The Changing Religious Marketplace & The Business of Religion

Secularization theory states that as nations became more industrialized, they correspondingly become less religious. However, the US proved to be a great anomaly that defied this paradigm. Though it was a developed nation, the percentage of the population that practiced religion remained very high. Supply side theory was seen as an improvement, stating that greater religious diversity would yield an increase in overall religious participation. While it addressed the shortcomings of secularization theory in explaining the religious landscape of the US, it is still not a comprehensive model for explaining religious change.

In Chapter 2 of Brands of Faith, Mara Einstein asserts that demand for religion cannot be created where it does not already exist, which makes it different from other marketed products. This contradicts Rodney Stark’s traditional supply side notion that in a free market, more suppliers (religions) would lead to greater demand because more people would be able to find a religion that suited their needs. Einstein’s argument presents an interesting challenge for marketers of religion. One does not switch faith brands as casually as they may switch brands of shampoo or underwear, because it entails a much higher level of commitment. Still, if we consider factors like secularization theory, as in her comparison of Oprah and Joel Osteen, we can see that religions are indeed becoming more commodified. Listerine’s legendary campaign permanently added “halitosis” (a fictional medical condition otherwise known as bad breath) into our vocabulary, thus creating demand for this solution to a problem we never had before. As religions are marketed more like other readily consumable goods, the way we think about religion changes as well. While it would be considerably harder to convince consumers of a malady of the soul than of a physical ailment, that is what also makes it the religion marketer’s dream.

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