photo by Mike Liu
On a three-city business trip last week, I discovered that I have been promoted to platinum status in the Marriott Rewards hotel loyalty program. It’s a privilege I will gladly accept, but one I never really sought, since I usually refer to this as my “frequent sufferer” bonus.
I don’t suffer at Marriott-brand properties in particular, of course. They are pretty much like any other hotels in their respective price categories, which vary among a multitude of labels including Fairfield Inn, Courtyard, Marriott, and the newly acquired Starwood brands featuring the Sheraton and Westin chains. It’s just that the glamour of travel wore off a long time ago. I enjoy visiting my friends and clients across the country and abroad, but all else being equal I’d rather be at home.
Still, Marriott hotels offer me a comfortable king bed, an exercise room that I may or may not use, a landline telephone that I certainly won’t use except to call the front desk, and – at the higher-end properties – an executive lounge where I can enjoy a snack with fellow frequent sufferers who have achieved gold or platinum status. The lounge is much more useful to me than slippers and a fluffy robe, often furnished at the same locations, but which I never touch.
The Marriotts also offer me a good book. To be specific, THE good book, as it is sometimes called. Two, actually. There is the Christian Bible provided by Gideons International, and also the Book of Mormon, which is the additional testament of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All of the Marriott brands that I typically use have, for decades, discreetly placed both volumes in the nightstands of every room in their properties.
Like other big hotel chains, Marriott franchises its name and management services to most of the properties that bear its labels. The company’s franchise agreements require these independently owned locations to likewise provide these two religious texts to all travelers. Other major chains like IHG and Hilton generally allow individual managers decide whether they will offer religious texts in their property’s guest rooms, making Marriott something of an exception in the industry.
The Associated Press reported last weekend that, as part of Marriott’s integration of the Starwood brands, another 300,000 volumes are being placed in those properties. Marriott will not include religious materials in every label’s rooms: Design Hotels, W, Moxy and Edition properties won’t get them. Neither will hotels in certain locations, including Vietnam and Indonesia. But generally, Marriott will stay true to its ethos as it takes over management of former Starwood brands. In a statement to the AP, the company said, “There are many guests who are not digitally connected who appreciate having one or both of these books available.”
These books are another amenity that I never use. I am not religious, and regardless, I was brought up in the Jewish tradition. The mere presence of the books doesn’t bother me one bit, though. I might feel a twinge of guilt if I neglect the fitness room, but I have no emotion at all about the religious texts, other than to recognize that these rooms host all sorts of people, some of whom have different habits and beliefs than I do.
If I needed a reminder, I found it in the back seat of a colleague’s car in Atlanta one evening last week. He was driving a couple of us back to our hotel after a company outing, and his personal Bible was in the car when I climbed aboard. It was not a surprise; I have known him for over a decade, and I know his faith is important to him. I might ask him whether he takes his own Bible on the road with him, or if he uses the ones that hotels provide.
When I was a sophomore in college, I shared a dorm room with a young man from a tiny town on the northern Great Plains. He read his Bible every night after he got into bed. To my great discredit, I and my friends sometimes teased him about this custom. I plead only youth and stupidity in my own defense. What I realize now, but did not appreciate then, is that he was somebody’s kid, away from home for the first time. He probably derived comfort from doing what he had likely done at home every night since childhood. Who was I to denigrate that, even in jest?
My teasing was intolerant, mean-spirited and just wrong. Yet today, when so many formerly marginalized groups rightly expect acceptance, secular people like me still find it permissible to disparage the religious faith of others, even when that faith does not harm us in any way.
An example is right there in the same Associated Press article that reported the extension of Marriott’s religious text requirements to Starwood properties. The article mentioned that in internet discussions, some travelers report complaining to managers about the books taking up their drawer space. John Ollila, who founded the travel blog LoyaltyLobby, expressed the opinion that publicly traded companies like Marriott should remain firmly secular. “Why wouldn’t they want to target the widest possible market?” Ollila asked.
On his own blog, Ollila was even more critical. “This just proves how out of touch with times and market Marriott is,” he wrote of the story. He added bluntly, “I see no reason to have religious material in the rooms.”
Marriott International is indeed publicly traded, but it isn’t government owned. It is a private company, of which the founding Marriott family owns 25 percent. Bill Marriott, son of founder J. Willard Marriott, is the executive chairman. The Marriotts belong to the Latter-day Saints, and this acknowledgment of and offer to share their faith through their business enterprise is part of how they practice their religion and facilitate the practice of faith, privately, by others. This is not remotely like a judge placing a religious symbol in his courtroom, which is a public space where the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom from state-established religion applies.
I don’t know why anyone would object to the mere unobtrusive presence of a testament or two in a hotel nightstand. Read it or don’t read it as you choose. The fact that this story is newsworthy shows how widely accepted, and expected, intolerance of religion really is, even in this supposedly more tolerant time.