Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Ultimate Exurb

Welcome to the new Colorado Springs


Any student of marketing - professional or 'gifted amateur' - learns that there are a few venerable 'Action Words' which have been tested exhaustively and shown again and again to have unique power in advertising. We all know them without really knowing we do, and, being aware of them doesn't necessarily diminish their power; you can laugh and roll your eyes all you want: advertisers use them because they work. 'Improved' is in the top tier, while the word 'premium' - a variation of 'improved' - has had a vogue for the last several years (our having been lately deluged with 'premium' versions of familiar products makes me wonder: what had we been buying all those years before the age of 'premium'? Crap?).

The enduring king of all Action Words is 'new'. Lesser signifiers (like the now laughable 'dry', the short-lived 'clear', and the derivative 'premium') come and go, but 'New!' endures as THE Action Word. It's not hard to see why. It's forward-looking, optimistic: New Day, New World...New Life.

Two excellent articles at Harpers.org report on the apotheosis of the 'New' as total marketing concept. They must be read to be believed. Soldiers of Christ, Part One by Jeff Sharlet focuses mainly on the powerful but lesser-known Pastor Ted Haggard, the founder of New Life, a church/political group/mega-business based in Colorado Springs, CO:

The true architectural wonder of New Life, however, is the pyramid of authority into which it orders its 11,000 members. At the base are 1,300 cell groups, whose leaders answer to section leaders, who answer to zone, who answer to district, who answer to Pastor Ted Haggard, New Life’s founder.

Pastor Ted, who talks to President George W. Bush or his advisers every Monday, is a handsome forty-eight-year-old Indianan, most comfortable in denim. He likes to say that his only disagreement with the President is automotive; Bush drives a Ford pickup, whereas Pastor Ted loves his Chevy. In addition to New Life, Pastor Ted presides over the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), whose 45,000 churches and 30 million believers make up the nation’s most powerful religious lobbying group, and also over a smaller network of his own creation, the Association of Life-Giving Churches, 300 or so congregations modeled on New Life’s “free market” approach to the divine.

Pastor Ted has a Total Marketing Philosophy, has remade the Christian religion according to the doctrine of 'Portion Controlled Servings' (PCS). Religion has always been a growth industry in the US, but Pastor Ted's approach is revolutionary:

In Pastor Ted’s book "Dog Training, Fly Fishing, & Sharing Christ in the 21st Century", he describes the church he thinks good Christians want. “I want my finances in order, my kids trained, and my wife to love life...... I want the church to help me live life well, not exhaust me with endless ‘worthwhile’ projects.” By “worthwhile projects” Ted means building funds and soup kitchens alike. It’s not that he opposes these; it’s just that he is sick of hearing about them and believes that other Christians are, too. He knows that for Christianity to prosper in the free market, it needs more than “moral values”—it needs customer value.

New Lifers, Pastor Ted writes with evident pride, “like the benefits, risks, and maybe above all, the excitement of a free-market society.” They like the stimulation of a new brand. “Have you ever switched your toothpaste brand, just for the fun of it?” Pastor Ted asks. Admit it, he insists. All the way home, you felt a “secret little thrill,” as excited questions ran through your mind: “Will it make my teeth whiter? My breath fresher?” This is the sensation Ted wants pastors to bring to the Christian experience. He believes it is time “to harness the forces of free-market capitalism in our ministry.” Once a pastor does that, his flock can start organizing itself according to each member’s abilities and tastes.

Loose Lips Sink Ships, Tom

One of Pastor Ted’s favorite books is Thomas Friedman’s "The Lexus and the Olive Tree", which is now required reading for the hundreds of pastors under Ted’s spiritual authority across the country. From Friedman, Pastor Ted says he learned that everything, including spirituality, can be understood as a commodity. And unregulated trade, he concluded, was the key to achieving worldly freedom. [emphasis mine]

Again, religion has always had a certain amount of show-biz, but this is really different. A visit to the Main Event in the 17,000-person capacity sanctuary at New Life:

The band stood. A skinny, chinless man with a big, tenor voice, Ross Parsley, directed the musicians and the crowd, leading us and them and the choir as the guitarists kicked on the fuzz and the drummer pounded the music toward arena-rock frenzy. Two fog machines on each side of the stage filled the sanctuary with white clouds. Pod-shaped projectors cast a light show across the ceiling, giant spinning white snowflakes and cartwheeling yellow flowers and a shimmering blue water-effect. “Prepare the way!” shouted Worship Pastor Ross. “Prepare the way! The King is coming!” Across the stage teens began leaping straight up, a dance that swept across the arena: kids hopped, old men hopped, middle-aged women hopped. Spinners wheeled out from the ranks and danced like dervishes around the stage. The light pods dilated and blasted the sanctuary with red. Worship Pastor Ross roared: “Let the King of Glory enter in!” Ushers rushed through the crowds throwing out rainbow glow strings.

Soldiers of Christ, Part two , written by Chris Hedges (author of War is a Force That Gives Our Life Meaning ), focuses more on a convention of religious broadcasters in CA....

Within the exhibition hall on the first floor, 320 display booths—and, at the far end of the hall, the twisted remains of an Israeli bus blown up by Palestinian suicide bombers in Jerusalem—float on an enormous sea of soft blue carpeting. The Israeli tourism ministry has one of the largest display spaces in the hall. People from the Christian Law Association hand out yardsticks filled with gum. A Virginia web-design company offers “church websites the way God intended.”

That last web-design item is one of the few laughs to be had in these articles. These groups are not on the laughable 'fringe' anymore. As he makes his way to the airport, Hedges muses:

I can’t help but recall the words of my ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, Dr. James Luther Adams, who told us that when we were his age, and he was then close to eighty, we would all be fighting the “Christian fascists.”

He gave us that warning twenty-five years ago, when Pat Robertson and other prominent evangelists began speaking of a new political religion that would direct its efforts at taking control of all major American institutions, including mainstream denominations and the government, so as to transform the United States into a global Christian empire. At the time, it was hard to take such fantastic rhetoric seriously. But fascism, Adams warned, would not return wearing swastikas and brown shirts. Its ideological inheritors would cloak themselves in the language of the Bible; they would come carrying crosses and chanting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Adams had watched American intellectuals and industrialists flirt with fascism in the 1930s. Mussolini’s “Corporatism,” which created an unchecked industrial and business aristocracy, had appealed to many at the time as an effective counterweight to the New Deal. In 1934, Fortune magazine lavished praise on the Italian dictator for his defanging of labor unions and his empowerment of industrialists at the expense of workers. Then as now, Adams said, too many liberals failed to understand the power and allure of evil, and when the radical Christians came, these people would undoubtedly play by the old, polite rules of democracy long after those in power had begun to dismantle the democratic state. Adams had watched German academics fall silent or conform. He knew how desperately people want to believe the comfortable lies told by totalitarian movements, how easily those lies lull moderates into passivity.

Adams told us to watch closely the Christian right’s persecution of homosexuals and lesbians....Homosexuals and lesbians, Adams said, would be the first “deviants” singled out by the Christian right. We would be the next.

Hyperbole? No one wants to sound like Chicken Little, but these people quietly wield tremendous political power already. President Bush, Senate Majority Leader Frist and countless other office holders owe their jobs - present and/or future - to these people.

Even though I've quoted a lot from these articles, I've given you only a very small taste. Selective quotation makes them seem hyperbolic: I don't believe they are. I'd urge everyone to take half an hour or so and read them both in their entirety.

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