On Sunday, I was stuck on a long boring drive — there is no scenery between Winnipeg and Morris, only a pale gray void with wisps of snow blowing through it — and was thinking about some of the conversations I’d had the night before. I was a bit envious. My own upbringing in religion was rather tepid, an exposure to bland liberal Lutheranism of the Scandinavian Phlegmatic sect, and had no drama at all to it, and was more like a Unitarian Universalist church with a historical creed attached to it that no one cared much about. Yet here I’d been talking with ex-fundamentalist ex-Mennonites, people who’d had a religion that was like a hammer to the cranium. The fellow who had shown signs of thinking as a teenager, and whose older brother therefore schemed to do him a favor and kill him in his sleep before he became a hell-bound apostate ought to win some sort of prize.
So I was pondering why some faiths seem to be so bland and others so ferocious, and I had to think that, at least in Western countries, a period as a state religion had to have some moderating effect. My Swedish forebears, for instance, were mostly Catholic in the 15th century, and switched to Lutheran in the 16th. Why? Because they had the principle that whatever the faith of the king, that was the faith of the nation. That’s a concept that’s a little weird to people who have it dunned into them that their particular faith is the one true path to God and heaven, since apparently which faith is the right one can be changed over the course of a coronation. Sweden went through that switch, and not only that, but shortly afterwards Gustavus Adolphus hands people pikes and muskets, marches them off to Germany, and has them killing and being killed for their new version of God (and for mercantile interests in the Baltic states, but that probably wasn’t played up among the troops much).
It had to instill a little cynicism in the people.
Anyway, I was just thinking that it sure would be nice if the US had an official state religion, just because it would be such an effective way of making religion irrelevant. However, we couldn’t do it the old Swedish way, and make the religion of the president the state religion — our political campaigns are already too pious, and the thought of turning them into religious wars that made faith even more important was too much to bear. The big obstacle to establishing an American state religion (besides the first amendment, and the Republicans don’t care about that anyway) is deciding which religion it would be. And that’s where I had an epiphany.
Let’s pick the official US state religion with a game show. Sure, it would be shallow, loud, flashy, and would pander to the lowest common denominator of the population…but can you imagine anything more American? And it would make money! Even more American!
We’d do it in a program that would air over the course of several months. In the first phase, we’d collect entrants; the larger sects, the Catholics, the Southern Baptists, the Mormons, the Episcopalians, etc., would of course get a spot just because of their numbers and popularity, but to be truly representative, a wide selection of smaller, edgier religions ought to get a shot, too. A panel of celebrity judges would travel to major American cities and have auditions, in which representatives of various faiths in the region would show up and give a brief spiel about their beliefs and put on a demonstration of what’s so cool about their particular practices. They would be judged on entertainment value and local color, and only the best show would move on to the next level.
The celebrity judges would be important. The panel should consist of a curmudgeonly atheist who believes in nothing, a ditzy, New Agey bit of fluff who believes in everything, and some wobbly agnostic who doesn’t know what to think. Christopher Hitchens must be the atheist judge; someone like Robert Wright or Ariana Huffington can be the ditz judge (Huffington would be excellent just for the accent); and the agnostic judge would be tougher, since they tend to be much more low profile, but perhaps we can just trawl a few bars for unemployed Ph.D.s in philosophy. All he has to do is bawl, “Why am I here?” now and then, so those qualifications should do.
The main competition would consist of multiple televised rounds. There would be a division of skills, so one round might be musical, with demonstrations of their singing or dancing or babbling ability; another might be on dogma, with succinct summaries of what their religion can do for and demands of the practitioner; there could be gladiatorial rounds, where top athletes of each religion pray for god’s aid in sporting events, and the loser drops out and goes home. Some rounds would be judged by the celebrity panel, while others could be judged by call-in votes.
We could also have tests of power. At the beginning of the competition, each religion could be assigned by chance a dying child, and the adherents would be expected to pray mightily for their kid. This could lead to more drama — we might have occasional interruptions, as the announcer intones, “We are sorry to report that little Timmy Robinson has died. The Methodists have no power here, and will be going home.” Conversely, if one of the children has a miraculous remission, the prayer team for that child could be automatically advanced to the next round.
You might argue that the atheists would have an edge, because instead of prayer they’d be sending money to the best doctors and hospitals and getting the child the best medical care possible. Atheism is not a religion, however, so they won’t be in the competition.
Another concern you might have is that there is no way the contestants could be judged objectively. One property of religion is that it encourages tribal loyalty, so even if the gospel stylings of the African-American Baptist church have even the godless dancing in the aisles, all of the Catholics will still vote for the droning off-key old hymns of their congregation. That’s OK! We should expect some bias in favor of the numerically superior dogmas, and it’s fair that the more numerous faiths have an edge in becoming America’s next religion. That’s because the main competition will only serve to winnow down the contestants to a dozen or two, and the final winner will be determined entirely by a lottery. Knowing the American people, charismatic underdogs will make it to the final round alongside the stable favorites.
Think of the excitement, and the ratings, that the final show will get! Chits, each with the name and religious symbol of the surviving contestants, will tumble about in a basket, and then an attractive starlet with very large breasts will reach in, pull out one, and hand it to a bronzed macho star with very large teeth, who will make the final announcement: “America, we are a SCIENTOLOGY NATION!”, or whatever religion wins.
Note that since we are a nation tolerant of many faiths, American citizens will not be required to convert to that faith. It just means that on all official pronouncements and legal documents, the government will declare itself officially an X nation, where X is whatever religion won. All opening prayers to congress will be delivered by a representative of that religion; all military chaplains will be required to be practitioners. You will also be able to sue all politicians and pundits who declare that America is a Christian or Judeo-Christian nation without specifying the winning faith, because obviously that is a slight to that triumphant religion.
There will also be a monetary gain. The winning religion should be granted a substantial sum of money, say $100 million dollars, to be used freely in any way they see fit: it can be used to repair decaying churches, buy air time for proselytizing ads, pay off lawsuits to parents of molested children, or even buy wetsuits and dildoes for the entire priesthood. We won’t care, we won’t pay any attention, it’s simply their fairly earned winnings. Most importantly, as the official state religion, all of their activities will be tax exempt.
Oh, that was the sneaky part. All the loser religions will no longer be recognized by the government, and will lose all their tax exemptions. That’s where we make the big profits off this scheme.
Just to be generous, though, there will be an easy loophole. Churches can freely convert to the new official religion and gain the tax exemption back. All those churches with only the vaguest theological foundation, and which are really just placeholders to service their leaders, will not be harmed in any way; Joel Osteen and Rick Warren will continue to rake in the moolah, even if it is as the Saddleback Church of the Sub-genius or as Lubavitcher Rabbi Joel Osteen.
Now wait! I’m not done! I had another epiphany that turns this whole idea into a major revelation of brilliant genius that will change the whole future of humanity.
We do this every year.
This is not a one shot deal that establishes one official American church for ever and ever. It’s a process that we will go through every year. We will regularly change our state religion. No faith can slack off; they all have to muster their best game to serve their congregations and gather the talent and the votes to be competitive. It will all be very Darwinian.
But there’s another cunning bit to the scheme. This is not a contest that will simply be won by whoever has the largest membership, so it won’t lead to a single religion simply dominating every year, and strengthening its grip with each win. Because this is going through the most frivolous of media, making an appeal to popularity on the basis of short-attention-span glitz, there will be a definite edge given to novelty. The Red Queen hypothesis will apply, and we’ll be churning through lots of religions, one after the other.
It’s going to be great. We’ll either turn religion into a trivia question, or we will select the most virulently appealing faith of all time into existence. Either way is going to be much more interesting than what we’ve got now.
We just have to persuade the government to try it.