The Web site Adherents.com, which compiles statistics on the membership of religious groups, includes entries for the religions of television, sports, Disney, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Elvis worship. What is going on? They cannot possibly be serious.
Religion is serious. According to the great psychologist of religion William James, religion "signifies always a serious state of mind."1 Popular culture, by contrast, is not serious. Or is it? In this book, I posit that it certainly is. Through the idea of religion, I will engage the compelling political, social, and economic realities of America, at home and abroad, as expressed in American popular culture.
Situated between the state and the market, between political power and economic exchange, religion is an arena of human activity marked by the concerns of the transcendent, the sacred, the ultimate—concerns that enable people to experiment with what it means to be human. Religious ways of being human engage the transcendent—that which rises above and beyond the ordinary. They engage the sacred—that which is set apart from the ordinary. And they engage the ultimate—that which defines the final, unavoidable limit of all our ordinary concerns.
Popular culture, for its part, encompasses the ordinary—the pleasures of our lives, which we may even take for granted, such as the creative and performing arts, sports, and leisure activities. If we want to think about the relationship between religion and popular culture, we have to ask: How does the serious work of religion, which engages the transcendent, the sacred, and the ultimate meaning of human life in the face of death, relate to the comparatively frivolous play of popular culture?
From the most intimate embodiment of personal subjectivity to the most public institutions of social collectivity, what I call religion is at work and at play. It is at work in the disciplines of the body, the regulation of one's conduct, and the legitimization of political, social, or economic power. It is at play in the creative improvisations, innovations, transformations, and transgressions of all that serious religious work. Of course, sometimes work can seem like play, so this initial opposition between religious work and religious play will blur.
In this book, I dwell in detail on the ways in which religion animates popular culture. Thus I concentrate less on how specific religious groups deal with popular culture than on how popular culture works in characteristically religious ways. Without denying the importance of organized religions or their relations with popular culture, I want to highlight the ways in which the production, circulation, and consumption of popular culture can operate like religion.
Communities, Objects, and Exchanges What difference does it make to call any cultural activity "religion"? As we will see, religion can be a useful term for understanding the ways in which transcendence, the sacred, and the ultimate are inevitably drawn into doing some very important things that happen in and through popular culture: forming a human community, focusing human desire, and entering into human relations of exchange.
Social cohesion, in forming a sense of community, is reinforced by religious resources. Rising above the everyday course of life, traces of transcendence seem necessary for instilling a sense of continuity with the past. Set apart from the ordinary world, traces of the sacred seem necessary for establishing a sense of uniformity in the present. In the play of popular culture, religious techniques for creating sacred time and sacred space have generated a sense of community within a diverse array of cultural enterprises, such as the church of baseball, the pilgrimage to Graceland, the devotion to Star Trek, and the proliferation of invented religions on the Internet. Originating in the United States, these sacred communities often assume a global significance, as witnessed by the frequent claims that something in American popular culture has established a new "mecca." According to its Web site, the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, is the "Mecca of baseball." The Coca-Cola Company's museum in Atlanta has been described as the "Mecca of Coca-Cola." Various claimants, including the cities of Memphis, New York, Los Angeles, and Cleveland, home of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, have vied for recognition as the "Mecca of Rock 'n' Roll." Examples of the "meccanization" of American popular culture abound. All suggest that popular culture adopts religious resources not only for forming a sense of community but also for expanding that sense of community like a transnational, missionizing religion.
In a globalizing world, human identity and community, as celebrated in American popular culture, have been focused on material objects, the powerful commodities of a market economy. Directing attention toward the consumer product as the ultimate object of human desire is an important part of the religious work of American popular culture. Invested with transcendent power and sacred significance, the consumer product has emerged as the modern fetish, the object of religious desire in a capitalist economy. The fetish of Coca-Cola, for example, has been placed within arm's reach of desire all over the world, registering as an animated object of global religious attention. American popular culture has brought many inanimate objects to life, not only as commodities, but also as religious relics, icons, and even deities. In the global expansion of Disney and McDonald's, as cultural analyst Andrew Ross has observed, "the Mouse and the Golden Arches are almost as ubiquitous on the earth's crust as the Christian cross or the Muslim crescent."2 On the Internet, "virtual" religions have deified any number of consumer products—we find the Church of the Twinkie, the Church of Volkswagenism, and the First Church of the Fisher-Price Record Player, for example. With regard to American popular culture, Karl Marx's "fetishism of commodities" seems to be a redundant phrase. The commodity is the fetish.
Although the notion of the fetish calls attention to an important religious activity—the formation and focusing of human desire—the term itself has a problematic pedigree. Long before the word fetish was applied to a consumer product such as Coke, European explorers, traders, and merchants in West Africa used it to denigrate African religions for their lack of any "authenticity" that might provide a stable system of values. In the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, the great African American sociologist, political activist, and, as I hope to show, historian of religions, the fetish posed a crucial problem for understanding the role of religion in American culture. Initially, Du Bois tried to rehabilitate African fetishism from its European denigration, but eventually he realized that the very notion of fetishism was a European invention. Accusing Africans of worshiping objects, Europeans masked the actual workings of slavery, which turned living human beings into objects, into commodities, for the transatlantic slave trade.
Like Du Bois, other theorists of modernity, following the lead of Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud, have turned the critique of African fetishism back on the West and its obsessions with material objects. While tracking such Western obsessions, however, we must avoid the denigrating, prejudicial dismissal of the religious interest in objects as fetishism. Lively objects, as focal points of desire, can create meaningful religious worlds.
In the life of material objects, human beings must participate by engaging in rituals of exchange, which bear traces of religious practices and performances. This suggests another important religious aspect of American popular culture. When compared with the buying, selling, and speculating done in the productive economy, the economic exchanges in religious rituals seem nonproductive.
To adopt a phrase coined by the unconventional sociologist Georges Bataille, popular culture celebrates ritualized expenditure in nonproductive economic activity. Not for profit, as Bataille argued, expenditure is economic activity in which the loss must be as great as possible in order to certify a claim on ultimate meaning. Ritual expenditure occurs in a gift, a display, or a performance of wealth. But expenditure also takes place in the waste, the destruction, or the irrecoverable loss of valued objects, including the highly valued "object" of human life. In many contexts, such as the performance of rock 'n' roll or the mystery of the global economy, we will see ritual expenditure, in Bataille's sense, operating within religion and American popular culture.
Money, of course, makes the world go around. But money is not what it used to be. Although economics textbooks still define it rather austerely as a medium of exchange, a unit of accounting, and a store of value, money has taken on a life—and religious proportions—of its own. As a system of symbols, money might be regarded as a religion, even as the "religion of the market"; it also has inspired a range of religious initiatives in American popular culture. For example, economic exchange has been transformed into the gospel of prosperity by religio-economic corporations such as Amway; the gospel of money by television ministries, which appeal to their viewers for support funding, promising miraculous financial returns to the donors; and even the religious devotion to money in the online Church of the Profit$, which claims to be the only honest, authentic religion in America because it openly admits that it is only in it for the money.
Raising the stakes in these religio-economic exchanges, money and blood have become interchangeable within the calculations of the state and the market in American life and culture. Like money, human blood, in the symbolic economy of culture, is exchanged as a payment (colonizers shed it to authorize their claims on America), as a waste (we squander it in wars), or as a debt that can never be paid (we owe a sacrificial debt to our country whose ultimate payment would require our own life). Clearly, after the devastation of September 11, 2001, this sacred economy of blood and money was revitalized in the United States, but it has had a long, sustained life in American history, one with a deep religious undercurrent.
These, then, are three reasons for investigating religion in American popular culture: religious activity is at work in forming community, focusing desire, and facilitating exchange.
Religion and Popular Culture in Embodied, National, and Global Spheres By exploring case studies in some depth and detail, I hope to present more than a survey. Perhaps the cases I consider will seem arbitrary. Still, the locations of these case studies are important, because I want to focus attention on religion and American popular culture as embodied, as national, and as global. These three spheres overlap in producing religious significance for America.
As a religion of the body, the religion of American popular culture involves the most basic, visceral engagements with the world. Sex, drugs, and the pulsating rhythms of rock 'n' roll embrace the body in an immediacy, an intensity, although the mind and soul might subsequently follow. Mediated through the senses, especially through the physical sense of touch, the embodied character of religion in American popular culture appears in the binding, burning, moving, and handling of religious meaning and power, but it also registers as religion under pressure, as a pervasive sense of anxiety, distraction, and stress in a world that seems to be spinning out of control.
Although I take the human body as the basic ground of religion, it also is important to recognize that much of the creativity of popular culture involves changing or leaving the body. Many ways of modifying the body—piercing and tattooing, plastic surgery and liposuction, cross-dressing and transsexual surgery—have increasingly become part of the American way of life. At the same time, Americans have sought to leave their bodies, flying out of this ordinary world into cyberspace, or virtual reality, unencumbered by the physical pull of planetary gravity or the physical weight of human embodiment. In these efforts, echoes of shamanism, the archaic "techniques of ecstasy," reverberate.
In religious trance, divine possession, or sacred ecstasy, the shaman can leave the body. I discuss shamans such as the African shaman Credo Mutwa, the American shaman Jim Perkins, and the divinely inspired electric shaman of rock 'n' roll, Jim Morrison. I also consider the possibility that the most important shaman in American popular culture, with his roots in ancient traditions of Siberian shamanism, might actually turn out to be not Jim Morrison but Santa Claus. In any event, this substratum of shamanic religion in American popular culture evokes a transcendence of space, place, and embodiment that has had a powerful appeal. Focusing on the body, therefore, calls for attention to the plastic, shape-shifting, and ecstatic attempts to transcend the body in American popular culture.
Within the United States, popular culture might be generalized as a kind of public religion. In the 1960s, sociologist Robert Bellah argued that the United States was animated by a collective, public, or civil religion, an understanding of the nation's historical destiny in the light of transcendence, which served as a religious warrant for American nationalism. Although civil religion, as Bellah defined it, still operates in America, these national religious impulses have thoroughly diffused through popular culture. As a result, Americans assimilate their civil religion less through the constitutional arms of the U.S. government—the executive, legislative, or judicial branches—than through the productions of film, television, radio, and other media of popular culture.
Nevertheless, as Bellah proposed, the presidents of the United States have played a central role in the formation of an American civil, public, or popular religion. Endowed with transcendent, sacred, and perhaps even ultimate power, American presidents have assumed authoritative roles not only in the public sphere but also in popular culture. In the chapters of this book, their exhortations have punctuated my explorations in American popular culture. With a definite historical interest, I have tried to situate cultural creativity within the horizon of political necessity evoked by presidents of the United States.
Starting with President Ronald Reagan, who revitalized the American ideology of redemptive sacrifice, American presidents have operated in a potent symbolic economy of blood and money that is mediated through the popular cultural outlets of film, television, and radio. As an actor, Reagan was already adept at the studied simulations required for such media transmissions and cultural transactions in America. His successors, however, forced to simulate his simulations, have only further entrenched the U.S. presidency in the media of popular culture. As a result, whether they have liked it or not, all subsequent presidents of the United States have had to operate in Ronald Reagan's world. Despite never having been movie stars, all subsequent presidents have been required to act as authentic, true-to-life replicas of American presidents on film.
In this book, I discuss U.S. presidents who have invoked civil religion, perhaps, but have also tried to establish the political horizon, the terms and limits, that might contain the proliferation of religious meanings in American popular culture. They have failed. Although Ronald Reagan revitalized a sacrificial ideology for America, celebrating the sacrifice of human lives for the social collectivity, his initiative was shadowed by Jim Jones, who led his following into mass death for the sake of a community.
Described by foreign journalists as the most powerful man in the world, President George Bush, who during his administration declared the dawn of the New World Order, became the primary suspect of conspiracy theorists during the 1990s. He was believed not only to be participating in a global conspiracy to rule the world but also to be performing human sacrifices and drinking human blood as a shape-shifting reptile, the offspring of reptilian extraterrestrials.
President Bill Clinton, who was included in this global conspiracy, tried to reinvigorate American popular culture by invoking the New Covenant for America, entering into a new transatlantic partnership with Africa, and announcing the opening of a new scientific frontier with the completion of the Human Genome Project, which he touted as holding enormous religious significance because it enables humans to learn God's language of creation.
Finally, President George W. Bush has also drawn the attention of conspiracy theorists, from his initiation into the Skull and Bones Society to his subsequent global agenda for U.S. military, economic, and cultural power in a war against terrorism.
Although the discussion of these U.S. presidents does not unfold in chronological order, their appearance in this book has a kind of coherence, because each represents the central religious commitment to redemptive sacrifice that animates American nationalism.
As an imaginative, imaginary realm, American popular culture is preoccupied with death, dying, and the dead, especially with heroic, redemptive sacrifice, which is a recurring motif of popular films, television, and other media. Clearly, death pervades American popular culture; from blockbuster entertainment to the nightly news, the body count is high. As a "cult of death," American popular culture, like American religious nationalism, seeks redemption in sacrificial death, so a consideration of death must be part of our exploration of religion and American popular culture.
All over the world, American popular culture has been disseminated and diffused into a vast array of local settings. Globalization, which is more than just a transnational mode of economic production, also expands the scope of the production and consumption of cultural forms. Clearly, America stands at the center and extends to the periphery of this globalizing network. Although critics of globalization decry the Americanization of global culture, pointing to the homogenizing effects of the Cocacolonization, McDonaldization, or Disneyization of the world, which seem inevitably to lead to the destruction of local legacies of human diversity, people all over the world seem to like it. From the perspective of consumers, who often find creative ways to localize American popular culture, its productions are not necessarily perceived as alien. Yet, even if the globalizing extensions of American popular culture are often experienced as "glocal"—both global and local—this process of cultural expansion has nevertheless reinforced certain economic, social, and political relations that entrench American power. Touching briefly on several foreign locations of American popular culture, including Russia, India, and Argentina, I focus more directly on developments in Japan and South Africa.
In the science of intercultural business communication, especially as it was designed to assist Americans in conducting global business, Japan emerged as a typical "type B" culture, according to a manual on intercultural negotiation, the opposite of the "type A" culture of America. Operating like transnational religions, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Disney have entered the Japanese markets on a mission to make conversions. However, despite the cultural imperialism of these quasi-religious missions, Japanese cultural entrepreneurs, as well as consumers, have found ways to convert these enterprises to suit their own interests.
The idea that the Japanese have converted these businesses instead of being converted by them recalls the argument advanced by W.E.B. Du Bois: that Africans, especially those enslaved in America, did not convert to Christianity but converted Christianity to the basic themes, rhythms, and interests of African religion. Important features of American popular culture, especially pop music, can be traced back to Africa. However, the transatlantic cultural exchanges in both religion and popular culture have been ongoing in relations between America and Africa.
I discuss several specific and crucial transatlantic exchanges between the United States and South Africa, for instance, America's popular interest in a South African political leader, Nelson Mandela, who was enthusiastically received on his visit to the States during 1990 as if he were a religious figure of mythic proportions, variously proclaimed as an African messiah, Moses, a pope, or a hero-of-a-thousand-faces. In counterpoint to Nelson Mandela, I also consider a South African religious leader, the Zulu shaman Credo Mutwa, who has gained a following in the United States among enthusiasts of New Age spirituality, representing the indigenous authenticity of African religion. According to one of his American supporters, Mutwa's religious vision supplemented Mandela's political leadership, "filling out and complementing Mandela's political journey with Mutwa's mythology."3 At the very least, this interest in Mandela and Mutwa suggests the vitality of ongoing exchanges between America and Africa in the field of religion and popular culture.
In South Africa, powerful cultural images of America have assumed religious proportions. Nelson Mandela warned on several occasions during the 1950s that American imperialism was most dangerous because it came to Africa "elaborately disguised" not only as diplomacy and foreign aid but also as religion and popular culture.4 However, visions of America have promised redemption as well. The American movement, with its expectation that the arrival of Americans would bring about a liberating apocalypse, emerged during the 1920s and 1930s as a popular African religious movement focusing on America as the hope of salvation. A different social movement, the criminal gang known as the Americans, which has been interpreted locally as if it were a religion, has located the meaning and power of America within the impoverished townships of Cape Town, South Africa. Coming to prominence in the 1990s, the Americans gang has advanced an alternative reading of the meaning and power of America as the sacred truth of blood and money in a globalizing world. In reviewing these transatlantic exchanges, I join the American movement and Americans gang in South Africa in asking, "Where is America?"
Throughout this book, I confront the problem of authenticity. Although the productions of popular culture might in many ways look, sound, smell, taste, and feel like religion, there is a distinct possibility that they are not actually religious. Baseball is not a religion; Coca-Cola is not a religion; and rock 'n' roll is not a religion. But then all kinds of religious activity have been denied the status of religion, including indigenous religions labeled as superstition and alternative religious movements labeled as cults. What counts as religion, therefore, is the focus of the problem of authenticity in religion and American popular culture. Making the problem worse, some religious activity appears transparently fake, including the proliferation of invented religions on the Internet, but even fake religions can be doing a kind of symbolic, cultural, and religious work that is real.
At work and at play, human authenticity is at stake in American religion and popular culture. Religion is the real thing, but, as we already know from the world of advertising, Coca-Cola is also the real thing. Baseball and rock 'n' roll, McDonald's and Disney, Tupperware and Nike, along with all the other permutations of the popular, have artificially produced a real world. Religion, mediated through popular culture as ordinary leisure and entertainment but also as human possibility and experimentation, has appeared in the traces of transcendence, the sacred, and the ultimate in these cultural formations.
1. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, ed. Martin E. Marty (London: Penguin, 1982), 37-38.
2. Andrew Ross, The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Values in Disney's New Town (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999), 296.
3. Luisah Teish, "Foreword," in Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, Song of the Stars: The Lore of a Zulu Shaman, ed. Stephen Larsen (Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Openings, 1996), ix.
4. Nelson Mandela, The Struggle Is My Life (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1986), 72- 76. See also Nelson Mandela, In His Own Words, ed. Kader Asmal, David Chidester, and Wilmot James (Boston: Little, Brown, 2004), 11-