By Martha Woodroof
The Washington National Cathedral, photographed by Jonathan Newton– The Washington Post
It’s the economy, stupid . . .
Big Businesses famously roll on in this country because we’re scared of letting them fail. And if there truly is an American business that’s too big to send swirling down the economy’s drain, it’s the Organized Religion Industry (O.R.I). For an industry of which the major American branch (Christianity) uses as its mission statement the anti-materialist words of a poor carpenter, the O.R.I has done all right in the rapacious fray known as the American economy.
Think about it. In real estate alone, the O.R.I. controls gazillions of dollars. And it’s not just property ownership that has economically entrenched the Organized Religion Industry in America; it’s all the jobs attached to that property. Not to mention all the auxiliary economic activities generated by what goes on in O.R.I.-owned buildings, all the training facilities for the people who run these activities, all the people employed by the hierarchical institutions who decide what these activities should be.
Just to give one example of the Organized Religion Industry’s commanding financial presence in my home state of Virginia: In 2009, Thomas Road Baptist Church (church, private school, and private universities) was Lynchburg’s second-largest employee, topped only by Centra Health.
Talk about marketing! The O.R.I. has sold its message brilliantly, concentrating on such talking points as fear of death, answers to the unanswerable, and moral certainties delivered in God’s name. I think it’s fair to say the O.R. I.’s strident voice owns the public God conversation in America; so much so that people who reject organized religion often feel compelled to reject God, the great Whatever, as well.
Now, before I go one word further, let me acknowledge that a lot of good people do a lot of good things driven by their participation in organized religion. My quarrel is not with those good people or those good things, or even, per se with organized religion; it’s that the Organized Religion Industry seems chiefly concerned with maintaining itself and its employees (often quite lavishly) by pedaling itself as essential to having a relationship with God. The focus of organized religion is not God, as much as itself. People starve, while Joel Osteen makes millions.
The premise of the O.R.I, that you need religion in order to live as a person of faith, is, if you’ll excuse me for saying so, unpardonable hooey. It’s perfectly possible to live as person of faith without being religious; to live in partnership with God, the great Whatever, without swaddling your relationship in any of organized religion’s folderol. It’s absolutely fine to, in God’s name and in It’s company, put your time, energy, and money directly into doing some good for and with your fellow inhabitants of this sweet old world. And to let the sound and fury of the O.R.I. play on without you.
To me, the irony of the social and economic entrenchment of the Organized Religion Industry is that God is here and is our way out of the inherent limitations of this entrenchment. Once we get our faith in gear, our religious practices will follow its lead. Once we, as individuals, strengthen our partnership with the great Whatever, then groups of us will become able to give up our spiritual security blankets–all those answers to the unanswerable, all the false comfort for our fears, all that pandering to our insecurities the O.R.I does so profitably in God’s name.
But what’s to be done about the Organized Religion Industry, itself? What about those jobs, those buildings, those educational institutions? How do we take back the God conversation from an industry that views the great Whatever as its most profitable product . . . without further imperiling the American economy?
You got any ideas?
Martha’s note: This is round ten of Faith Unboxed, an ongoing, civil, respectful conversation about faith I invite you to participate by sharing your own ideas and experiences (either here or on the website), rather than by denigrating the ideas and experiences of others.