Consumerism on Campus: A Lutheran Response

[1] At the University where I serve as campus pastor, an undergraduate named James1 has found himself a lucrative job. He works as a Red Bull Student Brand Manager, which means he gets paid to attend campus events and hand out free cans of Red Bull energy beverage, take photos at parties and write blog entries, coordinate the occasional visit to campus of the legendary Red Bull automobile, and otherwise build excitement about the brand on the campus. In other words, James is getting paid (not to mention firsthand marketing experience and a free dorm refrigerator filled with an unending supply of Red Bull) to have fun. All he has to do is bring energy and passion to the task of “bring[ing] the Red Bull brand to life in the world of all things college.”2

[2] The world of student brand representation on campus represents a rapidly expanding enterprise, as companies realize that traditional modes of marketing (print advertisements, t-shirts, television ads, corporate names on buildings) are unlikely to make it through the narrowed filters that college-age youth have developed growing up in a world inundated with messages about consumer products and services.3 Churches have long known that the most effective way to draw in visitors is through personal invitations from friends, and campus ministries have long known that a powerful method of evangelism among college students revolves around friends gathering for late-night events with free food. Corporations are now also becoming aware of this strategy and utilizing it on campuses. The best way to create a global brand among college students (many of whom are, for the first time in their lives, making decisions about products and spending money apart from parental influence) is through firsthand appeals from friends that come under the guise of fun. Some companies use volunteerism to draw students into their marketing;4 others sponsor student blogs; others pour large amounts of money into hosting events for student organizations;5 and all utilize social media as a way to tailor their marketing messages.

[3] There are several dimensions at stake in assessing the moral value of students’ participation in such on-campus marketing, including the characteristics of the relationship, the outcomes of the relationship, and the value of the products themselves. First, marketing on campus may be assessed by the type of relationships that it sets up. Such marketing generally entails relationships that are contractual and transparent, both between the student and the company, and between the student and his or her peers who accept the free products. That is, James’ friends know that he is paid to be the official Red Bull representative, so they accept the free beverages from him with full knowledge that his promotion of the product is financially beneficial to him. Similarly, anyone who wears a t-shirt with corporate logos or takes a class in a building named after a corporation participates in a relationship with the company that is transparent and voluntary. There is no deception going on, but the relationship may nevertheless take on a sense of being sullied by the financial benefit accruing to one of the parties.

[4] Second, it might even be said that some good comes out of the relationship: student organizations can use these marketing relationships to procure funding for their activities; individual students can gain marketing experience and build their resumes; and their peers can receive free products and services that may increase their quality of life by easing the stresses of the university. But these goods must be measured against the less positive outcomes, such as the breakdown of boundaries between the impartiality of an academic institution and the agenda of profit-driven corporations, along with the consequent dangers for the trustworthiness of ideas engendered in such circumstances.

[5] Third, some moral value inheres in the product itself. Promoting on campus an energy drink, a lotion, or a clothing line is different from promoting on campus a pornographic magazine empire, a type of alcohol, or a brand of cigarettes (products which are generally regarded as both addictive and harmful). But it is not as simple as that, for there are hidden moral dimensions even to the most seemingly harmless products: matters of overseas labor, the rights of workers and growers, global ecological impact, and even systems of child labor and human slavery. These dimensions are nearly impossible to measure, but it is true that each of us is culpable nearly every time we buy anything, drive our cars, turn up the heat in our homes, etc. It’s impossible to live perfectly in a fallen world. So where does one draw the line? Is it okay to promote Red Bull on campus, but sinful to promote Playboy? Or, to use an example that is more common, is it ethical for a campus pastor to buy her student a cup of coffee — and if so, should they patronize the chain store or the independently owned store? organic or fair trade coffee? or should they just drink water together and use the coffee money to buy a sandwich for someone who is hungry?

[6] This complexity in the relationships between people, material objects, money, and justice was expressed by the original Lutheran campus pastor, Martin Luther. In his commentary on Matthew 6:19-21,6 Luther writes: “That person of mine which is called ‘Christian’ should not worry about money or save it, but should give its heart to God alone. But outwardly I may and I should use temporal goods for my body and for the needs of other people. As far as my secular person is concerned, I may and I should accumulate money and treasures – yet not too much, so that I do not become a greedy belly that seeks only its own benefit and can never be satisfied.”7 Luther here negotiates the difficult territory of materialism and faith with a heuristic division between status and office. In one’s status before God (coram Deo), as a Christian, one should be indifferent to physical possessions. But in one’s office before humans (coram hominibus), as a peasant or farmer or wife or ruler, one should be attentive to the role of material possessions for living out one’s vocation. However, his caution against greed undermines the divide between status and office: greed is a vice that negatively impacts one’s relationship with God and one’s relations with other people.

[7] Even while warning against greed Luther writes, “We dare not all be beggars. Everyone should earn enough to support himself without being a burden on other people, and to be able to help others as well.”8 His ambivalence about money is rooted in his dualistic construal of the human, always living simultaneously coram Deo and coram hominibus. But it also reflects larger questions that Luther was forced to ask about authority in relation to his own safety. The University of Wittenberg in the sixteenth century wasn’t host to subtle intrusions from large multinational corporations, but it was endowed by relationships with the Elector as well as with church officials. Luther’s relationship to the commercialistic powers of his time — the elector and the Pope — were similarly sensitive and fraught with ambivalence. Thus, in a single document Luther can call Pope Leo X “a lamb in the midst of wolves” and warn that he is in danger of becoming “an antichrist and an idol.”9 And Luther’s construction of secular authority and the extent to which it should be obeyed might have been different had he not depended upon his secular rulers for the protection of his life. Luther’s writings are often polemical and must always be interpreted contextually, particularly by those who seek ethical counsel from the reformer. In addition, the rootedness of Luther’s theology in affirmations of simultaneous opposites (just and sinful; law and gospel; two kingdoms; finite and infinite; alien and proper; etc.) lends it a paradoxical nature that adds complexity rather than concrete counsel to ethical quandaries.

[8] So is it all just a matter of adiaphora? Given the rampant marketing of the world in which we live (which starts now for children in early infancy), is college marketing the same as any other source of power in our world: harmful if used negatively or the object of obsession; helpful if constructed ethically and used toward the glory of God and the wellbeing of neighbors? Might there be parameters in which students can use such relationships advantageously and with integrity? Would such use be any different from a church allowing a corporation to place a cell phone tower inside the cross on its steeple in order to bring in extra income for the sake of benevolence (or even for heating the church on Sunday mornings and paying the pastor’s salary)? In these difficult financial times when national church bodies are cutting funding for campus ministries, many a campus pastor would be tempted by something like a corporate sponsorship — and the students are well aware of this desperation for continued funding of their ministries. It’s difficult to know how to relate to money in this world, particularly when the money will be used as a means to a good end.

[9] Given these realities, how might campus ministries and churches engaged with those in academia respond to the increasingly blatant instances of commercialism on our campuses? Despite his ambivalence about money and authority, Luther can be helpful to us as we ask this question. We need simply to appeal to his general theological principles, four of which are particularly instructive in the realm of academia: sin, vocation, theology of the cross, and sacrament.

[10] First, Luther’s insistence on the power of the noetic effect of sin sabotages any attempt to find easy answers to difficult questions. And to resist such an attempt is important for religious communities as they relate to campus life. With respect to any ethically fraught issue, Christians must keep asking the questions and acknowledge that there aren’t easy answers. It may not be possible, or even the most ethical choice, given the complexity and contextuality of lives and relationships, for each reader of this article to give up warm, caffeinated beverages and donate the money saved to hungry people. But it is ethical for each of us to keep asking the question and, through prayer and conversation in faith communities, continually to discern how we should live with respect to the costs and benefits (financial, social, and ecological) of food consumption. Lutheran Campus Ministry provides a particularly engaging and dynamic community for asking difficult questions while resisting the temptation to answer them quickly or with undue certainty. Our students come from a diversity of denominational backgrounds that is unparalleled in most congregations, as well as from a diversity of academic fields and philosophical perspectives. And they are situated at a time in their lives when their primary vocation is to think and learn. In this context, campus ministries should engage in direct and deep conversation about the ethics of corporate relationships among campus communities. The answers that come forth from such a community of discourse will be diverse, faith-filled, and perhaps even unsettling.

[11] Second, Luther’s definition of vocation — living out one’s calling with faith and love in whatever station one finds oneself — is useful to Christians in academia. Perhaps even more dangerous, and certainly more insidious, than clever corporate marketing schemes on campus is the abiding widespread conviction that the purpose of higher education is to prepare students for successful, high-paying employment in the world. Such a view reduces the college experience to a financial investment and measures life after college by material success. It fails to grasp what is most meaningful in human life: the relationship with God and other people that is borne out of “the conviction that life is more than a livelihood.”10 Or as Joseph Sittler has written, the purpose of higher education is “to issue an invitation to join the human race; . . . a way of being saved from the incurvature of this radical individuality which is always a danger to us.”11 If education is aimed at becoming more fully human by joining with other humans, then study itself is a vocation. Simone Weil has explained how study itself, even of a seemingly nonreligious topic such as mathematics, can draw the student not only into human community but also into closer relation with God through the cultivation of attentiveness that resembles the life of prayer.12 To become more human in relation to God and others, in light of the simultaneous sinfulness and goodness of each person, means living fully into the ambiguity and complexity of human needs and desires. For campus ministries, this means acknowledging that being a student is an end in itself, a vocation. It also means acknowledging that human worth is related to communal and baptismal identity more than to worldly or financial success, and that God may sometimes call people to sacrifice their own material possessions for the sake of others.

[12] Third, related to the idea of self-sacrifice is Luther’s theology of the cross, which maintains that the best way to know God is through suffering rather than glory. And if this is the case, then stewardship takes on a new meaning. It means that investing one’s limited money, time, and energy toward the benefit of those in need rather than toward one’s own self just might be a revelatory experience. Accordingly, campus faith communities engage students in service to those beyond them as an act of stewardship that flows naturally from the countercultural call to live a cruciform life. Campus Ministry students already commonly feed the hungry, advocate for social change, and protest unjust systems. But they don’t always do so with explicit reflection on the shape of living as stewards who bear the cross of Christ. This type of reflection too is a part of the vocation of study and it happens most profoundly in communities of discourse that resist quick, comfortable answers.

[13] Fourth, Luther’s sacramental theology is informative for those seeking faithful responses to commercialism on campus, particularly his conviction that the finite holds the infinite (finitum capax infiniti). There’s something radically countercultural about the practice of sharing a tiny pinch of bread and believing that it contains infinitely more power and grace than any items money can buy. When students otherwise inundated with commercial messages gather at the Lord’s Supper they give and receive a small sip of wine, not a free can of energy-boosting beverage. And they know that their identity is constituted by that gift — not by an exchange or a contractual agreement, but simply by a giving over of oneself to the reception of God’s unending grace and the resulting empowerment to give to others. The kind of infinity held and shared in sacramental practice will be far more fulfilling than the ever-increasing desire to consume infinite amounts of finite goods. Campus ministry students who participate in sacramental community will find themselves internalizing this knowledge and living accordingly.

[14] Nevertheless, students are students and free swag is free swag. If a free can of Red Bull inspires a student to donate the saved dollars to a nonprofit organization or gives the student the physical perseverance to stay up and cook a meal for someone in need instead of napping, then is it worth the contractual engagement with consumerism that is required to get the free can? Perhaps. If a student is savvy enough to land a job as a campus representative and uses the extra income to pay for books and tuition in the knowledge that study is a vocation, is such employment justified? Possibly. But more to the point, communities of faith on campus have a responsibility to engage students in dialogue about the implications of such decisions: the complexity and ambiguity of moral decisions in a fallen world, the need to keep asking difficult questions without landing on easy answers, the implications of living every facet of one’s life as a divine calling, the radical stewardship that will be asked of those who live under the shadow of the cross, and the life-changing consequences of receiving God’s grace in sacramental community.


1. Not his real name.

2. For more information, including job description and application process, see (accessed December 15, 2011).

3. For more examples of campus rep programs, see and (accessed December 15, 2011).

4. See, for example, Bruce Horovitz, “Marketers get creative targeting hard-to-reach college students” (USA TODAY, October 3, 2010) for a description of American Eagle Outfitters’ tailored approach to marketing on the West Virginia University campus in 2010. Available online at (accessed December 15, 2011).

5. On my campus, a recent event called the Ann Taylor Casting Call brought together the student clubs Women in Business and MODA (a fashion showcasing organization) around the ideas of interview etiquette and attire, elevator pitches, an online resume book, and deep student discounts on Ann Taylor clothing at the locations nearest to campus.

6. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (NRSV).

7. Luther, Martin. “The Sermon on the Mount (Sermons) and the Magnificat” in Luther’s Works: American Edition, vol. 21, Jaroslav Pelikan, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1956), p. 171.

8. Ibid., pp. 171-2.

9. See “An Open Letter to Pope Leo X” (preceding “The Freedom of a Christian”) in Luther’s Works: American Edition, vol. 31, Harold J. Grimm, ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1957), pp. 336, 342.

10. See (accessed December 15, 2011).

11. Joseph Sittler, Running With the Hounds: Conversation With Campus Ministry (Delivered as lectures at the Center for the Study of Campus Ministry, June 12-17, 1977, and reprinted by permission by the Department for Campus Ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 8765 West Higgins Road, Chicago, IL, 60631. Reprint Editor, Galen Hora), p. 110. [Available in its entirety as a free download at]

12. See Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” in Waiting for God (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), pp. 57-66.

Elizabeth Palmer

The Rev. Elizabeth Palmer serves as Lutheran Campus Pastor at the University of Chicago.