Snake-oil version of religion
Ryan Summerlin June 15, 2013
Auto manufacturers and religious institutions commit the same blunder. Sometimes, their innovative solutions run far ahead of the public’s endorsement and fall out-of-favor with consumers.
In 1957, Ford Motor Co. launched an advertising blitz for the goofy-looking Edsel. Consumers were turned off by what Ford featured above the car’s front bumper — an oval vertical grille. Customers quipped it looked like a horse collar.
Of course, Ford tried to make the best of the bad mess. As bills piled up, the company grudgingly admitted its mistake. “The Edsel was oversold by Ford as the revolutionary car of the future,” confessed Matt Anderson, curator of the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
This manufacturing boondoggle lowered Ford’s financial balance sheet. The company cut losses at $250 million and suspended production in 1959. Time Magazine reported, “Edsel was the wrong car for the wrong market at the wrong time.”
What sells in today’s Christian market is less talk about human wrong and more babble about how swell we are. Sometimes, what’s lauded as religious creativity careens like the Edsel into potholes. An innovative religion is marketed that’s neither creative nor all that religious.
Likewise in the political market, legislators quickly learn they aren’t elected to office if they squarely state our problems. Americans like our country’s strengths hyped rather than its weaknesses admitted. Like Edsel dealers who promised a perfect car for perfect customers, it’s profitable to advertise human talent and avoid our deficiencies.
We applaud politicians and preachers whose superlatives brand us. Of course, the Bible’s plot line has to be drastically altered. Gone is the biblical verdict: We aren’t OK. We can’t fix ourselves. But God has crossed out our not OK-ness by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Americans turn traditional Christianity on its head by endorsing preachers and politicians who declare we are basically OK. Do we or our nation stand in judgment for our wrongs? Or, are we nearly perfect, like the advertised Edsel?
Reinhold Niebuhr, who taught at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary in the first part of the 20th century, didn’t buy the Edsel hype for the human condition. He crafted prayers that describe us traveling on potholed streets. Like a father dealing with recalcitrant children, Niebuhr prayed to a heavenly father who corrects our mistakes. He intoned, “Grant us grace in all of our life constantly to stand under Thy judgment. Remove from us all pretensions of righteousness and goodness and wisdom on our own account.”
Why do Americans reject such strong indictments of the human condition? Why do we clamor for preachers who sell promises sounding like Ford hawking the Edsel? In the 1950s, Norman Vincent Peale convinced us that our minds brim over with positive thinking. Stretching from the 1970s into the 21st century, Robert Schuller at the Crystal Cathedral impressed us with possibility thinking. Now TV preacher Joel Osteen, with his prosperity gospel, mentally sells Edsels. God wants us to be wealthy, he promises. Picture yourself as an Edsel without the ugly grille, we are told.
Ronald Reagan honed the message that we’re basically OK. During the 1980 presidential campaign, a chipper Reagan gave the Edsel pitch, “Our optimism has once again been turned loose. And all of us recognize that these people who keep talking about the age of limits are really talking about their own limitations, not America’s.” A perfect advertising pitch, isn’t it?
President Jimmy Carter wasn’t good at using Edsel banter. He paid a huge political price for leveling with the American public that we’re not OK. Historian Garry Wills writes, “In 1980, even Southern evangelical voters deserted a president who, in most ways, reflected their background better than Reagan did. Jimmy Carter was more devout by ordinary standards (like church attendance), better acquainted with the Bible, far more active in church affairs (like doing missionary work), more willing to talk about his born-again experiences.
“Despite all these discrete points of contact between his experience and theirs, religious voters found that Carter lacked the higher confidence in man, man’s products and America. He talked of limits and self-denial, of tendencies towards aggression even in a sacred or ‘saved’ nation like America. He believed in original sin” (Reagan’s America: Innocence at Home, pg. 385).
Most Americans don’t because it sounds dour and puritanical.
Carter’s message doesn’t attract masses to church, win the presidency or sell Edsels. Why do we warrant chastening if we are basically OK? Doesn’t manifest destiny make our nation OK? American exceptionalism has God’s OK, doesn’t it? Such tripe runs far ahead of what the Bible teaches.
The Edsel would have been OK, too, if it had shed that distinctive ugly vertical grille.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.