Driving through Cincinnati today, I passed a Gold Star Chili, a regional chain, that had on its letter board marquee the message, “Pray for the people of Newtown.”
Let me analyze and deconstruct my own reaction to this sign:
My reaction was to find the sign in bad taste. There are multiple reasons for that reaction, I think.
1. I was inclined to take a cynical view of the management’s invocation of the Newtown tragedy. That is, I was reading the sign as a calculated ploy to cultivate a positive public image: “Look how sensitive we are as a business . . . Now why don’t you stop in and buy some chili-based comfort food?”
2. I was inclined to take a cynical view of the management’s use of piety–the exhortation to prayer–as an advertising strategy. That is, I was reading the sign’s subtext as: “Look what good Christian/godly people are running this business . . . Don’t you want to patronize us?” I disdained that, I suppose, because I regarded it as a transparently self-serving ploy that a person would have to be stupid to be swayed by . . . which is to say that I was feeling disdain for the kind of people I was imagining would respond positively to the sign as an advertising ploy. “Oh look, Harold–we should be sure to shop there. Such godly/Christian people as that deserve our support.”
3. I was inclined to disapprove of the sign for religious reasons of my own–i.e., I disapproved of the sign as a case of trumpeting your piety in the streets instead of praying in your closet. (Of course, had the same message been on a church marquee, I would have classified that as letting your light so shine, ergo as something at least potentially approvable.)
But now let’s do what I’m always trying to train my students to do: let’s develop a more empathetic interpretation of this marquee: The management is using the “public platform” their marquee provides to speak to an issue of public import–an exercise in civil society. It’s not that they’re exploiting the tragedy for advertising purposes; they’re suspending the regular advertising function of the sign for a nobler purpose. Or if that reading seems to draw too neat and sharp a distinction: they are practicing (inevitable) self-interest and (sincere) social responsibility simultaneously. (Hence I don’t respond so negatively when I hear “thanks to our sponsors” blurbs on NPR describing the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example.)
As for the religious component here: I recall Laurence Moore arguing in God and Mammon that despite the disdainful reactions it tends to arouse, the commercialization of religion has the effect of invigorating religion: the fact that people are buying and selling religious goods means that religion retains social significance. Colleen McDannell (Material Christianity) and Leigh Schmidt (Consumer Rites) make arguments in a similar vein. The exhortation to prayer on that Gold Star Chili sign is a form of religious expression in the public square–which may be problematic, depending on exactly what cultural politics lie behind that action and what the observer’s cultural politics are. But there’s no reason to assume that the expression isn’t sincere, the way my initial negative reaction assumed.