Let’s stop huckstering religion


Of all our pitchmen there’s no salesman like the lad who hucksters religion. In Los Angeles Billy Graham billed himself as “America’s sensational young evangelist” in a "Mammoth crusade” with “Glorious music, dazzling array of Gospel talent. 22 tremendous nights.”

"1 am selling the greatest product in the world,” he cried. “Why shouldn’t it he promoted as well as soap?”

In London he said: “We have seen the greatest religious wave in our history sweep the U. S. Arthur Godfrey now talks about religion on TV.”

We have gone from the divine to the ridiculous. One evangelist called Christ the greatest salesman of all time: he had the world for his territory, an unpopular product, and no organization behind him. Billy Graham distributes B rations (Bible leaflets) and IR Packs (instructions in righteousness). Even Bishop Sheen cracks wise on television. Recently he said: “If any one of the claimants (for the role of God’s son) came from God, the least that God could do to support His Representative’s claim would be to pre-announce His coming. Automobile manufacturers tell us when to expect a new model.”

“You’re rated by your prayers”

To many this is preaching Christianity in the idiom of the day. They feel that the age of TV and the publicrelations man makes such jargon inevitable. To others it’s a case of selling a package, not a product — all wrapper and no peanuts. Adapting the packaging techniques of toothpaste and frozen foods to Christianity, they fear, has been so successful that many people have not noticed that the contents of the package have little to do with New Testament faith.

The human mind, according to "God’s greatest salesman,” Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, is like a machine that can be thrown into neutral and "lubricated” with peace, a container that must daily be “flushed” of bad thoughts as you let dirty water out of a sink. God is a partner, a personal friend who “rates you by the size of your prayers,” someone to whom you need turn only once, here and now, to solve all the problems of life. Man’s ultimate destiny, Peale assures us with saccharine certainty, is to become popular, esteemed, successful, a sincere and thoughtless exponent of the status quo, and to make money.

“Are you missing the life of success? Norman Vincent Peak’s great best seller ... is GUARANTEED to bring it to you! Make people like you . . . increase your earnings . . .” Thus reads an ad for his book. The Power of Positive Thinking.

There's little doubt lots of troubled people seek what Dr. Peak promises. Besides his weekly syndicated column, Confident Living, in one hundred newspapers, and his weekly radio program, The Art of Living, he and his wife do a Mr. and Mrs. TV show, What’s Your Trouble, carried by a hundred stations. They get upward of five thousand letters a week. Guideposts, an inspirational monthly he edits, has a circulation of more than half a million; he has a regular question-and-answer page in Look. Sometime in between he finds time to preach at Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue, New York, where each Sunday four thousand see and hear him in person and another five hundred see and hear him on TV in the church basement.

He has written self-help cards that you can carry around in your pocket (You Can Relax) and Christmas cards with cheery messages; he has recorded thirteen sermons (Happy Ending to Your Gloomy Feelings); he mails out sermons and self-help booklets (SpiritLifters and Thought - Conditioners) throughout the world. He has written half a dozen books. For several years now his book, The Power of Positive Thinking, has outsold everything except the Bible.

Perhaps in an effort to pass this one last competitor, a “new deluxe pocket edition” has been placed on the market, “bound handsomely in genuine Sturdite . . . stamped in gold with flexible binding . . . wrapped in cellophane . . . printed on fine white Bible paper.”

Like other successful salesmen, Dr. Peak and Billy Graham employ the techniques so successful in singing commercials. Peale, for example, extols "repetitious emphasis.” Both number their points. They avoid anything that might offend or require the slightest effort to understand. They use without flinching the most blatant appeals. And they promise without stint.

“All the problems of frightened people are guaranteed solutions“

With boisterous salesmanship. Dr. Peale assures his readers that there is no such thing as failure, that his "perfected and amazing method" is certain to work for the reader as it has worked for everyone exposed to "these techniques.” All the problems of frightened people are offered guaranteed solutions.

Both men paint life in black and white, as in TV commercials. Have you ever noticed that the only time anyone smiles on television is during a commercial? The rest of life, in soap operas and news, is described as so horrible that the only way to get through it is to buy that product. Aesop never wrote a clearer fable. It’s Heaven and Hell brought up to date. So Graham warns of fire and brimstone, Peale of bankruptcy. Solution: buy their packaged methods.

Both men are masters of audiences. Both are poised and handsome, especially Graham, who has about him a 4-H Club vitality. During his crusade in Britain one columnist wrote: "Heaven is being promised by a figure who might easily have a five-year contract with MGM. Coca-Cola and corn flakes have been magically transformed into the bread and the wine.”

Graham did not become widely famous until 1949 when he converted a cowboy singer and a wiretapper, ibis is the kind of thing newsmen can't ignore. Until then he was little known outside of the South, which has produced more than its share of evangelists and merely accepted Billy as another. His theology was simply the Gospel as the hill people had known it for a long, long time. Mostly they took to Billy because they believed he “has the power.”

The fact that this belief is shared by a number of other Americans is principally due to his use of mass media. When I heard him speak in Toronto this was what impressed me most. For Graham was a walking electronic device. He was plugged into every one of our communication lines. What was being sold was a public symbol, backed by the churches and gaily packaged by TV. radio and press. As any slick salesman knows, you can sell any product if you employ the right techniques and don’t disturb the status quo.

Such merchandise belongs on the same shelf as self-help books, those little fix-it kits for cracks in the psyche. These books work in the suggestive twilight of abnormal psychology and supernatural revelation. Like Dr. Peale, they attempt a brotherly reconciliation between psychoanalysis and religion. They have influence because they allegedly carry the combined authority of the Bible and medical psychiatry.

These are the How-to books—How-toBe-Happy in so many lessons. How to Conquer Your Handicaps, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, How to Get Rid of Fear and Fatigue, How to Remember. They belong to those great American traditions of self-confidence and know-how, of self-reliance and faith that "will" and "mind” can overcome any obstacle—"You can do anything; You can be anyone!” More glib than critical, they are full of good cheer, defiant optimism, and breath-taking oversimplification.

The fashion today prescribes psychoanalysis and we’ve all become psychosophisticated. There is even a new psychocomic book for children called Dr. Sigmund Adler. In one issue Dr. Adler "literally walks through the subconscious mind of a young man and finds an ‘inferiority complex.’ and says. ‘Ah. that is very important to his character." Then he uncovers successively ‘claustrophobia, ‘acrophobia.’ ‘a guilt complex,’ and finally an early experience that made him think his mother didn't love him." Of course. Siggie cures him.

Now 1 do not mean to ridicule the goal of these works. Nor is their unscientific nature valid grounds for criticism. As the healing powers of Lourdes and Mary Baker Eddy bear witness, psychotherapy is where you find it. But what disturbs me are the unrealistic solutions offered.

That this disturbs others too 1 know.

For last fall over CBC I gave a radio broadcast on the subject and the resulting mail, most of it favorable, was phenomenally high. The broadcast was about this cult of contentment. Once it was recorded, I thought nothing more about it until letters arrived by the hundreds. The CBC mimeographed the talk and distributed it. It was reprinted in the CBC Times, later in The Anglican Outlook and in half a dozen newspapers. It was broadcast over television.

What it said was essentially what 1 have said above:

An air-conditioned conscience is clean, contented and backed by a growing number of psychologists and evangelists. But it’s scaled off from life, unfettered by any sense of social responsibility.

According to the apostles of optimism everybody can be happy or should be happy, and if he isn’t happy then he should be happy he isn't happy. As for teaching us how to get on with other people, they preach a kind of Machiavellianism, not for princes but for the little man. Somehow they manage to convey the idea that you can be selfish as long as you persuade yourself that you give "service” to others. In personal relations you are taught to be cunning and diplomatic. They remind me of the fact that four million people bought the late Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence Beople, a book that has justly been called "an agglomeration of weasling deceitfulness, the gutter-guide to bootlicking and insincerity, the adaptation of the cheapest trickery of supersalesmanship to human relations.”

All problems are not mental, and success cannot be achieved by simply willing it. This is the sort of optimism with which life catches up in the end. But meanwhile unhappy people who have no other solution keep taking bigger and bigger doses of it to still the growing realization that they’ll never be cured that way. They keep telling themselves and others that if each man makes peace w’ith himself, then all of life’s problems will automatically be solved. It's that old solution, "To thine own self be true,” written by Shakespeare as satire but accepted by so many as a way of life. Yet man must be true not only to himself but to others as well, which is the greater integrity.

Why did this talk create so much comment? Clearly it was neither the subject nor style, for all this has been said before. I think part of the appeal lay in the fact that it was a frank statement made via the mass media, l ittle that is challenging slips through these media.

A more basic reason was recently voiced by the Church of England newspaper: "That there is a solution to the present spiritual problem we firmly believe. That Billy Graham has it we gravely doubt.” Those u'ho feel this u'ay are troubled by the fact that Graham's and Beale’s audiences do after all exist. And criticism is not tolerated, if you do not agree, you do not disagree with Billy Graham. You disagree with God.

There is no doubt that many of these sermons and books contain grains of common sense. One finds it hard—-in some cases sacrilegious—to quarrel with any single statement. One statement by Graham I found deeply moving. Concepts like Beale’s “self-emptying” aspect of worshipful meditation might have been formulated by a Jesus or a Gandhi.

But these leaders believed what they said, while Or. Beale appears not to listen to his owm words. They regarded religious growth as an end in itself; to Or. Beale it is little more than a means to such goals as money, success, power, vacations on Waikiki Beach and popularity.

More important, they taught that the human soul is too deep to be grasped in even a lifetime of study. Or. Beale guarantees the answers. He deals in phony solutions to real problems, obscuring the authentic Christian diagnosis and prescription, which is a good deal less palatable and a good deal more costly than Beale’s brand. T he “soul” that he presents is without depth. It is this very shallowness of his concept of “person” that makes his “rules” appear easy. He never touches on man’s unconscious, which is the reservoir not only of his hates and lusts but also of all his nobility.

This whole cult exploits the most superficial aspects of religion and psychoanalysis as a revelation of deep understanding. They name an emotion instead of describing it; they analyze it without conveying it. In the end we get no real understanding of any problem, or a proper picture of the personality and its specific struggles. Some statements are as frightening as they are false: “The number of neurotics is continually increasing by geometric leaps.” writes Eric Berne in The Mind in Action, a sort of layman’s guide to psychiatry. Later he describes schizophrenia as a "splitting of the mind into little pieces which seem to act independently of one another”-—a definition that comes from Hollywood, not Vienna.

Moreover, every solution is guaranteed to be custom-made for YOU. But what we find is sweeping solace. The same solution for everyone. No individual differences. People think they are getting individual understanding when what they really receive is generalized consolation. Too often they learn a lot about Freud's theories but little about themselves. William Lee Miller wrote: “The drugstore I went to this morning had a new' sign tacked to the screen door: ‘Norman Vincent Peale solves YOUR personal problems—in Look Magazine." My personal problems? In Look magazine? No. thank you."

Dr. Peale is full of heart-warming stories that show how' religion “pays." A couple named Flint were full of negative thinking and hence broke. But they read Dr. Peale on “Mustard Seed Faith” and were so impressed they went to see him. He assured Mr. Flint that if he would "utilize the technique of faith all his problems could be solved." So Mrs. Flint fished a mustard seed out of a pickle jar and gave it to her husband to carry around with him as a tangible reminder of faith. Later he embedded it in plastic. Soon he began to think positively and decided to merchandise them. "These articles sold," boasts Dr. Peale, "like hot cakes." Before long the Flints had a factory in a midwestern city producing Mustard Seed Remembrancers, the perfect ending to the story of Positive Thinking. Unfortunately, some other Positive "I hinker^ imitated the Remembrancers, but presumably the Flints "flushed" out that negative thought.

A retreat to fortress of faith

The guaranteed formula for business success is prayer. Prayer can he turned to a neat profit. What his book can mean to executives is made plain in an advertisement: "EXECUTIVES: Give this book to employees. It pays dividends!" In other words, not only can this religious book help you make money but it helps others to make money for you.

Billy Graham, on the other hand, will have none of this. He hurls contempt at shining new cars, gleaming rows of electric refrigerators and automatic washing machines, fat chickens cooking in brandnew copper-bottomed pots. Along with material progress he attacks faith in political freedom, in education, in nature, in conscience, in will. He does not say that these things are bad in themselves, only that they are not saving things, that we are damned who still put our faith in them. Solution: the Bible.

Graham is leading a retreat back into the fortress of faith among people whom the modern world has burdened with unfulfilled expectations. But. as Gandhi once wrote to the poet Rabindranath Tagore. “It is impossible to soothe suffering with song."

Where this whole cult ot contentment fails is in its refusal to admit that some of man’s inner conflicts may be reflections of larger conflicts in the world outside. It focuses the minds of people on their own individual problems and seeks solutions only there. What it really represents is an evasion of the adult problems of social lite.

The tragedy of Dr. Peale lies in the fact that he gives no help or hope to the individual wrestling with problems bevond his power to solve. Tor Dr. Peale, life's only goal is to feel peaceful. It getting rid of anxiety requires you to amputate your whole struggle toward personal and religious growth, do so. If you are troubled by the state of the world, the nature of truth, or any other concept that arouses anxiety, turn your mind to "positive" thoughts. Avoid unpleasant realities: they only create unfavorable moods. Tor example, after establishing his own conventional anti-Communism and pro-Americanism, Dr. Peale advises that the less thought about Communism the better, because it's an unpleasant subject.

To anyone with doubts about himself Dr. Peale brings a message of reassurance. Even if you are. in fact, a foul rat, don't worry about it. Just have confidence. Anxiety is “just a bad mental habit," so flush it out.

This is not a denial of evil but a horror of it. He can't stand to look at it. By so doing he assumes the evil to be absolute: nothing can be done about it. But in Christian theology is evil an unredeemable force?

Unlike Dr. Peale. Billy Graham does not preach that evil does not exist. On the contrary, he plays up the Devil. Why? Because he knows that his audiences do not want to wrestle with the problems that oppress them. Emphasizing the Devil's power, "a creature of vastly superior intelligence." he warns: "You cannot argue with him for he is the greatest debater of all time." So audiences are never given the arguments against the temptations of which they are the victims. The listener is removed so completely from his social and historical context that he ceases to be an individual. As Samuel Pepys said after hearing one of Dr. Bates' sermons: "He is making a very good sermon, and very little reflection in it to anything of the times."

Or as Graham himself has phrased it: “The storm was raging. The sea w;as beating. The lightning was flashing, the thunder was roaring, the wind was blowing: but the little bird was asleep in the crevice of the rock. T hat is peace: to be able to sleep in the storm." if