Religion & Politics: USF Fall 2006

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Mass Media, Civil Religion and Rev. Billy

Blog #4 + Blog #5 Extra Credit

Watching Rev. Billy in class the other day and discussing whether or not it is or can be considered a religion got me thinking about what a religion is or must have to be considered a religion. This, I believe, necessitates a discussion of mass media and the role it plays in our modern lives. The vast exposure most of us have to this form of media on a daily basis has shaped and changed our society as a whole and is perhaps part of what Rev. Billy preaches against. As a parenthetical aside, this topic was too broad to cover in 650 words and feeling passionately about it I have decided to cover it in 2 continuous blogs that will constitute my 4th and 5th blog entries.
In Lee Gilmore's paper entitles "Public Ceremonies: Ritualizing Civic, Media, and Social Life" there is a mention of Bellah's idea of "civil religion" that it is " 'an institutionalized collection of scared beliefs about the American nation.' " It is my belief that in the same way that the book Sociology of Religion by Christiano talks about the way the media has transformed religion, the mass media has transformed American culture as a whole; that through endless advertising and product placement ( mass media has created a civil religion of consumerism, of shopping. We are constantly told either directly or otherwise that we must get the latest product to be cool, to have sex, to be liked, or that this beer or soda is the best because girls will like you better or it has 3 calories less (and you don't want to be fat-- no one on TV is). These messages berate us everyday whether we are aware of it or not. In fact even after 9/11 we were told by the PRESIDENT that we MUST continue to shop, to consume that this was our duty, this is what we could do to be patriotic (Rev. Billy's "...and patriotism is shopping?" is hauntingly, pointedly revealing here). We are told to believe that consuming, shopping is a duty that it is patriotic, we are even told that where and how we shop is important. Many of you may have heard that if you buy counterfeit products you are supporting terror ( it may be true but regardless- it has setup within this "Church of consumerism" a good vs. evil a system of morals where there is good and bad consumerism, just as there is good and bad behavior within religion itself. There is a God and a Devil in this Church- Starbucks and Knockoffs, Wal-Mart and Bootlegs, Home Depot and illegal downloading. No it is not a conventional religion and no it's certainly not a conventional Church- but it does tell you how you should behave, what is good and bad behavior, it even tells you when you should buy more or what you should buy when and it has it's own holidays-Christmas and Valentine's day fits the bill for both. This country is very focused on GDP (Gross Domestic Product- a measure of all the output- goods and service in the economy); it is not focused on quality (healthcare, education, equality in income or even in taxes) but quantity. While I won't get too technical with economic indicators suffice it to say that all of this has the result of the U.S. having one of the lowest savings rates and highest indebtedness rates (for its citizens and the Government itself) of almost any industrialized nation in the world. What this means is that both the Government and it's people save the least go into debt the most and more foreboding than either is the vast amount of debt and deficit this country has (we owe other people and countries 8.6 TRILLION dollars and it increases by almost 2.1 BILLION per DAY) (
This is where Rev. Billy enters the picture he is the leader (pastor?) and creator of the Church of Stop Shopping and perhaps, in light of all this, a modern day messiah (hyperbole). As Gilmore describes Billy's performances "...can be understood as a form of public ceremony that participates in public and civil religious discourse." If the civil religion of the mass media and perhaps America is (partly) consumerism then Billy's is its Anti-church and Billy himself the Anti-Christ of this message. Billy questions the patriotism of this "blind consumerism" and his ceremonies while certainly activist also touch a spiritual level. In fact if the traditional Church is one of God, deity and the hereafter, Billy's is one of patriotism, justice and the right here and now. Where the "Church of consumerism" has a system of good and bad, right and wrong so too does Billy's- Mom and Pop's vs. Wal-mart, community vs. multi-nationals, true value vs. corporatist greed and profit at any cost. While religion goes more and more towards a "spiritual marketplace" and mega-churches continue in popularity, Billy has a different vision for the future. He sees a return to old values, to a "God that is not a product" as vital and necessary. While many, perhaps most, would argue that Billy's is not a religion I would be inclined to agree with a caveat. I think it is not a traditional religion but that it has many religious elements and if nothing else vastly blurs the line and at least begs the question and further thinking on the matter. There was a time when all religions were just beginning, where many people would not have looked at Christianity, Mormonism, or Islam as real or true religions. As we all know from this class defining what religion is and for that matter what constitutes a religion is difficult if not impossible. What Rev. Billy is doing right now may seem to most to be a "non-religion" but that is not to say it will always be considered as such- in fact it seems more likely, to me, that as America continues down this road of consumerism toward its inevitable conclusion that Billy's message will become more and more religious and certainly more resonate with the mainstream. Also, I think it is hard to overlook or argue the fact that this consumerism has become part of the civil religion of this country and I think it is hard to argue that Billy's message is one of rebellion and dissent against directly this. Cannot it not be inferred, therefore, that just as the enemy of my enemy is my friend, that the message against a message of religious (even if just civilly) nature is itself also religious. This is to say that since the mainstream message partly of civil religion is consumerism and Rev. Billy's message is antithetical to that idea, does his message not also become one of somewhat religious nature.
I do not have the absolute or final answer on this and am not entirely sure where Rev. Billy and his church fall in terms of religious categorization, what I do know is that his message is important and necessary in modern life today and that I see it becoming only more and more necessary as time goes on. What I do know is that Billy utilizes many things which religion also utilizes ritual, preaching, right vs. wrong etc... and that at the very least this blurring of lines makes this very marginal idea propagated by very few today must become more mainstream and accepted than it currently is if we as a people are to have any chance of fighting of the barrage of consumerism and consumerist ideals we are force fed on a daily basis.


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