Is God well-served by ‘market religion’?

Father John A. Kiley

A radio commentator made mention recently of “market religion,” an unfamiliar phrase but one that makes perfect sense.

The commentator first alluded to religions that are handed down from above, that is, “established” religions like the Church of England in Britain, the Lutheran Church in Scandinavia, the old Congregational Church in Massachusetts or the Catholic Church in most of Southern Europe and Latin America.

The Islamic Church in the Arab world and Buddhism in old China and Hinduism in India would certainly fit into this category of “established” churches. For most of history, the faithful belonged only to these established churches, otherwise they were branded dissenters or non-conformists and were denied civil as well as ecclesiastical rights. One may recall the Pilgrims coming to Plymouth to escape the established Church of England or the Huguenots fleeing France to escape the firmly-entrenched Catholic Church. Formerly, believers did not select their religion; it was handed to them. Religion was part of the local culture and dissent violated both divine and public order. Governments enforced church attendance by levying fines (or worse) against anyone who failed to attend established Sabbath services. Attending services at the established church was an unquestioned duty. Those who missed services did so at great risk.

In the English-speaking world, mandatory attendance at the Anglican Church on the Sabbath was abolished in the late 1600s under the joint monarchy of William and Mary. Persons were no longer fined for refraining from Anglican worship on the Sabbath – although a lot of established church privileges were denied dissenters. (Catholics could not vote until 1829.) The first result of removing fines for failure to attend church was that church attendance dropped off dramatically. Sometimes freedom of religion meant that believers could neglect religion, that religion would no longer matter, no longer be part of their lifestyle, no longer determine their Sunday schedule.

The novel freedom of religion that was introduced under William and Mary would become the “market religion” that is now taken for granted in the United States. Roger Williams was truly ahead of his time when he began his lively experiment here in Rhode Island. While the new American federal government did not constitutionally establish any church, most colonies and later the states had established churches well into the 19th century. And civil rights were often denied to those who failed to conform. Now in our own day, freedom of religion is an unassailable American civil right. Religion has become a commodity, a product in the market place, which believers are free to choose or not to choose, to support or not to support, to embrace or to reject. To gainsay this notion of America’s prized market place religion would certainly be civic heresy. Freedom of religion is one of the pillars of American society. But are God and his revelation and his providence served well by “market religion”?

An authentic religion by its very nature is an established religion because God himself reveals it. Once God has revealed himself to mankind, man’s only valid choice is to make that religion, that revelation, his own. To do otherwise is to contradict the very idea of revealed truth. What the English- speaking world has inherited via the kindness of William and Mary is a fractured Christianity, a faith which embraces certain aspects of revelation and ignores other features.

Thus the Bible is embraced at the expense of the sacraments; preaching is favored to the detriment of sacrifice; the congregation is preferred to the priesthood; the church’s spiritual mediation is forsaken for individual access. Certainly today’s Catholic is not immune to this market place Christianity. Today’s Catholic will go to Mass on Sunday but never go to confession on Saturday. Baptism, first Communion and confirmation are prized events in Catholic life but contraception, cohabitation and divorce are frequent options. Some parishes are big on social justice; others are renowned for their piety. Angels, vigil lights and the blessing of rosary beads remain popular while sin, hell and a firm purpose of amendment are forgotten. The American government might not have a legally established religion. But God does. And believers ignore it at their peril.