Before my readers begin either to salivate or to fulminate, based on this post’s provocative title, let me be clear: it is a PUN. This article will have nothing whatsoever to do with the television program “American Idol.”
Having said that, the question I would like to pose today is: What IS the dominant religion in America today? To what idol, in other words, do most Americans pray? The obvious answer — that Christianity is the chief religion of the American people — is highly deceptive, as I hope to prove.
When one thinks of an age in which the Christian faith really WAS dominant — religiously, culturally, intellectually, even politically, in some instances — the Middle Ages should come readily to mind. This was an era in which religious figures and ecclesiastical officials were immensely powerful; the educational system and the intelligencia were utterly dominated by the Church; and religious imagery, symbolism, literature, rituals, and, most importantly, IDEAS, were omnipresent. Simply put, the Christian faith loomed large in the lives of ordinary Europeans from the moment they woke up, to the time they went to bed at night — and from birth to their dying day. Christianity truly was the template on which life was lived in the medieval period.
I will not bore my readers with a tiresome chronicle of the decline of organized religion in Western Civilization — this is a theme that has been adequately covered elsewhere. Suffice it to say that adherence to the Christian faith is much less common in the West today than it was 500 years ago; church attendance is lower; and religion exercises much less influence on our culture, our political system, and our values. As a rule, in times of stress we turn, as a society, to politicians and pop psychologists to save us from our plight — religion, by contrast, has been demoted to an eccentric hobby.
So, if we ask the question: what new phenomena saturates our consciousness as thoroughly as religion once did, what answer do we arrive at? My theory is this: ADVERTISING is the new idol of Western Civilization. The relentless encouragement to CONSUME the fruits of our capitalist system is at the center of the vast majority of cultural messages that we receive. Studies have indicated that the average American is exposed to no less than 3,000 advertisements in a typical day. All of us know how creatively these messages are insinuated into our lives — on television and radio, in the print media, on billboards, on the internet, etc. And not only are multiple media utilized, but virtually no venue is immune from the reach of Madison Avenue. Schools, hospitals, government buildings and other forms of public property, even CHURCHES themselves, can and are used to promote the consumption of a vast array of goods and services. Although the messages thus distributed are diverse, the one overwhelming theme that emerges is this: to BUY MORE IS TO BE HAPPY, and thus to fulfill one’s highest aspirations in life. When one considers that this one powerful mantra is drilled into every American, and increasingly into every person worldwide, with a thoroughness, a psychological sophistication, and a sheer unrelenting frequency that has NEVER BEEN MATCHED in all of human history, one will realize just how helpless the human psyche usually is in the face of such a determined attack. That most of these messages are patently FALSE is equally clear, of course.
Although some readers may be inclined to concede that advertising is a hugely influential force in modern life, the comparison to religion may seem a misleading one. After all, does not Christianity still flourish? Are not human beings capable of compartmentalizing their obsession with consumption from their respect for a Higher Power? Of course this is true to some extent, but it must also be observed that there is only room in the human mind for a relatively small number of obsessional desires. Simply put, through a process of acculturation and, yes, psychological manipulation, it is possible to inculcate in people one or two unusually insistent and overpowering ideas, but in the end human beings do require a central reference point in their scale of values. By reference to the natural instincts, we might hypothesize that that central reference point OUGHT to be self-realization or love of one’s kin. In all too many cases, though, we know that instead the transcendent value to which human beings devote themselves is something more contrived: loyalty to a leader, adherence to a creed, and, yes, OWNERSHIP OF CONSUMER BAUBLES. Today, the frequency with which Americans and other Westerners dream of material wealth, or the acquisition of consumer goods — and the frequency with which they are encouraged to think along these lines — totally overwhelms the amount of religious messages and values that are able to reach them. Indeed, sometimes the ethic of consumerism, and the moral imperative of material accumulation, are so omnipotent as ideals in Western societies that RELIGION itself is transformed into a commodity, and churches compete — through advertisements, no less! — to attract a greater following. There could be no clearer sign than this that ADVERTISEMENT and consumerism has become “The REAL American Idol,” as I put it in the title to this post.
Am I wrong? Is religion alive and well in America? Is our materialist hunger less overwhelming and irresistible than I believe? I would be intrigued to hear your thoughts. It seems to me, though, that materialism is THE SIN in which, more than any other, modern Americans indulge. Indeed, we are, as a nation, digging ourselves into a deep hole of governmental, institutional, and personal debt largely because of our absolute unwillingness to forgo material rewards that we feel we deserve (and that we are everyday encouraged to demand). This problem with limitless greed, which often stifles other, more natural, and more truly important human values, is one which should vex every true Anthroconservative. What we find in this case is that GOVERNMENT, which we conservatives tend to blame for most of the breakdowns in modern society, is only part of the story. The pathologies that, in combination, have produced the moral bankruptcy of modern life are in truth much more numerous, and much more serious, than a simple addiction to “big government.” Equally, the crushing weight of consumer greed is a problem we shall have to confront head on if ever we are to return to a more HUMAN pattern of living…