Material religion refers to the physical objects and practices that play a role in everyday American religious life. The term does not suggest that it is a separate belief system alongside religions such as Christianity, Taoism, and Islam. Instead, it is a sort of scholarly shorthand for a collection of behaviors and beliefs in every religious community. Many Catholics pray using a rosary, a string of beads, each representing a prayer or meditation. Some evangelical Protestants hang pictures of Jesus on their walls. They do not pray to the picture, but it reminds them of Jesus' love. American Muslims center their prayers on a collection of holy places in Mecca. Buddhist homes contain a small shrine, often featuring a figure of the Buddha, that serves as a center of meditation. Most religions have ethical codes to determine behavior concerning the body—including clothing, eating, and interpersonal relations. Almost all institutional religions maintain some kind of building—churches, synagogues, mosques, temples—that serve as worship and community centers. To maintain those buildings—and to pay professional leaders—they have to raise money, through donations or fees. All of these are examples of material religion.
This is a broad definition of "material." It includes obvious things, such as pictures and shrines. But it also includes economic concerns, such as fund-raising and salaries. Finally, it includes the way materiality is understood in a religion, including attitudes toward the body and the rest of the physical world. Material religion involves the relationship between religious belief and life in a material world and recognizes that human beings spend their lives creating, handling, and exchanging material objects.
While material religious practices appear in most, if not all, religious traditions, modern American culture makes those practices a prominent part of contemporary American religious life. Consumer capitalism, with its concentration on the exchange of ideas and products in the free market, provides the context for seeing religious objects as commodities. General prosperity makes possible the support of large religious institutions and buildings. Modern mass production and marketing make possible the broad dissemination of religious material, including images and devotional objects. Finally, the diversity of religion in America presents a rich variety of religious material objects and practices. All these factors give material religion an important place in contemporary America.
Scholars of religion have only recently started paying attention to material religion. They have usually defined religion as an intellectual or spiritual activity, solely engaging the mind or the spirit and scorning the body. This definition sees material beliefs and practices as profane and thus less than religious. Scholars working with this traditional definition tend to ignore material religion. Others may study it but focus on kitsch aspects of religious material, including bumper stickers, pens, key chains, and other inexpensive items with religious images—sometimes dismissed as "Jesus junk."
For many people, however, these objects are essential parts of their religious practice. Through buildings, devotional objects, and food, they connect with their spiritual source and with fellow believers. For these people material religion does not take the place of more spiritual things; the material and the spiritual together form their entire religious worldview. Studying material religion opens a window to understanding the religious life of many average believers. Material religion is all around, even in unexpected places. This all-pervasive nature of material religion helps to question theories of secularization.
Anthropologists have studied material religion for generations, looking at the material culture of "primitive" religions. Only in the past decade or two have scholars turned their approach to Western religions. Historian Colleen McDannell brought much of this work together in her Material Christianity (1995). Other scholars of American religion have looked at other religious traditions, including Judaism and Native American religions.
Studying material religion requires asking different questions and using different sources than traditional scholarship uses. In addition to reading theological treatises, scholars have to look at artifacts, cookbooks, budgets, and photographs. In this respect the study of material religion is similar to the study of material culture, focused on things. But understanding material religion also requires looking at peoples' behaviors in relation to those things because things exist to be used. So scholars have to look at practices such as fund-raising, church dinners, and rituals. But these objects have meanings beyond their uses, so a full understanding of material religion requires looking at how those things are understood, which includes theories of materialism and materialization. Historians, sociologists, anthropologists, theologians, and art historians have all developed tools that can be used to study material religion.
Some scholars—especially those with theological commitments—have questioned some of the research regarding material religion. While acknowledging that material practices are important, they argue that religious life is ultimately about spirit, not matter. The relationship between spiritual and material is far more complex than the scholars of material religion admit, they conclude. Other scholars point out that material religion does not exist as a thing or a religious belief; instead, it is a scholarly tool for understanding the material aspects of religious life. As a tool, however, it is helpful for understanding human behavior in a world that is both material and spiritual.
Hall, David D., ed. Lived Religion in America: Toward aHistory of Practice. 1997.
Joselit, Jenna Weissman. The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880 –1950. 1994.
McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion andPopular Culture in America. 1995.
Morgan, David. Visual Piety: A History and Theory ofPopular Religious Images. 1998.