Taylor Swift’s concert tour has generated significant attention with heartwarming stories of supportive parents, marriage proposals, and the like, along with lots of memes. One author compared the experience with group singing in worship settings, calling the concert “The Church of Taylor Swift”. The post certainly touches on an important element within both Taylor Swift concerts and congregational worship, the experience of group singing. However, thinking critically about who creates the comparison, based on what assumptions, and for what ends (which my students hear a lot).
In this case, the “Church of Taylor Swift” fits into a long tradition of recognizing other elements of culture as resembling religion. Baseball, Coca-Cola, and many other aspects of life are “like” religion in their ritualized practices, collective experiences, and even views of life and the world, according to many scholars of religion. I have certainly used the experience of Alabama football, such as the festivities of Gameday in Tuscaloosa and its forms of dress, venerated figures, and assertions of a group connection across time and space, as common elements with things commonly labeled religion. My goal is to push students to consider how some people want to separate religion from other, similar aspects of life, and this work often serves to elevate religion and guarantee (in some contexts) special benefits. In the US for example, we have the right to the free exercise of religion, but not the free exercise of college fandom.
What struck me, as I read the Taylor Swift piece, is the one-sided nature of these comparisons. Typically, people assert that something nonreligious functions in the way religion does, at least in certain respects. But what happens if we flip it. Rather than saying Taylor Swift concerts or Alabama football Gamedays are “like religion,” maybe we should also say that going to a congregational gathering, with singing, particular attire, identifying statements, etc., is like Gameday. The experience of singing hymns or praise songs is a (somewhat pale) reflection of the experience of singing the Alabama Fight Song, everyone standing, arms waving, voices in enthusiastic unison.
As an aside, look up the efforts taken to shift one word chanted during Dixieland Delight to be more family friendly, which faced such resistance that even Alabama’s First Lady of Football Terry Saban needed to ask everyone to sing it the “right” way. In other words, the singing serves to distinguish who is in and who is out, and changing a song meets significant resistance, which people also see in some religious communities.
Switching the order to call a worship service the “Gameday of Christianity” elevates the Gameday experience as the norm, a norm that we find surprisingly mimicked in gatherings that people commonly see as religious. In other words, the order of the comparison places one element above the other, as something special that other parts of society are “like” but not quite the same. The fact that scholars in Religious Studies tend to describe a concert as like church, rather than church being like a concert, fits in a tradition of treating religion as something special and set apart from other parts of life, which makes the similarity something significant.
Switching that order leads some to object that the comparison reduces religion to something else, which confirms my point that the order of the comparison serves to elevate one over the other. If religion, then, is not automatically special or set apart, why study it or even take a course in it? For me, the academic study of religion has two significant benefits (among others). First, it allows us to study humans and societies and how they function by focusing on an aspect of life that people treat as significant. Seeing the power of group singing, whether at Gameday or a Taylor Swift concert or a Presbyterian church, highlights one reason why these events have significance for many. Second, the academic study of religion often focuses on analyzing the discourse about religion, the ways people describe it and how that description empowers some, marginalizes others, and constructs a special status–including in the law–for things classified as religion. So the discourse around “The Church of Taylor Swift” becomes a prime example of the ways people, including scholars, talk about religion and is worth studying for the larger influence of that discourse on societies.