Monday, July 28, 2008

Branded By Oprah

How well have you been “branded”? Not branded like cattle in a Western movie, but able to recall the slogans, jingles, and logos that companies bombard us with daily in order to “brand” their product into our life.

See if you can name the products that go with the following advertising slogans/campaigns: (You can check your answers at the end of today’s entry.)

1. “They’re Grrreaaat!”
2. “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”
3. “A little dab’ll do you.”
4. “It’s the real thing!”
5. “Finger Lickin’ Good!”
6. “For those who think young!”
7. “Just Do It!”
8. “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is!”
9. “Where’s the beef?”
10. “The Quicker Picker-Upper!”
11. Ask any mermaid, you happen to see, “What’s the best tuna?”
12. Double your pleasure, double your fun.

Even though some of these slogans haven’t been used for decades, they became so embedded in the culture that many of us still remember the commercial and/or jingle that contained the slogan. If you fall into the category of those who could identify eight or more products, you have been effectively branded by corporate America.

However, the goal is not simply to get you to know about the product, but to buy it and promote it; in other words, the goal is to develop “brand loyalty” – to prefer and support a particular brand over other brands of the same product. There is still some degree of brand loyalty today, but certainly not like it once was. This is due, in no small part, to the economic downturn in the 1970s which caused many people to put more emphasis on value than on brand loyalty, allowing smaller companies to compete with the big, name brands.

This paved the way for the introduction of generic brands. Today we know these as “store brands”, but when initially introduced they were packaged in white boxes, or cans with white labels, typically with green or black lettering that simply started what was in the container – coffee, for example. Within a few years, almost every major grocery store had a “generic” aisle.

Certainly there was some skepticism about buying a white can simply labeled, “coffee”. But after thirty years, and the white label being replaced by packaging similar to that of the brand names, most of us don’t have any problem picking up the “store brand”. It certainly doesn’t hurt that these also usually cost much less than the comparable name-brand product.

This “generic” branding carried over into prescription medications, electronics, and almost every other product line. But does this popularity of the “store brands” and willingness to stray from the “name brands” only apply to the goods that we buy? Or, are Americans also less likely to practice “brand loyalty” in other areas of life, such as religion?

Once, Americans were passionately loyal to their Church, religion, or faith (Historically, this was almost exclusively Judaism or Christianity – Protestantism or Roman Catholicism). However, by the 1970s, the U.S. was experiencing an increase in the number of, what might be called, “generic” religions. The popularity of Eastern religions was on the rise and by the 1980s “metaphysics”, or so-called “New Age” religions, were becoming entrenched in the mainstream of American culture.

Americans were proving that not only did they want options in product consumerism; they wanted to be able to pick and choose among their religious “brands”, as well. Many were replacing, “Jesus is the only way” with, “Jesus is one of many ways.” And, while one can certainly believe whatever they want, such statements are particularly troubling as many who make such claims, say they are doing so as Christians. A good example of this is Oprah Winfrey.

In the mid 1990s, I recorded one of the Oprah shows and released a few clips from it on the Internet. One, that has garnered much attention lately, features Oprah stating (in reference to the statement, “Jesus is the only way”), “There can’t possibly be just one way.” Following is an excerpt that contains this statement and others that are revealing as to her beliefs.



Naturally, this statement has also received much notice and commentary from Christians. One group, a small consortium of Christian news publishers, contracted for an article to address Winfrey’s theology. The resulting article was released to a number of Christian newspapers and distributed through other venues, such as churches.

When Ms. Winfrey’s production company, Harpo Productions, was approached about the story, a spokesman affirmed Winfrey is a Christian, stating: "Oprah was raised Baptist and has stated many, many times that she is a Christian and that she believes in only one God," said the spokesman, who asked not to be named. "She has also said, 'I'm a free-thinking Christian who believes in my way, but I don't believe it's the only way, with 6 billion people on the planet.'" (USA TODAY, www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2008-07-07-oprah-christian_N.htm )

In supporting the validity of Ms. Winfrey’s views, her spokesman referred to the findings of a recent report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that 70% of Americans said, "many religions can lead to eternal life". This spokesman must not realize that the Pew report was reporting what Americans believe, not which beliefs are true. Truth is not determined by a poll, or vote.

For example, 200 years ago the majority of Americans believed Jesus was the only way to enter into a relationship with God. Did the fact that the majority believed this make it true? And if so, does this mean “truth” is fluid, or changing, based upon majority views, or cultural trends? Of course not. While how many people believe something might be a statistical fact, it is not proof that what they believe is true.

As Americans, we are guaranteed the right to believe and practice any religion we want, as long as it does not harm or interfere with the guaranteed rights of others. Ms. Winfrey has the right to believe many ways lead to God. However, to do so while claiming to be a Christian is somewhat disingenuous; as the Christian Church has, since its inception, proclaimed that Jesus is the only way. It is our “brand”, you might say. To proclaim otherwise, is to deny the faith.

If Coke wants to reach Pepsi customers, it can’t do it by putting Coke labels on Pepsi products, or by promoting Pepsi as a Coca Cola product. To do this would violate the truth in labeling and advertising laws. In the same way, one cannot simply place the “Christian” label on their beliefs and claim to be Christian while proclaiming beliefs that are anything but Christian. The product, or beliefs, in this case, must match the label.

Without question, the Christian “brand” is being greatly infringed upon, as are those of other world religions. A new brand is being substituted as evidenced by statements like those of Ms. Winfrey, who attempt to blur the distinctions between Christianity and these new religions. If the findings of the Pew Forum are correct, it certainly seems to be working.

Therefore, it is especially important that Christians are able to articulate our beliefs and accurately represent them in the marketplace. It is also time for Winfrey and others to admit that theirs is not a “free-thinking Christianity” but an entirely different religion, or spiritual understanding.

Answers: 1) Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, 2) Chiffon Margarine, 3) Brylcreem, 4) Coca Cola 5) Kentucky Fried Chicken, 6) Pepsi, 7) Nike, 8) Alka-Seltzer, 9) Wendy’s Hamburgers, 10) Bounty Paper Towels, 11) Chicken of the Sea Tuna, 12) Doublemint Chewing Gum

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Holy Book! Does This Feel Good?

This month the Barna Research Group released the results of a recent poll concerning what books Americans consider to be “sacred/holy” texts. Their findings aren’t all that surprising when considered in light of the findings of other researchers regarding Americans and their faith, religious, and/or spiritual beliefs; namely, that while we are becoming an increasingly pluralistic society, Americans tend to cling to a “cultural” Christianity.

Barna found that only one book was considered a sacred/holy text by more than five percent of those polled – the Bible. In fact, eighty four percent included it as sacred literature (the same percentage as those identifying themselves to be Christian.) Only three other books were listed by more than one percent of respondents, with the highest being the Koran, at four percent. The other two were the Book of Mormon, at three percent, and the Torah, at two percent.

Obviously, these numbers pale in comparison to that of the Bible; but, despite their low percentages of recognition, it should not be lost on us that the “sacred” text of Islam, the Koran, is now more widely recognized as “sacred” than those associated with the Mormons (Book of Mormon) and the Jews (Torah). This is, despite the fact that Muslims represent less than one percent of the U.S. population, while Mormons and Jews are each about 2 percent of the population. Also, in addition to outnumbering Muslim adherents in America, Judaism and Mormonism predate Islam as significantly established religions in the U.S.

Without question, these findings would be vastly different, at least as regards these three texts, were the polling done in 1908. A definite shift is occurring in the religious culture of our nation.

In evaluating the data, Barna observed, “Although most American adults are only moderately committed to Christianity and to the church they attend most often, they have no inclination to embrace anything besides the Bible as sacred, especially if it originated from a different faith tradition. Christians may not know much of what’s in the Bible, but they are not at all likely to investigate the religious books of other faiths or to refer to them as holy."

This is not to say that Americans are unwilling to flirt with other religions, as evidenced by numerous polls regarding American spirituality; rather there is an unwillingness to abandon our long-held esteem for the Bible. This often results in an attempt to incorporate the Bible into, and in support of, their flirtations. (An example is Oprah Winfrey who, though having long abandoned the beliefs of Christianity, still considers the Bible to be a sacred text and often quotes from it to support a particular view.)

Two findings in Barna’s report are particularly telling regarding the “spiritual” shifts occurring in our nation. First, the poll found that adults under the age of twenty five are among those most likely to experiment with other religions. And secondly, in addition to texts that are associated with organized religious movements, such as the Bhagavad Gita (Hinduism), the Talmud (Judaism), and Teachings of the Buddha (Buddhism), some respondents included in their list more moderns works, like: Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau, Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard, Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler, The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, and Quiet Strength by football coach Tony Dungy. While these books were statistically less than one-half of a percent they are reflective of the willingness of Americans to find “spiritual” truth in a great diversity of sources.

The bottom-line is, though Americans – for the most part – still identify themselves as Christians, many are merely giving a polite nod to the Bible while finding their “spiritual” truth in any number of sources, both ancient and new. Ultimately, this means that rather than holding to a belief in an objective truth, Americans are turning to a feel-good – truth is in the eye of the beholder – approach.

This is illogical when one considers that these various “sacred” texts are often in conflict with one another and thus, some of them must be wrong; and, if wrong, they cannot be classified as sacred. Unfortunately, for many today, it’s not really about finding truth but finding what makes us feel good and then labeling it as “my” truth.

We would do well to remember that the test for truth, whether it comes in a book, an organized religion, or any other source, is not whether or not it makes us feel good. In fact, maybe we need to remember that sometimes the truth hurts.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Silence is Deafening

Our judicial system continues to turn a deaf ear to States that try to return prayer to our public schools by beginning the school day with a moment of silence. The Courts take this posture despite the fact that each day it is in session the U.S. Congress is opened with a verbal prayer. Illinois, the state of Presidential candidate Barack Obama, is the latest to feel the Courts' indignation over having a moment of silence.

Last October the Illinois’ state legislature passed a law requiring a moment of silence in public school. Suit was promptly filed by an atheist challenging the law on the basis of the First Amendment establishment of religion clause, which prohibits the establishment of a State religion. The case is in the U.S. District Court, and though the Court has not yet issued a formal ruling, it has found that the law is “probably” unconstitutional. As such, the Court has mandated that this law shall be stayed until a final ruling is made.

This would have been unheard of prior to the 1960’s when prayer and reading the Bible in public schools was an accepted norm. However, that changed in 1962 when the Supreme Court ruling in Engel v. Vitale placed a prohibition on public schools sponsoring prayer in the school. At issue was the following prayer that teachers in the Union Free School District (New York) were required to lead at the beginning of each school day:

"Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country."

How the Court found that this prayer established a State religion seems beyond rationale thinking. In fact, it is difficult to believe that this prayer would even be controversial; especially today, when recent polling indicates some 93% of Americans believe in a divine being, or divine presence. Surely, even Oprah, would not find such a prayer offensive, as it has more of a universal appeal rather than one that is tied to a particular faith tradition. (To read more about this case go to: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=370&invol=421)

Having successfully removed prayer, the following year, the court issued another ruling which prohibited Bible reading in public schools (Abington School District v. Schempp). In this case, the Schempp family, who were Unitarians, filed suit in opposition to a PA Statute which required: "At least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day”. This statute further provided children could opt out of participating with a written request from their parent or guardian. (To read more about this case go to: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=374&invol=203)

I was still in grade school in the “Bible Belt” when these rulings were issued and can remember teachers continuing to have Bible reading and prayer in class for years afterward. These teachers were simply reflecting the “faith” beliefs and traditions of the community – the same beliefs and traditions that were honored and present at the founding of our nation and that are still widely held today.

In fact, a 2005 Gallup poll found that 76% of Americans favor “a constitutional amendment to allow voluntary prayer in public schools”. The Gallup researchers concluded “[the survey] confirms that whatever arguments political leaders make about separation of church and state in the public schools, most Americans don't seem to be persuaded. Large majorities continue to favor allowing voluntary prayer in public schools, and believe that religion has too little presence in them”.

Like Illinois, a number of states have tried to maintain the right to pray in public schools by passing statutes providing for silent prayer. But the Courts have often intervened on the basis of a ruling that such laws must have a non-religious, or secular, motivation. So, "secular" or "non-religious" praying is okay?

My own state, Alabama, found that out in the case of Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985. In this case, the Supreme Court affirmed an Appeals Court ruling that an Alabama Statute – allowing public schools to have a one minute period of silence, “for meditation or voluntary prayer” – “is a law respecting the establishment of religion and thus violates the First Amendment”. (To read more about this case go to: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=472&invol=38)

The journey to remove God from our schools has been a relatively short and efficient one. It is also one that has been carried out despite being out of step with the will of the majority and often under the ridiculous assertion that these laws were meant to establish a State religion.

In a country where freedom of speech is a guaranteed right, it seems odd that the Supreme Court finds a moment of silence to be so offensive and out of step with our guaranteed rights. Perhaps people of faith need to exercise that right to free speech more often and make known the “will of the people”.

That's my toughts, what are yours?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Christian Nation, Melting Pot, or Honey Pot?

For several decades there has been a continuing shift from the historic faith, values, and traditions upon which this country was founded. We have drifted from being a Christian Nation to a Nation that is said to be founded on Christian principles. We have absorbed and birthed a number of religions and, as a Nation, have embraced religious pluralism.

During the presidential primaries, faith and its place in today’s society has become an important part of the debate. Media, journalists, and voters, have frequently asked candidates about their religious views. The presumptive presidential nominees of each party also had to address their own views of how, or where, “Christian” fits into our heritage.

“I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles.... personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith. But that doesn't mean that I'm sure that someone who is Muslim would not make a good president. I don't say that we would rule out under any circumstances someone of a different faith. I just would--I just feel that that's an important part of our qualifications to lead.” John McCain 1

“Given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.” Barack Obama, Call to Renewal Keynote Address June 28, 2006 2

From centuries past you can hear the gasp of disbelief from the founding fathers of this Nation, as regardless of who wins, our next President has acknowledged this is not a Christian nation; but, at best, a nation established on Christian principles. These were certainly not the views expressed by men such as John Jay, (President of the Continental Congress and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) who wrote:

“Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”

It would be hard to imagine in this age of political correctness that a political leader or candidate would give voice to such thoughts. Perhaps even more difficult to imagine would be those expressed by our second president, John Adams, who wrote:

“The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity, and humanity.”

Today, anyone expressing such views would be quickly labeled as intolerant or an extremist, if not both. Yet, these were the views held by many, if not most of the founding fathers; rooted in their Christian faith. And, they were views that were openly and oft expressed.

Today, many Christians still hold the beliefs expressed by Jay and Adams, but no longer dare express them in public discourse; especially in the political arena. Even noted Christian leaders have at times backed away from sharing such beliefs before secular audiences. It makes you wonder why beliefs that were prominently expressed by our founding fathers are rarely part of the public discussion today.

In his Call to Renewal Keynote Address, Senator Obama made an interesting observation relative to the discussion about religion going on today:

“Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew…when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome - others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.”

He is correct that there is an ongoing debate about the various religious views held in our country. He is also correct that the discussion often leaves a vacuum to be filled. And, perhaps, he is even correct that it is too often filled with those who “use religion to justify partisan means”. But, it is also true that, increasingly, missing from that discussion are those that represent the religious convictions expressed by John Jay, John Adams, and other founders of our Nation. If Christians still hold these convictions dear then they must become part of this discussion.

Integral to this debate must be the realization, by all sides, that the litmus test for being an American is not whether or not one is a Christian; nor does being an American mean that a Christian must give up long-held expressions of their faith anymore than a person of another faith must give up theirs.

Tolerance does not mean only speaking about areas where we find common ground. Neither is intolerance measured by the degree to which one expresses views that are opposed to those of another. In fact, faith demands that one hold firm to his/her convictions and express them consistently and truthfully. Those who claim to be followers of Christ must also, as Christians and Americans, discuss areas of disagreement with civility and respect; something that is all too often missing in our Country today.

While we may disagree who has the honey and who is the fly, the old adage, “you can catch more flies with honey” is still true. So why not join me in a jar of honey and let’s sit down and have a conversation.

1http://christianity.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?zi=1/XJ&sdn=christianity&cdn=religion&tm=603&gps=130_1016_1276_629&f=00&tt=11&bt=1&bts=1&zu=http%3A//pewforum.org/religion08/profile.php%3FCandidateID%3D3
2 http://www.barackobama.com/pdf/ObamaonFaith.pdf