Last September AT&T approached the financially struggling First Christian Church in Alexandria, Virginia, with this bargain: In return for letting the company erect a 130-foot-tall cross doubling as a cellular phone tower, the congregation would receive $18,000 annually. Residents were split: Was the money--in the words of the Reverend Tim Mabbott, who supported the idea--a "blessing from God" or simply a Faustian kickback?
Cell phones have limited range--one to eight miles, typically--so calls must be placed near a tower. This is fine if a call is made from a nearby office, but not if it's from a cab moving out of range. In this latter case, another cell phone tower must pick up the signal the way a runner takes a baton from his team-mate. Cell phone towers are often hidden in pre-existing structures--trees, water towers, even church steeples-- but this time, lacking other options, the company wanted to build a stealth site from scratch.
In a fit of corporate diplomacy, AT&T representatives held two community meetings to pitch their idea: a tall white cross, three feet wide, with an eight-foot-high cable box at its base. They swaggered into the church meeting. The cross seemed symbolically appropriate, a case study of win-win straight out of Negotiating 101. For the church, 18 grand meant a lot of Sunday break-fasts; for the company, the tower meant thousands of happy cell phonetoting lobbyists buzzing other lobby-ists in the high-tech corridor of northern Virginia.
But in the end, company representatives left with their tails between their legs. Though the congregation eventually voted for the proposal, "residents were highly offended by the merging of the corporate and the religious," said Alexa Graf, spokesperson for AT&T, and the company backed out.
Meanwhile, AT&T is still searching for a home for its tower: The First Baptist Church rejected it. A proposal is pending at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial but is unlikely to pass, according to Executive Secretary-Treasurer George Seghers: "I don't think we want it."
In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Our Ford--inventor of the first Model T--replaces Our Lord, and consumerism succeeds Christianity as the new religion: "All crosses had their tops cut and became T's." Looks like AT&T's vision of this religious-commercial complex is, for the time being, on hold.