Monday, June 5, 2017

Marketing God and Jesus: The Growing Commercialization of Religion

This past week, I traveled through parts of Tennessee and Georgia to attend a concert (Train with Natasha Bedingfield and O.A.R.--fantastic!) and visit the University of Georgia School of Law (to plan the 2018 National Business Law Scholars conference).  On that trip, I saw a number of billboards with religious messages--more than I remember having seen in the past.  This set me to reflecting on the use of billboards--typically commercial space--for this purpose.  I share a few observations today on that topic.

The messages on the billboards I saw appear to be important to the speakers who offer them.  [Note that in this paragraph I am working from memory but have tried to describe what I saw as accurately as possible.]  I saw several that were just printed with the word "JESUS" (in all capital letters, as I have written it here) and one that said: "TRUST JESUS" (again, in all caps, as written here) with a faded waving American flag in the background.  But the most striking billboard that I saw was one that stated: "In the beginning God created everything," a message that was accompanied on the left by a circle in which the Darwinian progression to humankind was depicted and across which there was a large "X."

On the one hand, highway billboards are a great vehicle for the exercise of free speech.  We are captive in our vehicles and generally bound to certain key routes when engaged in car travel over any significant distance.  Other than distinctive local flora and buildings (as well as traffic, exit, and other roadside driving guidance), billboards are the primary visual as one drives on a highway.  In fact, their size often makes them more attractive than those flowers, structures, and signage.  (Although I have never missed an exit for a billboard, I have come close.)

The use of billboards for religious messaging does not convert the message to commercial speech (to the extent that question may be relevant to any free speech analysis).  

Commercial speech generally proposes a commercial transaction and not much else.  I am reminded in this regard of the following oft-quoted part of the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964):

The publication here was not a "commercial" advertisement in the sense in which the word was used in Chrestensen. It communicated information, expressed opinion, recited grievances, protested claimed abuses, and sought financial support on behalf of a movement whose existence and objectives are matters of the highest public interest and concern. That the Times was paid for publishing the advertisement is as immaterial in this connection as is the fact that newspapers and books are sold. Any other conclusion would discourage newspapers from carrying "editorial advertisements" of this type, and so might shut off an important outlet for the promulgation of information and ideas by persons who do not themselves have access to publishing facilities -- who wish to exercise their freedom of speech even though they are not members of the press.

Id. at 266 (citations omitted).  While I am familiar with the offering plate and tithes (as well as the need for religions and places of worship to have financial support to operate), I do not see the billboards as a funding appeal.

Highway billboards are regulated by statute (and related regulations) in Tennessee. Permits are required for certain billboards adjacent to highways and right-of-ways. That regulation has recently been successfully challenged in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.  But neither the law nor the challenge specifically addresses religious messaging on highway billboards.

Having acknowledged that speakers can legally use billboards for their religious speech (which is, imv, the way it should be from a legal standpoint) and that organized religions and places of worship require funding, I admit that I am struck by the commercialized nature of the message--a commercialization that derives from the placement of the speech on a site commonly used for business marketing (and sometimes political or personal non-religious) purposes.  As someone who grew up in the Episcopal faith in New York State, the commercial and public nature of this kind of religious speech is foreign to me.  I grew up in a place where religion was deeply personal and generally private.  People did openly discuss their religion and the church they went to with folks they knew, but they would not put their beliefs on a sign of any kind.  In writing this post, I came across this blog post.  I do not agree with all of what the author writes (which, I note, comes from a Christian foundation), but I understand his point about the personalized nature of religious messages and guidance based on his New England upbringing.  

In my current part of the world, the Southeastern United States, a lot of religions--especially, but not exclusively, Christian faiths--look and act more and more like public businesses.  The billboards are, to me, a visual manifestation of that.  I wonder whether the proliferation of these religious billboards changes the character of the religions they promote and the nature of the practitioners of those religions.  If so, I am curious about whether those changes are or will be positive for those religions and practitioners. (I remember feeling the same way--having similar questions about net positive or negative effects on religions and people practicing them--after the U.S. Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby opinion was released.)  But perhaps these billboards have no effect at all--other than offering satisfaction to those who buy the space for their messaging.

Regardless, is there a point at which religion becomes too commercial (just another business . . .) or too public (depersonalized, less special) to have a strong and lasting value in the lives of those who desire its presence?  I wrestle with this just as co-blogger Haskell Murray struggles with the relationship between faith and work (as he most recently noted in this post).  Your thoughts, as always, are welcomed.  (And if you're interested in other matters at the intersection of religion and business, I invite you to read some of Haskell's other recent posts on faith and work in various settings, which you can find here and here and here and here.)

Current Affairs, Joan Heminway, Religion | Permalink


Your religion apparently is a very private and personal affair, but traditional Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant) is an evangelical faith in which reaching out and converting people is the single most important thing that one can do. That’s why Jesus sent the apostles out instead of having them just keep meeting quietly in their own building. That's why their successors built soaring spires on cathedrals, rang bells, printed books—the first book printed and sold was a Bible—and marched in parades.

To save souls, you must communicate with people. To do that you need to reach them where they are. Billboards are no more inherently “commercial” than pamphlets, books, musical recordings, television shows, web sites, or any other medium. That’s why lots of nonprofits use them to urge blood donation, protecting the environment, voting for political candidates, getting treatment for alcohol abuse, and lots of other noncommercial messages. For an evangelical (Catholic or Protestant) Christian, if ten thousand billboards bring just one soul to Christ who couldn’t be reached in another way, that’s a good exchange.

You're correct that those who put up these messages are happy to do so. Most of them expect when they get to Heaven that God is going to ask, "What did you do to proclaim the message of Christ and bring people to Him?" They're hoping to have an answer.

Posted by: Frank Snyder | Jun 5, 2017 11:16:39 AM

Thanks for this post, Joan. I saw some of these same (or similar) billboards in my driving over the past few weeks. I may push back on the commercialization piece a bit. None of the signs I saw mentioned a specific church or even a specific denomination. I am not sure who pays for these billboards, but, at least for the ones I saw, it seems unlikely that the funders would get a decent financial ROI. That said, I don't disagree that religion in general is getting more commercialized, and I am not in favor of that trend. (Also, perhaps there is a fundraising scheme where the fundraisers take a handsome cut before before the rest of the funds go to these billboards). Also, I am noticing more and more university billboards. That said, there were long beautiful stretches in NC and VA with no billboards at all, and it is hard to describe how much more beautiful and peaceful those roads were.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Jun 5, 2017 11:19:40 AM

And I think Frank is correct on the non-financial drivers here.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Jun 5, 2017 11:37:33 AM

Thanks, Frank and Haskell. I appreciate your perspectives. They are helpful in my thinking. Here's a bit more from me on this, in response.

Frank, I understand your comment about evangelism. I assume that is the objective of the billboards (having noted that I do not think fundraising is the objective, agreeing with you, Haskell). Some do have phone numbers to call that I have noticed in the past--in particular the Creationism billboards. But I also assume those telephone numbers connect one with an evangelist who is not engaged in the direct solicitation of funds.

Believe me, I am not questioning the evangelism itself, but the form. While converting one soul for any reason is great, I assume converting more for good reasons is better. I am unsure what the results of this method are, but my own faith called them into question. I also have questions about some of the television shows and other means of engaging in evangelism mentioned by you, Frank . . . . But that's for another day!

Finally, I want to be clear that my reference to commercialization and publicness with respect to the billboards is based on the nature of the communication. I admit that I felt the same way a bit when politicians started using billboards and and nonprofits began to issue public service messages on them. Again, it's all free speech. But I continue to wonder about the utility of the billboard for these types of speech . . . .

Posted by: joanheminway | Jun 5, 2017 11:45:21 AM

Group, I dialogue on a regular basis with an individual that is philosophically my polar opposite. He, being an atheist, is always quite proud when his organizations purchase billboards seeking to influence others to stay home on Christmas or Easter or to promote - at the Super Bowl - that since there is no God he can have no influence on the outcome of a game. In turn, over-use of these types of billboards promoting a faith-based business for the provision of secular services eventually (I suspect) becomes blase' in the selection of products and services. So, if there is a utility it is lost over the long term.

Posted by: Tom N | Jun 5, 2017 2:16:21 PM

That's an interesting perspective, Tom N. I do wonder about over-messaging in terms of both quantity and duration of time. Your comment reminded me of that.

And I will look out for those atheist billboards next time I am on a long drive!

Posted by: joanheminway | Jun 5, 2017 2:26:22 PM

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