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In his brilliant critique of late-twentieth-century American culture, Technopoly, the late Neil Postman described what he called “the great symbol drain.” A technological culture such as ours, he wrote, devoted to efficiency and consumption, has little regard for tradition and its symbols—symbols that represent ancestral values and commitments, including sacred values and commitments. In a technological culture, people feel free to use symbols any way they like, which has the effect of emptying the symbols of their meaning. It’s not an act of sacrilege; sacrilege suggests that people recognize the symbols and mean to insult them. It’s an act of trivialization. In a technological society, nothing is sacred, so everything can be exploited. And so, Postman wryly observed, it probably wouldn’t be too long before some clever advertising executive figured out a way to use Jesus Christ in a TV ad for a California Chardonnay: “When I transformed water into wine at Cana, this is what I had in mind. Try it today. You’ll become a believer.”

I thought of Postman’s book last month when I saw the now-infamous Super Bowl ad for Dodge Ram trucks. The ad features a recording of Martin Luther King, Jr. giving one of his last sermons, “The Drum Major Instinct,” a powerful meditation on the Christian understanding of greatness. Images of Americans helping one another are interspersed with shots of a Ram pickup truck. As the images go by, we hear Dr. King speak these words:

If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.
You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.

The spot ends with a shot of the Dodge Ram logo, along with the words “Built to Serve.”

The ad sparked media outrage for its commercial use of Dr. King. Using the civil rights leader to sell trucks was a cynical misappropriation, critics charged. This criticism is absolutely correct. Dodge’s use of “The Drum Major Instinct” was deeply inappropriate, another example of corporate America’s cynical rush to jump on the social-justice bandwagon in order to gain market share. Clumsy, too: If you’re going to signal your virtue, you can’t do it in a way that is so obviously self-serving. Besides, as the critics pointed out, “The Drum Major Instinct” actually condemns consumerism and, particularly, spending money on a car you can’t afford.

The ad was also inappropriate for another reason, one that, as far as I can tell, entirely escaped our media. Dr. King was quoting Jesus. “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant”—that’s from Matthew’s Gospel, the passage in which Jesus condemns the arrogance of religious leaders (especially teachers!). It’s not Dr. King who gives us a new definition of greatness, it’s Christ. The reference would have been more obvious if the ad’s creators had included the sentence right before the excerpt they quoted: “And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness.”

What’s objectionable about the ad, from a Christian standpoint, is not that it uses Dr. King to sell trucks. It’s that it uses Christ to sell trucks. I’m sure Dr. King, a Christian pastor, would have seen it that way. And yet, as I say, no one in the media seems to have noticed. As Postman predicted, in our technological, consumerist culture, Christian references have become so trivialized that we no longer recognize when mass market advertisers misuse them.

In one sense, it could be said, the Dodge ad shows the continuing power of Christianity in our culture. The reason “The Drum Major Instinct,” and the ad that cribs it, are so powerful is that they draw on the Christian message of humility and service, which is familiar to us even when we don’t recognize the source. We understand the message of the sermon and the ad instinctively, because our culture is so suffused with Christian idioms. This doesn’t prove Christianity is superior to other religions or that one must be Christian to be American. But Christianity has shaped our culture, and the culture of the West, for many centuries. It’s no surprise that Christian messages and images continue to resonate with us.

I wonder, though, how long this will last, if Christianity really does fall into eclipse in the West. How long will the Christian message of humility, love, and service—“a heart full of grace”—survive apart from its origins? What will take the place of Christianity in American culture? A universal, non-sectarian commitment to human dignity? It seems unlikely. As people forget Christianity, they will likely forget its message, too. Or come to see it as merely another cool way for marketers to move the merchandise. But you never know. Perhaps a backlash will occur against the trivialization of Christian imagery in advertising. As one advertising executive, stunned by the controversy over the Dodge ad, observed to the New York Times: “You get so crucified, so fast.”

Mark L. Movsesian co-directs the Tradition Project at the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion.

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Photo by Stratos L via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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