core value with which to cope with life's daily adversities, while in bourgeois America seeks satisfaction in automobiles, houses, DVD players, etc. etc.? There is no shortage of articles, books, pamphlets, web blogs, newspaper articles, consultants, etc. advising people on how to become rich, or happy by becoming rich.

Nothing comparable exists on how to become more humane and compassionate, more socially conscious, more interested and active in the welfare of the community and social justice. Even the focus of the church is on individual salvation within the institutional structure of the church, itself secularized and subsumed in the culture of materialism. Herein rests the hypocrisy of an institution claiming divinity, yet, so immersed in earthly affairs.

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