October 28, 2002
The USA and Your Chevrolet
-- Martin E. Marty
Thursday's Sightings by John P. Crossley (October 24, 2002) reviewed well the status of debates on how courts handle "under God" clauses and other issues on the frontline of "church-state" issues. Reading it called to mind the fact that whiners about the secularization of American life so regularly argue that the courts "take God out" of national life. If only they would "put God back in" to the classroom or on the court house lawn, we would all be godly and reverent, etc.
We have never bought that argument, which singles out the ONLY sphere in which there are constitutional problems with religion in public life. We have long argued that the courts rule the way they do because they are aware of the pluralistic nature of American life. If you want more about God and faith and religion in American life, one might ask, why not use the many non-governmental outlets, such as business and commerce, the "free enterprise" zones that ordinarily ignore religion.
The same day that Crossley's piece ran here, Stuart Elliot, under the headline "General Motors Gets Criticism for Backing Tour of Christian Performers" (New York Times, October 24), reported on the problems that arise from the corporate-sponsorship of religion.
Two religious organizations, both Jewish (but they are not the only uneasy ones), question Chevrolet's sponsorship of a concert and prayer tour, niche-marketed to evangelical Christians, "complaining that big consumer marketers should not identify themselves so closely with one faith." GM says it will stand by the decision, and soon the Rev. Max Lucado will be preaching (GM calls it "speaking") and Michael W. Smith and Third Day will be "doing" contemporary Christian music on an ambitious tour.
Whether this commercial sponsorship of Christian witness hurts or helps GM's efforts to sell Chevrolets (and encourages evangelicals to be evangelical and buy Chevrolets) we will have to see. The point of it is: GM has a perfect right to do this. If the policy hurts its stockholders, that's all right with GM because it covets access to this Christian niche audience, and a big niche it is, indeed. And those who do want the firms in which they hold stock to risk alienating Jews and Muslims, along with many kinds of Catholics and Protestants, they also have a right to be alienated from GM. It's all legal.
The fact that such a venture is so risky and controversial throws light on the nature of our contentious, religiously competitive, pluralist society -- one that the courts have to keep in mind when they "take God out of the schools," as their accusers suggest they heartlessly and secularly do. Keep your eye on this: will GM have imitators "under God?"