James Twitchell. Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From in Your Heart to In Your Face. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. 324 pp.
James Twitchell, professor of English and Advertising at The University of Florida, explains on his website that his research interests include the effort to “interpret American culture in terms of commercialism.” A glance at his long list of publications reveals the various aspects of American culture he has researched—Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld (Simon & Schuster, 2004), Living it Up: America’s Love Affair with Luxury (Columbia University Press, 2002), Carnival Culture: The Trashing of Taste in America (Columbia University Press, 1992).
His most recent publication, Shopping for God, examines the American religious marketplace, within the terms of consumer culture. Twitchell explains in the opening chapter that the book “is about how some humans—modern-day Christians, to be exact—go about the process of consuming–of buying and selling, if you will–the religious experience” (p. 1). He is concerned not at all with the spiritual dynamics of religion and the religious experience, but rather with “how religious sensation is currently being manufactured, packaged, shipped out, and consumed” (p. 3).
Twitchell’s narrative of religious consumerism in America is irreverant, easy-to-read, and witty at times. At other times it reads as if the 62-year old is trying to hard to engage the youthful “hipsters” he suggests so many churches try to attract. In full postmodern style, Twitchell reveals his own position in the religious landscape. In fact, he encourages any eager book reviewer to start her book review by identifying his (Twitchell’s) religious identity:
If you want to write a review of this book, here’s your first sentence: “Shopping for God is just what you’d expect from an apatheist” (p. 34).
Simply put, an apatheist adopts the “live and let live” principle in his religious worldview. It is not, he stresses, “atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, secularism, and all the rest.” Rather, an “apatheist believes that religion has an important place in every culture. And that place should be protected and made safe. . . . I’d be out of business without it.” Nevertheless, religion’s place in society should not be too prominent and its approach should not be too pushy. What he later has to say about Mormons can probably be accurately predicted by the very next sentence: “If a religion has to move out of its place, has to proselytize in order to be true to its calling, that it do so very quietly and politely. Knock first” (pp. 33-34).
Ultimately, Twitchell concludes that certain religions succeed because their marketing approach incorporates what is known in the advertising world as “lifestyle branding.” That is, churches market a message that defines their denomination not as a belief system, but as a lifestyle. Larger mainline denominations today fail to attract new customers (parishioners) primarily because they continually attempt to sale a product—in this case, Christianity—and fail to market a brand (think Methodism or Presbyterianism).
I am less interested here in engaging this central thesis and the author’s many other sub-theses. Instead, I want to briefly review a few of the several mentions Mormonism receives from Twitchell. I will conclude with a short analysis of the value of his overall approach based on how he addresses Mormonism.
On the general history of Latter-day Saint Church:
This generally docile church (with some exceptions that are now making news for polygamy) began with a few hundred followers in upstate New York in the 1830s. It’s very hard to take Joseph Smith and the tablets seriously, and that’s precisely how the freeloaders were unloaded. The tithe was that you uprooted yourself. Then, properly isolated and anxious, the sect exploded. With an estimated rate of growth of about 43 percent per decade in the early twentieth century, there are now about thirteen million Mormons throughout the world. Domestic growth has now slowed.
As with other systems, the tithe is higher the farther the system moves from the center. The so-called Wasatch effect is the phenomenon that explains why Mormons in Salt Lake City are less sacrificial than those in the hinterlands. This condition is also seen in marketing, where it is sometimes called the “atlanta effect,” explaining why drinkers of Coke tend to be dedicated in direct proportion to miles out of Georgia. Separation makes the heart grow fonder. Or, maybe like sausage, it’s not good to see how it’s made (p. 104).
On Mormon growth:
The centrality of growth as a product informs . . . such [groups] as the Mormons and the millenarian churches like the Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. They too are spinning the turnstiles with little or no centralized marketing. They are each often increasing membership by about 3 percent to 5 percent annually. And they are doing it the hard way, one convert at a time.
The process is incredibly time consuming, but the experience the efficiencies of cult marketing: few converts fall away. Freeloaders, the bane of any voluntary group dynamic, are kept to a minimum. If you’ve ever had a chance to encounter one of these groups as they are involved in their door-to-door marketing, you may well conclude that these authoritarian groups punish questioning, reward gullibility, and maintain distinct boundaries between Us and Them. But what they really do is generate powerful emotions and long-lasting commitment (p. 56).
On the Mormon TV Spots:
The Mormons and the Lutherans have similar marketing techniques, and they have been at it for a while. The Mormons are doing OK; the Lutherans not. To some degree, this is a function of spending and market placement. The largest single church advertiser in the 1990s was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (i.e., The Mormons). For years they have been running boring and self-satisfied spots in which they attempt to own the idea of family. My favorite: a teacher is shown at home in an argument with her husband. We see her next at school, chastising a student in the hall for not doing a makeup assignment on the blackboard. The student tells her that someone else got to the blackboard first. Who? Inside we see the teacher’s husband, writing “I’m sorry” one hundred times on the board. Well, almost humorless (p. 162).
In his review of Twitchell’s book, Matthew Sutton summarized Shopping for God as a “sometimes funny, sometimes frustrating” and “haphazard look at how Christians buy and sell religious experience.” The same can probably be said for his specific take on Mormonism. For a fuller critique of some of the more glaring shortcomings and problematic interpretive aspects of the book (i.e., Twitchell’s approach to religion and gender), read Sutton’s full review.
I found particularly frustrating that the author made rather striking claims but provided no documentation or evidence for such claims. “Mormons in Salt Lake City” may very well be (but might not be at all) “less sacrificial than those in the hinterlands,” but how does Twitchell come to such a conclusion? And what does he mean specifically by “less sacrificial”? On the other hand, his quip about the Mormon brand including an “attempt to own the idea of family” is not only true, but made me chuckle.
Ultimately, I see Twitchell’s book as significant in that it subtly suggests a number of new approaches to the study of Mormonism. The notion that Mormonism’s success can be attributed (at least in part) to its marketing of a brand with specific and unique products (Christ-centered living revolving around the traditional family, a strict code of lifestyle, etc.) instead of a generic brand (Christianity) deserves further attention. Furthemore, if evidence can be provided of the above-mentioned “Wasatch effect,” an extended analysis of said effect provides a fascinating framework through which to address the internationalization of the institutional church. Additionally, examining Latter-day Saint advertising within the larger context of Christian marketing might be quite revealing not only in terms of what works and doesn’t work in attracting new converts, but also in highlighting how Mormonism navigates the seemingly contradictory waters of the marketplace and more traditional sacred space.