Religion & Liberty Online

Consumerism, Service, and Religion

Today at The Imaginative Conservative, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, in an excerpt from his recent book, bemoans what he sees as “The Spoiling of America.” While sympathetic to his support for self-discipline, I find his analysis of our consumer culture to be myopic. He writes,

Without even thinking about it we have gotten used to having it our way. Because excellent customer service is ubiquitous we believe it must be part of the natural order. The service in the restaurant is always friendly, efficient and courteous to a fault. The menus are perfectly written and professionally designed not only to inform, but to whet the appetite in a pleasing way. The re-fills on your drink are free, the food is tasty and reasonably priced, the decor is interesting and the ambiance carefully constructed. Is there a complaint? The footman-server will take the blame, the butler-manager will offer you a free dessert and quietly slip you a gift card to soften the price of your next visit as the porter opens the door.

The same delightful experience awaits you at the big box hardware store, the supermarket, the appliances store and every other major chain. Indeed, even the doctors, nurses and dentists have been trained in customer care. Communications with the customer are superb. You will receive thank you emails and polite enquiries about your experience. If you fill in a questionnaire you might win a free vacation or a hamper of other goodies. Pampering you further is not a nuisance. It becomes an exciting little game in which you might win a prize, for remember the customer is king and Everyman in America must be coddled and cuddled in one big Fantasyland where everything is wonderful all the time and everybody is always happy.

Longenecker reasons that we become addicted to fleeting pleasures and that this consumerist mentality has even corrupted religion. He continues,

Faithful believers who once came to church with an attitude of obedience, worship and a willingness to serve God and neighbor now come to get something: an inspiring talk, an uplifting experience, a spiritual poke or a clerical joke. If they don’t like the pastor, the company, the music or the gospel message they will complain and move to another church to have it their way.

But these are all the symptoms of a greater problem:

The deeper disease is the dispiriting greed that first drives, then destroys a nation. That greed is, in turn, the symptom of a deeper deprivation—the deprivation of the divine. Put simply, souls starved of God must feed on lesser gods, and those lesser gods are money, comfort, pleasure, food and drink. Forever sated but never satisfied, we are poor spoiled souls cut off from God because of our worship of lesser gods. Consumer service professionals may treat us as royalty, but our royal status is no more real than the cardboard crown they hand out at Burger King or the sweet, melting soft ice cream from Dairy Queen.

While I can give at least two cheers to anyone who champions self-discipline in the face of consumerism, in this case I must question the good doctor’s diagnosis. Consumerism is not like the Borg from Star Trek, against whom resistance is futile. Nor does “friendly, efficient and courteous” service necessarily stretch “to a fault” in our day. (Some might quibble as well that not all “[c]ommuncations with the customer” are, in fact, “superb.”)

Yet Longenecker does not so much champion self-discipline as lament its supposed defeat. Despite rumors to the contrary, however, some people not only long for it in their heart of hearts, but even try to practice it daily, with varying degrees of success. Furthermore, sometimes good service is actually about serving people. And the United States has had a market conception of religion from its founding.

As to his first concern, our supposedly overly “friendly, efficient and courteous” service culture, what about, say, a poor, single mother who lives quite simply (albeit by necessity) and happens to be a devout Christian? She’s had a stressful week and spends an hour cooking a meal only to have one of her children accidentally dump her lasagna/meatloaf/whatever on the floor. The meal is ruined; she has a huge mess to clean; and she and her children are still hungry. What does she do?

We happen to live in an age where she can actually get some relief in the midst of such a stressful situation by driving to the nearest Burger King and ordering a few items from their value menu. When the employees get her picky four year-old’s order wrong, they politely remake the sandwich and treat her like a queen and her son like a prince, even though his crown is made of cardboard.

Now, I don’t say this to romanticize fast food. It has its faults. The problem is that presuming fast food consumption de facto indicates greed and a lack of self-discipline is simply not always the case. Furthermore, it is not as if we are irresistibly conditioned to adopt “have it your way” as our life’s motto—clever advertising cannot override free will. Self-discipline still has hope today.

As for religion, well, I’m not so sure how new the market model really is. The disestablishmentarianism of the First Amendment makes religion a matter of choice at the national level, and the states in varying degrees have tended toward the same position. This sentiment preceded the Bill of Rights as well. “For in politics, as in religion,” wrote Alexander Hamilton, “it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword.”

The alternative to “fire and sword” is the market. On the demand side, people tend toward the religious community that best aligns with their interests. These interests are heavily shaped by family and cultural mores but not determined by them. On the supply side, however, religious groups face the requirement to provide a high quality product. If a church preaches that through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, one can experience forgiveness, grace, and transformation, they actually need to be able to deliver the goods, so-to-speak. The Gospel they preach really needs to be “the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

This has had the ill-effect that those dissatisfied with the product are more likely to go “church shopping” or, perhaps, take an entrepreneurial model and start their own church or denomination. But what is the alternative? Certainly state support for a church does not require “fire and sword” (witness: the Church of England today), but look not so far in the past and “fire and sword” are likely to be found (witness: the Church of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries).

No, established churches today tend toward the less exciting but far more humane problem (assuming one views it as a problem) of rampant cultural faith. People show up to get married and baptize their children just because it’s what “everybody” does. And Western countries that still retain established churches also still have a religious market—they just offer subsidies and privileges to the religious body of their choice, skewering the market toward a partial monopolistic arrangement for the established church. It’s religious cronyism vs. a free(r) market, but both are still markets.

All this is to say that if people are leaving churches in the United States because they feel more in touch with God elsewhere, more welcomed by the community, and so on, the solution is not to complain about the competition but to spend some time in self-reflection. What Gospel is your church preaching? How well does it live that out?

Blame consumerism if you will, or blame the cheap gimmicks of the competition, but I think we’d all do better to remove the plank in our own eyes first and ask ourselves what product we’re really selling.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.