Philip Jenkins cites the prescience of science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, whose novel Stranger in a Strange Land, written in 1961, posits a church of the future that sounds strangely prophetic:
“At a time of social chaos, seminary reject Joseph Foster proclaimed a spiritual message uniquely suited for America, a nation that had always combined public puritanism with private libertinism. But why not combine the two instincts, creating a religion that spoke the language of fervent piety, while tolerating virtually any behavior? . . . .
Believers who paid their dues and tithes would receive spiritual exaltation and the assurance of salvation, while not actually being required to observe any moral laws. God, said Foster, above all wants us to be happy, and he created alcohol for that purpose. Moreover, “the New Revelation did not actually encourage lechery, but it got quite mystical in discussing sexual conduct.”
Gambling is a potent source both of profit and spiritual expression. The church’s awe-inspiring Archangel Foster Tabernacle doubles as a Vegas casino, with a full range of slot machines, staffed by bouncers dressed as various stages of the angelic hierarchy. As the church declares in its central tenet of faith: Happiness, Happiness, Happiness!
Church leaders have mastered all the technological and psychological means needed to manipulate the faithful. The Tabernacle is a marvel of light shows, dance acts and music, with subliminal messages deployed to create feelings of sin and redemption. Advertisers sponsor hymns (“Dattlebaum’s Department Stores, where the Saved shop in safety!”). The church exists as a profit-making venture, dedicated to the exercise and enjoyment of absolute power — and all tax free!
The New Revelation, though, depends on organization as much as ideology. Its structure is threefold, from an outer church available to a middle church of true-believing tithe-payers, who became rich from the church’s insistence that members only give their business to fellow believers. Far more select is the secretive inner circle, chosen exclusively from the beautiful and good-looking — sports stars, strippers and showbiz celebrities, who are totally exempt from any sexual restraints.
The only disputes within the spiritual-industrial complex involve homicidal leadership fights. Foster himself was poisoned in one such battle, although his body was subsequently enshrined as a major tourist attraction within the Tabernacle. At the time of the novel, the Supreme Bishop bears the evocative name of Huey Short.
However dubious the church might appear, it survives by its secret weapons of political power and intimidation. Claiming ten million members, it is a vast political bloc, which claims many public officials as members. And when that influence fails, critics and dissidents are silenced or killed by the church’s faithful members, who serve as violent shock troops.
The New Revelation is a perfect marriage of capitalism, consumerism, celebrity culture, and demagoguery. Thank heaven it could never happen in real life.
Could it? Would it? Has it?