Identify the relationships between religion and popular culture in North America


By enrolling in this course, you’ve decided that there’s a valuable connection between religion and popular culture, as seen in the examples of The Matrix (film), and The Da Vinci Code (book and film); and between religion and popular music, such as rap (despite mumblings to the contrary). Religion and popular culture intersect in a variety of ways. In this course, you will study four major paradigms that will guide you through the maze and the interesting features and theories of each. So, in the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi (a primary character in the Star Wars film series), “May the Force be with you” (or, good luck). —What is “the Force” anyway?

Learning Objectives
Define the North American understanding of the following terms, using cultural theory and religious studies approaches: religion, high culture, folk culture, popular culture, and American monomyth.
Identify substantive, functional, and formal definitions of religion.
Identify the relationships between religion and popular culture in North America.

Learning Activities
- Read: Introduction: Finding Religion in Unexpected Places (Bruce David Forbes). In Religion and Popular Culture
- Optional: Read “A Look at Cultural Effects on Religiosity: A Comparison between the United States and Canada.”


A natural way to start exploring religion and popular culture is by defining relevant terms. This is not an easy task, because there is little agreement on what constitutes “culture” and “religion,” in their illusory forms. In Religion and Popular Culture in America, Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan present a threefold typology of culture: high culture, folk culture, and popular culture, each defined primarily by its intended audience and method of transmission.

High culture, characterized by its written form, is intended for those with an elite and educated background.
Folk culture draws from immediate family or regional audiences and incorporates many oral traditions.
Popular culture is heavily influenced by large audiences and the mass media (3).
Television, film, literature, music, and the Internet are all mediums of popular culture that have a role in shaping and reflecting what we define as popular. Catherine Albanese describes the media as “mass language brokers and, so, mass culture brokers. … The religion of popular culture—for all of its chronic moral ambiguities—is the gift that we … give ourselves” (740).

Interestingly, the foundational classification of culture established by Raymond Williams[1] shares many similarities with that of Forbes and Mahan. Summarized by Malory Nye, culture exists “as an ideal, in a documentary sense, and in a social sense” (22), where ideal culture is meant as “elitist … [and] reserved for works of distinction, that contain or express something close to a state of perfection” (22). In the documentary sense, we need to expand our critical analysis of culture to include those “less great” (23) works that perhaps reflect a more popular understanding of culture, but that nevertheless provide us with insight into “how particular expressions of culture work in different ways at different levels” (24) without making value judgments on the quality of expression. In a social sense, culture reflects a “way of life” (36). Given these categorizations, we can certainly see how religious influence contributes to the shaping of culture in its many forms.


So how do we understand religion? This question will come up often during this course as we consider whether or not (and/or the degree to which) the concept of religion can be independent of perspective, function, cultural context, and use. The one thing that we can say for sure is that religion is a dynamic concept that often extends beyond formal definitions. As Nye suggests, “‘religion’ is not something abstract and set aside (nor necessarily ‘god-given’), but it is integral to [understanding] other aspects of cultural activity” (2).

But what does this insight mean for us as we seek to define religion? How does this help us understand religion and its relationship with popular culture? Consider the possible implications of the following quote:

Western-derived definitions have tended to emphasize the sharp distinction between the religious and nonreligious dimensions of culture and sometimes have equated religion with beliefs, particularly belief in a supreme being. Obviously such definitions exclude many primitive and Asian religions. … Such definitional usage has had its critics in the West. As early as the late eighteenth century an attempt was made to shift the emphasis from the conceptual to the intuitive and visceral in defining religion. … [Since then, there have been] others who have sought to escape formalistic, doctrinal definitions and to include the experiential, emotive, and intuitive factors, as well as valuational and ethical factors. These factors seemed to be truer to the religious person’s sense of what religion is like from the inside. … (King 7693)

This quote helps us think outside of the box because it suggests that religion and culture are intimately entwined. Religion is not just about worshipping a supreme being and following doctrines; it also incorporates experiences and cultural values.

But what about specific beliefs, rituals, and eschatological concerns? Aren’t these prerequisites to discussing religion? Forbes and Mahan state that “we need not arrive at one conclusive definition of the term ‘religion’” (9). We should let our understanding of the term unfold as we expose ourselves to ideas of religion “present in discussions of the roles superheroes play as deliverers, or reflections on the struggles of life, or in devotional acts to a celebrity, or in ritual patterns of television viewers” (9). By embracing a more inclusive understanding of religion through popular culture, we gain insight into our ever-changing world, which will lead us to re-evaluate our own perceptions of these two realms.

American Culture vs. Canadian Culture

Another point that we should explore before going further is the difference between American culture and Canadian culture. Are there significant differences? Do these differences affect our understanding of religion and popular culture as social constructs? According to Richard W. Santana and Gregory Erikson,

The United States is today the world’s primary creator and exporter of popular mass culture and arguably one of the most religious countries in history. These simultaneous impulses represent an evolving national code of belief, a matrix of consumerism, political ideology, patriotic fervor, and religious faith based upon a peculiarly American revision of old world tenets, a matrix that is perhaps America’s most influential export, most defining characteristic, and most complicated cultural negotiation. (1)

Does this exported American culture influence Canadian culture? If so, how?
There is little doubt that American culture has left an imprint on Canada’s collective understanding of culture in many ways, but there remains uniqueness in Canada’s cultural worldview, which can synthesize and at times even reject America’s cultural influence. Canadians are proud of their culture, but sometimes feel conflicting emotions about the influences of American culture. For example, when the American book chain Borders wished to open Canadian branches, it was refused entry on the grounds of threatening Canadian culture. But, when Chapters, a Canadian chain, opened and featured the American firm Starbucks in its cafés as opposed to the Canadian Second Cup, no outburst occurred over the Americanization of Canadian taste buds. (Van Luven and Walton xi)

American Religion vs. Canadian Religion

Clearly, Canadians are willing to embrace Americana, but only on their own terms. Although this example deals with a secular matter, it can extend to religious convictions as well. Samuel H. Reimer provides a compelling synthesis of the main differences between Canadian and American religion. Using theories presented by some of the granddaddies in the field of sociology and religion, Reimer states the following:

[Seymour Martin] Lipset … notes that American religion demonstrates the unique blend of both “secularization and widespread adherence,” indicating that religious behavior often lacks conviction (1963: 168). … [Whereas Will] Herberg says that … religion has become intertwined with culture, or the “American way of life,” which defines religion as desirable. As a result of this cultural precedent, Americans believe the right things and act in religious ways to conform, but it is “frequently a religiousness without serious commitment” (1955: 88, 276). … Unlike the United States, Canada lacks a pervasive civil religion (O’Toole 1982; Westhues 1976; Lipset 1990; Blumstock 1993; Kim 1993), if by civil religion we mean the tendency to interpret “historical experience in light of transcendent reality” (Bellah 1975: 3). Lipset claims there is no clear historical expression of “national truth” or a sense of national mission in Canada [which is different from its America counterpart] (1990: 79). … In sum, then, conventional religiosity is less prevalent in Canada because the society lacks a strong civil religion,[1] has not intertwined culture and religion to the same degree as the United States, and displays little pressure toward ideological conformity. (447)[2]
What this means to students of religion and popular culture is that while religion and culture exists in both the United States and Canada, Canadians and Americans will approach this course differently. For the most part, the course will approach the material more from an American perspective than a specifically Canadian perspective, because in America, religion and popular culture have an interconnectedness that is unparalleled. This interconnectedness allows for a greater sense of unity and a shared ideological drive—aspects that are absent in Canadian society. So, while Canadian culture accepts the interconnectedness of religion and culture from its American neighbour, it does not embrace the drive to have a unified culture or religion. Instead, Canada prefers to uphold the distinct religious beliefs of each citizen, using human rights and equality as the unifiers of its cultural creeds. Note: Civil and cultural religion will be explored in greater detail in Unit 3.

So, while American culture can export popular mass culture that possesses distinctly religious themes, the regionalized[3] and mosaic[4] nature of Canadian culture (Reimer 447) remains somewhat aloof to the driving impulse found in American culture. This being said, Canadians still embrace cinematic pilgrimages on the weekends and attend ritualized Star Trek conventions, but not to the exclusion of Hockey Night in Canada. While Canadians show interest in each of these events, they are understood not as culturally unifying forces, but as separate events that can be enjoyed less religiously.

[1] Civil religion is a religion of the people where “God [is] acknowledged … [but] it [is] not necessarily to affirm him in order to practice it. … [C]ivil faith center[s] on the political community, with the hope of creating out of the many an American nation-state [but is] without institutionalization … [or] an absolute need for the language of the supernatural” (Albanese 312).

[2] All internal citations in this quote can be further explored by reading Reimer’s full article, “A Look at Cultural Effects on Religiosity: A Comparison between the United States and Canada,” available in the Digital Reading Room (DRR).

[3] Rather than seeing Canadian culture as a national entity, Van Luven notes that a regional depiction better reflects the multicultural foundations of the nation’s culture (x). However, while there are significant differences between “eastern jigs, to western rodeos, to CBC reproductions … [they have all] contributed to the Canadian multicultural popular mosaic” (Van Luven and Walton x).

[4] Reimer defines Canada as having a mosaic style national identity, whereby mosaic is defined as “a radically and culturally heterogeneous society where ethnic and linguistic diversity are not only tolerated, but celebrated” (447).

Emphasis on the Christian Religion

Along with emphasizing American culture, this course will also emphasize the Christian religion, for the following reasons. According to the 2009 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 78.4% of respondents identify with religions identified as Christian (Protestant: 51.3%; Catholic: 23.9%; other: 3.2%); 4.7% belong to Other Religions (including Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu religions); while 16.1% are Unaffiliated (including Atheistic or Agnostic). Those in the remaining 0.8% do not identify a religious affiliation or refused to answer (The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life). By comparison, “[t]he 1991 census found that 88% of Canadians [who claim a religious affiliation] continue to ‘think’ that they are Catholic (46%), Protestant (36%), or adherents of Other Faiths (6%)” (Bibby 235).

We will discover that although compelling instances of other world faiths and religious beliefs appear in popular culture, these examples represent only a minor acknowledgment of other faith groups. Most often, these examples exist only within the predominant Christian paradigm. As indicated by Santana and Erickson (5)

While … [one cannot] deny the truth or importance of the shift toward a more religiously diverse American culture, we also feel that the junction of popular culture and popular religion, while certainly influenced by the diverse multicultural nature of the United States, is still primarily based within a Christian or post-Christian epistemology.

The connection between Christianity and modern western society is undeniable, and “[n]o one living in the modern world can free himself from Christianity. It has permeated all the institutions and customs of modern society, as well as morality and intellectual life” (Tillich 1). With this in mind, let’s begin our exploration of religion and popular culture.

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