Political Culture: Doing Business on Faith (and Credit)

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

Yesterday afternoon I was shopping around for a new mattress for my son’s bedroom, and I happened upon a brand-new America’s Mattress outlet in my town with a flashy “Grand Opening” sign out front. Business wasn’t exactly brisk on a Wednesday afternoon, so the store manager, whose name badge read Sue-Z (no kidding), happily took her time showing me the “plush-but-not-pricey” mattresses I had asked to see.

Sue-Z had some nice things to show me, was quick to whip out a calculator and engage in some on-the-spot price slashing when she felt me hesitate, and she cheerfully offered to give me her business card when I said I needed to think things over (i.e., compare her prices with other stores). We headed to her desk — and there, on a table, was a big ol’ stack of Bibles.

Now, I’ve become accustomed to seeing Bibles for sale in the book department at Target; I’ve spent a bit of time in Christian bookstores (mostly as a teenager, if I remember correctly, because one such store was on my paper route); and it’s not unusual to see the occasional Judeo-Christian trinket (not to mention a Buddha or any number of feng-shui fountains) in a boutique or tchotchke shop. And I’ve heard about the trend toward businesses that wear their religion on their sleeves, from realtors to banks to hair salons. (There was even an article about such businesses in Time a few years back.) But this was a new one for me: Bibles being given away in an otherwise seemingly non-religious store, much less a mattress shop.

My first response was a mental leap to the place where one usually finds a Bible next to the bed – and thinking of hotel rooms and Gideon’s Bibles always sends me into a couple of sung-to-myself verses of “Rocky Raccoon.” But I must admit that I was put off by that stack of religious literature – so much so that I gave serious consideration to not returning to the store, even though its prices were extremely competitive and Sue-Z (I can’t stop writing her name!) was even offering free delivery.

I am an agnostic. That’s an unfashionable term these days, I know; in addition to the scorn and/or proselytizing it traditionally provokes from believers, agnosticism has recently come in for derision from trendy atheists as well, who demand that agnostics get off the fence and call us cowards for refusing to admit that God doesn’t exist. In my case, I find it impossible to rule out the existence of some kind of guiding force in the universe. What I have definitively ruled out is devotion to any particular set of religious principles, or attachment to any creed that excludes or rejects the beliefs or devotion of any other creed. I firmly believe – despite the good works performed by countless people and institutions in the name of their faiths – that organized religion is divisive, delusional bullshit. But that doesn’t mean I reject the possibility of God.

Still, I have, since relatively early in childhood, found overt public advertisements of faith discomfiting, and proselytizing intolerable. I am generally not kind to those good-hearted souls who knock on my door or approach me in public trying to convert me to the one true faith (whichever one it happens to be for them). And so, the presence of that stack of Bibles at America’s Mattress made me seek out a Sleep Shoppe and a couple mattress “warehouses” to see if I couldn’t find an apparatus on which my son could sleep without Christianity attached.

But then I started to think about my rather hazy standards when it comes to patronizing faith-based businesses. I try never to step into a Wal-Mart or to patronize Domino’s Pizza, both of which have given large amounts of cash to Operation Rescue – but I can’t say I refuse to eat Domino’s if it’s the only thing offered, and yes, I have visited numerous locales across our great land where Wal-Mart is the only place left to buy a swimsuit or a hair dryer or a hostess gift for some relative or friend.

And I ridicule Chick-Fil-A for its holier-than-thou policy of staying closed on Sunday, and for its Bible-indoctrinating “Veggie Tales” kid-meal toys… but those chicken sandwiches and waffle fries are goddamned tasty. (Sorry…and no pickles, please.)

Having considered all this – and having recognized, after swallowing my initial distaste, that tolerance for other points of view is exactly what I find so egregiously missing in organized religion, yet what I so desperately wish to see in myself – I decided to suck it up and give Sue-Z my business. I sat down next to that pile o’ Bibles and held my breath, waiting to see if she would launch into a spiel entirely inappropriate to the business at hand. (My son didn’t exactly help, rolling across one bed after another in his dirty jeans and wondering loudly why a store would sell both mattresses and Bibles, but nothing else.)

Sue-Z’s credit-card machine seemed to have been trying to relay a message to me when it failed to recognize the first card I handed over. (That’s not unusual for me, sadly; if a credit card could actually become dog-eared from overuse, mine would.) However, as Sue-Z celebrated the acceptance of my other card and began to write up my delivery information, she offered the religious reference we all knew was coming with a welcome nonchalance. “Your delivery will be free, and we’ll also provide a free bed frame, a set of sheets and free removal of your existing bed,” she noted. “We are a faith-based business, and I welcome you to take a Bible if you’d like. And if your son would like, I can give him a free stuffed sheep from Serta!”

He took it, and as we stood to leave I even took a copy of the King James. (I didn’t arrive at my state of spiritual ambivalence until after some intensive Bible study as a sixth-grader, and with my son entering the sixth grade this fall I’ve been thinking he deserves the same opportunity.) My son and I headed toward the door, and Sue-Z finally did something she apparently had wanted to do since the moment I walked in. She pointed to my chest and said, “I really like that shirt. Where can I get one?”

My T-shirt — it’s my current favorite — reads, “Obama 01.20.09. Believe.”

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