by Michael Angerer
In recent political discourse, it has become commonplace to emphasise shared values whenever the more difficult questions regarding national identity and social cohesion are raised; for example, in continental Europe, the phrase ‘Christian values’ is almost bound to fall in the context of immigration from Islamic countries. Broadly speaking, there tend to be two different positions: one, frequently embraced by the political right, sets religion up as a defining feature of social systems; the other, usually associated with the political left, tends to maintain that social values may also be addressed quite independently of religion. The question is, of course, not to be resolved so easily; a glance at contemporary society reveals that who we worship and which social conventions we follow are issues that are linked in complex ways.
A brief note on the origins of the word ‘worship’ may be in order: as the Oxford English Dictionary shows, it is originally derived from ‘worth’, and indeed meant nothing more than that something or someone was held in high esteem. Its modern use in a religious sense indicates exactly that: to worship a higher being is to accord it a special value in our life, to recognise its extraordinary worth. But religion does not have a monopoly on the distribution of worth. For many ardent fans, the secular sense of the word has not died out: they can still worship celebrities, venerating idols that supposedly embody the values they support. Within the framework of social values, religion is only one way of allocating worth.
In fact, the worship of the Christian God and the worship of celebrities – with all the merchandising opportunities inherent in the situation – seem to be particularly closely linked in the United States of America, home of innumerable successful televangelists. Only last week, Justin Bieber (bear with me, please) surprised visitors at a religious event during the Coachella Festival in California by performing Christian songs and inviting people to worship. This week, Beyoncé is due to appear at San Francisco’s Nob Hill Cathedral for a special ‘Beyoncé Mass’; the San Francisco Examiner proudly announced to its readers: ‘Come let us adore Beyoncé’. The boundaries between religion and celebrity-worship are blurring, and maybe it is now tempting to dismiss both as tools of capitalism, the system in which everything must be worth something.
But when dealing with human beings, values are never purely monetary. After all, social values are about a subjective feeling of community; to have the impression that a group shares values and concepts of worth may well be more important than what these values actually are. If we briefly turn away from questions of worship, we may see this illustrated quite well with Donald Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminium imports: the new measures are not very likely to prove beneficial to the American economy; the New York Times even reported that it was the news of their implementation that drove Trump’s chief economic advisor Gary D. Cohn to resign in March. But Trump’s tariffs have a high ideological value to many in the country; a country united by God, popular music and steel and aluminium.
Religious worship is then one factor, interacting with many others, that determines a group’s values; and it can be targeted for political reasons almost as easily: in an effort to promote traditional values while keeping others at bay, the Chinese government has recently banned the online sale of Bibles. Christianity’s colonial history makes it rather unwelcome, and while the number of Chinese people who officially follow a religion has doubled over the last 20 years, the government has taken steps to keep Christianity and Islam in check. Their mistrust of these religions is probably not purely theological: it is the cultural values often associated with them that are kept at bay – but for how long remains to be seen.
After all, worshipping God does not automatically make you a Belieber, just as conservative gender roles occur in the fundamental branches of most religions. It cannot be denied that religion often has an important role to play in the establishment of social values and communities, although perhaps less so now than a hundred years ago; but in the complicated world of values and worth, there are only supporting roles and no lead actors. Society is complex enough to comprise both religious and secular worship without being defined by either; we must not underestimate the social value of worship, but nor should it be overestimated.