Much has been made in recent years about the phenomenon of American religion as a “spiritual marketplace” in which individuals are consumers out “shopping for faith” that suits their religious or spiritual tastes. But how do we reconcile this image of a large and diverse marketplace of producers and consumers with the considerable conventionality we also see in American religion? Sure we have Scientologists, Wiccans, UFO cultists, Zen Buddhists, and other religions from outside the dominant Judeo-Christian tradition, but they are a tiny fraction of the market, especially compared to conventional faiths like Roman Catholicism and the major brands of Protestant Christianity. So, how do the spiritual marketplace and religious conventionality relate to one another? They are like cornflakes and milk.
When I think about how consumers behave in the marketplace generally, this is not at all surprising. When I offer to take students out for a meal, I usually allow them to pick the restaurant. What do they choose? TGIFridays, Outback Steakhouse, Olive Garden, Texas Roadhouse, Panera. Chain, chain, chain, chain, chain. Standardization. Standardization. Standardization. Conventionality.
The American marketplace provides us with all sort of interesting, quirky choices in terms of products, stores, and restaurants. And yet everyone wants to buy Dockers, shop at Wal-Mart, and eat a Applebee’s. Why? Not only is shopping costly in terms of time and energy, but buying something that we are unfamiliar with is very risky.
So, it’s not at all surprising that when Americans “shop for faith” they often end up buying at the most well-established stores.