The Bear, the Bull, and the Religious Marketplace

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by Martin E. Marty, February 25, 2002

Barbara Crossette's story "A Tough Time to Talk Peace" in the New York Times (February 12, 2002), reports that in New York City, Buddhism -- described as a philosophy, but who does not also find it among the religions in every encyclopedia? -- has come upon hard times.

A philosophy of choice among literati, a prime religious option on some campuses, a choice subject in many humanities curricula, it had found its place on the public scene. Attract the Dalai Lama and you would outdraw crowds for any spiritual leader other than the proverbial duo "the Pope or Billy Graham." Let celebrities -- converts and promoters like actor Richard Gere -- advertise the virtues of Buddhism, and throngs would throng.

Lately the market for Buddhism, at least in the hub and hive that is New York, has turned bearish. The ailing Dalai Lama has a message of peace that is not welcome in many sectors of an America that is mobilizing for war.

Richard Gere gets hooted and booed at a rally. Serious scholars at universities speak in terms of disappointment or, Buddhist-style, they come to terms with the fact that some of the pursuits of recent years represented what one called "fad-Buddhism," a concept not likely to be comprehensible in a monastery in Kyoto or a "Buddhist Church" in Honolulu.

We would prefer to believe that only its voguish appeal is in decline. Less attractive is the notion that a philosophy or religion that teaches passivity or pacific ways -- not always outright pacifism -- has to be dismissed as distracting and unpatriotic. What might be overlooked in reportage of this sort is the way religions (well, philosophies, if you will), get covered as market items.

Thus, for months the questions have been: Will the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints "recover" from the scandals some notable members produced during bidding for the Winter Olympics? Will the beauties of the Salt Lake Cityscape and positive reports on non-proselytizing Mormons pay off in even greater growth and prosperity? On the other hand, Catholics of note get quoted as worrying about what priestly pedophilia cases in diocese after diocese will do to trust and thus to the image and the market futures for Catholicism.

Sociologists note the issue of regionalism and the religious market. As the farm belt and the rust belt have known relative decline, so have the flight of snowbirds to the Sunbelt hurt mainline Protestantism, once so dominant in the two belts up north. Will articles such as one in the new Atlantic that strikes out at anyone who believes Abraham existed cause Jews to lose commitment, and will some Christians fade with them? Not likely, but, as they say, watch the spiritual commodities futures in a nation dominated by market talk.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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