Packaging Jesus in America

The United States is a country that knows how to sell. The backbone of entrepreneurship here is not necessarily based on providing a product or service that is valuable. The secret to success in business is convincing Americans that they need or want what you’re selling, and we do it well. Where else could you take a smooth stone, nest it in a little clump of straw, place it in a cardboard box with a tiny book of “instructions,” and sell it for $3.95 as a Pet Rock? An ad executive named Gary Dahl did exactly that in the mid-1970s and became a millionaire in just a few months. Other examples include mood rings, Lucky Break plastic wishbones, and HeadOn headache relief wax. We can probably all think of a few “universities” and other nonprofits that are worthy mentions.

We will sell anything in America, and I mean ANY thing. When I was the director at Andalusia, the historic home of American author Flannery O’Connor, we scooped up red clay from the yard, placed it in small plastic pill bottles, and sold it for .75 a bottle in our little gift shop. We did the same with pond water from the property. Adoring fans and generous supporters of our house museum bought them by the dozens. No, I can’t say I’m proud of stooping to such obnoxious commercialistic measures, but it helped keep the lights on. At least we didn’t make any claims about the supernatural qualities of the clay, with all due respect to the folks at El Santuario de Chimayo who offer up mystical holy dirt on a Native American sacred hill in New Mexico.

Speaking of the sacred, I believe that Americans do a better job at marketing religious belief than just about anything else. We borrow myths and customs from various cultures and across the centuries, synthesizing them into a giant brand that we couple with Christianity, making it a lot more attractive. For example, we skillfully package up the entire Advent season in a display that can practically fit in the palm of your hand – a nativity scene that comes complete with Mary, Joseph, some livestock, and a few shepherds gathered snugly in a small stable admiring the baby Jesus. We even throw in three wise men and a guiding star over the structure, although we know these guys didn’t see the holy family until long after everyone had vacated the manger scene. We simply don’t have room for two dioramas on the coffee table. We have to save room for Santa, the reindeer, and the scioto ceramic Christmas village.

There are other practices to further illustrate the point: bunny rabbits and eggs at Easter combined with passion plays that reduce the death of Christ to a one-act skit. I am reminded of the time I was driving through the foothills of Appalachia in rural north Georgia on a Good Friday back in the late 1990s when I passed a small country church. Thankfully, I happened to turn my head in time to see three large crosses on the front lawn of the church, which would be completely expected. What prompted me to slam on brakes and swerve into the entrance of the adjacent parking lot, however, was the fact that there were three men in what appeared to be white bed sheets draped around their wastes “hanging” on the crosses. They were standing on small pedestals attached to the upright beams and holding on to large spikes driven into both ends of the crossbeams. There were several folks standing at a respectful distance in front of the display taking photographs. No banner or marque could have possibly commanded more attention. The man on the middle cross, playing the part of Jesus, I presumed, had a slightly protruding belly and was offering a modest smile for the photo op. As I moved in closer, I noticed he was also chewing gum. Who wouldn’t want to be in THAT church two days later to celebrate the resurrected Savior? What a shame Flannery O’Connor died before this happened.

Even people who love to celebrate the winter holidays with garish decorations have become disgusted with big-box stores that start filling their shelves with the stuff in early September. Now we can walk into our local Walmart before the summer ends, wander over near the garden section, and find all the accessories we could possibly need for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas with just one trip. All the aforementioned illustrations may cheapen a faith tradition that is almost 2000 years old, but I don’t find them too offensive really. They simply reflect the way Americans think and operate under the encompassing influence of capitalism, which is the true soul of the Republic, morally bankrupt as it may seem at times.

What I do find reprehensible is how people in high places have notoriously attempted to hijack religion and use it to further their personal or institutional agendas, and Christianity has perhaps fallen victim to this evil form of abuse as much or more than any other faith. It happened with the late Roman Empire, the rise of the papacy, the Crusades, the witchcraft trials, the perpetuation of slavery in America, and many other pivotal points in western history. And it’s happening today – right now. The most effective way to pitch a policy package or promote a public figure to a large block of this country’s population is to make sure Jesus is clearly visible on the label.

All your past and present failures, bad decisions, naughty behavior, crude language – all your transgressions can be immediately forgiven and forgotten as long as you claim that Jesus is your co-pilot. He doesn’t even have to be in charge of the flight! In spite of the separations set forth in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, the United States throughout its history has wedded patriotism to the Christian faith. You can bet that when most Americans read the phrase “In God We Trust” on their money (why is it still there?), they aren’t conjuring images of Zeus, Shiva, or even Allah. They are envisioning the Christian Trinity.

No other demographic is more committed to maintaining the dominance of Christianity in this country, right up to the three branches of government, than strongly conservative evangelicals. They are a powerful lobby and voting bloc, spreading out over multiple denominations and encompassing all races and socio-economic sectors. Their influence has waned slightly in recent decades as the overall population is becoming more secular, but they have a loud and clear voice in public affairs, especially on the national level. Sadly, even the least qualified candidates can overcome a multitude of sins and ineptitude by claiming they are guided by Biblical principles and dedicated to protecting this brand of Christianity from resistance or competition. By focusing on a few essential staples that evangelical Christians hold sacred, these con artists can easily sell them the rest of the merchandise regardless of how cheap, useless, or even dangerous it may be. Jesus is central to the deal, and we Americans can’t pass up a good deal.

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