Father Daniel Joyce of St. Joseph's University told a local audience last weekend about an experience he had in a church that was selling religious items paired with candy. The gift boxes included a rosary and a prayer book, along with chocolate pieces that were meant to be "rewards" for completing different rosary prayers.
"We do have this sort of dilemma with the sale of religious goods," he admitted, noting that sometimes the quirky combinations are what spur the interest of younger members of the faith and get them interested in religious traditions.
"Are these things a means to an end?" he asked, rhetorically.
To address the issue of whether worshippers are enticed with non-necessities, the Men's Club at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley had brought together four leaders of the religious community. The interfaith program that resulted — titled "The Commercialization of Religion" — explored the ramifications of what happens when business intermingles with faith.
Father Joyce, assistant to the vice president of St. Joseph's University, joined Ron Evans, senior elder of the Church of the Savior in Wayne, Imam Mohammed Abdul Razzaq of Overbrook Mosque and chairman of the board of the Philadelphia Interfaith Council, and Senior Rabbi Jay Stein of Har Zion in a frank discussion of how commerce inevitably works its way into the religious realm, as it does in virtually every other arena these days.
Razzaq noted that Islam does not have a holiday that will always coincide with Chanukah and Christmas, but he has seen a trend in recent years in the attitudes toward the holy month of Ramadan, which requires fasting during the daytime.
"It seems like the breaking of the fast has become more popular than the fast itself," he said. Celebrations at night have become more and more elaborate; "it's turned into a party in certain ways," he acknowledged.
Razzaq also recognized a fundamental tenet of business: Vendors will always flock to where people congregate, selling food, religious items and other goods.
"All of these things grow up around mosques," he said.
"So much of the life of America is about commerce," echoed Evans. "It's no surprise that religion and commerce have competed for our attention."
"It's a small line between sharing and selling our belief," he added, noting that when religious symbols turn into cultural symbols, they wind up "looking different."
Evans recalled that John Wanamaker hung Easter decorations in his Philadelphia store, after being inspired by the festive decorations at local churches.
Even though businesses have co-opted many religious traditions for commercial use, the religious community has shown that the street goes both ways, utilizing public-relations techniques to market itself.
"We're all in the business of creating positive associations to keep drawing people back," said Stein. "We all use kitschy things to get people."
"We all the time are competing with so many forces in the world," he continued, adding that "they seem to be getting the ear of our constituency much better than we do."
Stein reminded the audience that keeping congregations going is an important and necessary task. Thus, religious leaders must sometimes do what they can to keep their constituents engaged.
In terms of the holiday season, he argued that consumerism is, in fact, a kind of positive note for faith because people are taking an interest in their religious lives.
Although the media inundates the public with ads for the newest gadgets, underneath all of that consumerism is a fundamental thread of real religion.
But when commercialism becomes a driving force — and not a method to accomplish a goal — then it enters a problematic area.
"When it becomes a means in and of itself," attested Stein, "then we've lost what we're about."