We live in a branded world. The current presidential campaign is an effort for each candidate to establish a brand, and then get America to buy that brand. “Republican” and “Democrat” nowadays function as brand names, as do “conservative” and “liberal.” Increasingly, words like “spiritual,” “religious,” and “Christian” are brand names too. But as branding has moved from a marketing technique for goods, and sometimes services, into how we do pretty much everything, problems are emerging.
Branding started as a way to distinguish products that were difficult to distinguish. They were a short hand for why product X was better than product Y that could not be told in the confines of an ad of some sort. That is to say if you were in a grocery store and confronted with a shelf of canned peas, Green Giant, Del Monte, Stokley-Van Camp, which one do you pick? Branding was a way of making the Green Giant peas look a little better than the Del Monte peas, and there were genuine differences. Green Giant worked primarily in southern Minnesota, Del Monte in other places – their canning processes were slightly different as were the genetic variety of pea. Remember when generic or unbranded products began to appear in stores? They were generally the peas that were safe to eat, but the brands found did not meet their exacting standards. Yeah, generics were cheaper, but they were not quite as good.
But nowadays, with a few notable exceptions, it is a different story. Factory farms sell to all the canners who sell their labels while the peas really are exactly the same. Unfortunately, people have learned this, even if subconsciously. Brands have become image, not necessarily a shorthand for some reality. That has two major consequences. For one it means there will be major battles for people to define, and in some cases redefine, a brand without ever actually changing the product. Secondly, it means people are going to pretty much approach anything cynically.
Consider two opinion pieces of recent publication, one about Mike Huckabee and Kim Davis, the other about Bernie Sanders at Liberty University. Both sit at the intersection of religion and politics and both deal more in brands than in reality. Both are arguing, more or less about what is associated with the “Christian political” brand.
The Huckabee/Davis piece argues that Huckabee’s rhetoric regarding Davis and all that has transpired around her is borrowing heavily from left wing rhetoric. In other words, as the title of the piece contends, he is “undermining” the conservative brand. It is an interesting thesis, but it ignores that in many ways the popular perception of the Christian conservative and the leftie radical have been reversed in terms of cultural positioning making such rhetoric appropriate, at least on the surface. In other words, reality and the brand may not be in sync anymore.
The Sanders piece was in The Atlantic, written by a Liberty student and was published prior to Sanders Monday speech. The author is excited about Sanders appearance and bases his anticipation on the usual Christian social justice arguments. (Arguments that Sanders pretty well made himself. For other coverage of the actual appearance consider this piece.) These arguments are the stock-in-trade of Christian liberals and are launched in efforts to change the “Christian” brand from conservative to liberal. What is sad is that I do not know a Christian – conservative, liberal or in between – anywhere that does not believe in social justice. The difference between conservative and liberal Christians is not a commitment to social justice, but in the mechanisms by which we seek it. The liberal would use the coercive force of government to achieve it while the conservative would use slower cultural means. Here we find efforts at branding that are just flat out misleading. By setting up the dichotomy that they have the liberal Christian attempts to add “uncaring rich dude” to the conservative Christian brand. Here for sure, reality and the brand are not in sync.
Thus we find Christianity generally in disarray. People want to buy the brand but not necessarily the substance of Christianity. Of course, that has been true throughout history, the problem is Christianity itself spends so much time focused on developing its brand that it is in danger of losing its actual substance. So busy are we trying to make sure that someone buys something from us that we forget what we are selling.
But more our political fights are now reduced to fighting over the brands instead of actually fixing the problem. The brand fights pretty much dominate the political process. Obama has created the greatest divide between his campaign branding and his actual governance that the country has ever seen. He is happy to let people argue over brand identity while he just governs as he sees fit. This in essence nullifies the electoral process. This is why nothing ever really gets fixed. Is it any wonder then that cynicism is the mood of the day. Nothing seems real.
So what then are we to do? The answer for Christianity is straightforward, and I think the same approach could rescue politics as well. James 3:13 –
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.
This is the essence of the “authenticity” that millennials discuss so much. Stop branding and just start being and doing and teaching. Everybody knows Obama for who he really is now. Actions speak louder than words. Liberal Christians can try and paint conservative Christians as selfish louts, but the actual charity figures speak for themselves.
The only way to overcome cynicism is allow action to define the brand, or image, rather than to establish such apart from action. And overcome cynicism we must.