What Falwell Never Learned

Jerry Falwell was not a diminutive man in any sense of the word, but he died yesterday diminished. Falwell's star rose in the 1980s -- he was an anachronism who elbowed his way onto the national stage alongside Gordon Gecko and MTV, showing the rest of America that religious fundamentalism still thrived in a decade more associated with the seven deadly sins than the four Gospels. Falwell's legacy -- the fact that fundamentalist preachers control enough votes for the Republican Party to seem congenitally addicted to them -- is clear enough. But those who seek to walk in Falwell's political footsteps learned something from the decade of greed that Falwell never did: Christianity, like anything else, needs to be packaged, marketed, and consumed.

In addition to his crusade as leader of the ludicrously fashioned Moral Majority, Falwell was also known as a televangelist, a term that in the '80s became associated with the scandals of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. (The former made a mint selling nonexistent shares in Heritage USA, the latter got caught visiting a prostitute.) Bakker and Swaggart rose and fell in the '80s, and showed, after their falls, that they understand how to repackage and sell themselves. Bakker, now out of jail on his fraud conviction, has a new gig headquartered in Branson, Missouri, the city Homer Simpson once described as Las Vegas with Ned Flanders in charge. Swaggart is back on television in the Bible Belt, selling -- of course -- a CD featuring the title track, "Jesus Dropped the Charges." In the good old American tradition, Bakker and Swaggart not only reinvented themselves but also understood -- albeit with a gross lack of Christian humility -- the rules of consumerism. Falwell, on the other hand, always seemed trapped in a time warp, not understanding that "Moral Majority" simply wasn't good branding. In 2004, his unimaginative attempt to reinvent himself through the Moral Majority Coalition fizzled.

Although Swaggart and Bakker's second-life self-promotion has hardly earned them the followings they once enjoyed, they taught the current generation of televangelists far more about marketing and branding than Falwell ever could. While the rest of America wasn't looking, still giggling and gloating over Bakker's conviction and Swaggart's tearful television confession, a new crop of televangelists was rising to prominence. Look at the "most influential" lists and you will see their names: Rod Parsley, John Hagee, and Paul Crouch, the head of the largest religious broadcasting network in the world, Trinity Broadcasting Network. Three years ago, Crouch, a close personal friend of John Ashcroft, was accused of the sin of sins -- homosexuality -- but clever PR and TBN's brand got him out of that pinch. He still presides over a $300 million empire that controls the airwaves through which his stable of televangelists peddles their wares.

The number one product they sell is the promise of personal prosperity. Never mind that it's elusive, and possibly unattainable in the economy created by their Republican political allies; these prosperity preachers market hope and take people's faith all the way to the bank. Sure, such evangelists also preach about sin and hell and have attempted, all in their own ways, to make political careers out of condemning gay people, equating abortion with genocide, and calling for a Middle East policy that they believe will culminate in the Second Coming. But these prosperity preachers have a following because their branding appeals to people.

American popular culture -- the evil secularism of "War On Christmas" fame -- may have de-Jesusified Easter through colored eggs and chocolate bunnies, but it's Rod Parsley who has turned the holiday into a money-making venture. This year, just $85 would buy you a harvest of miracles: a stress-free home and family, divine health, and uncommon financial favor, according to an e-mail solicitation from Parsley's television show, "Breakthrough." John Hagee tells his congregation to tithe to him before paying the rent or the car payment. It's God's money, you know, and you'll never get rich by keeping it to yourself.

Perhaps the most blatant branding takes place in those arenas where fundamentalist Christianity's Generation Next is learning the consumerism game. Teen Mania, the most prominent organization proselytizing to teens and one closely allied with many of the prosperity preachers, brings its Jesus-palooza festival, Acquire the Fire, to cities all across America. I went to one in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the heart of the Bible Belt and birthplace of prosperity preaching, where kids were implored to get "branded by God." Speakers urged kids to stop watching MTV and shopping at Aeropostale, and to instead obtain God's brand, "the mark of a warrior." The organizers, who would have pleased Falwell with their enforcement of pledges of abstinence and heterosexuality, nonetheless understood that the kids wanted to wear hip (though modest) clothes and listen to (Christian) rock bands that sang songs like "Jesus, consume me from the inside out." Falwell may have put Jesus in the center of political debate, but the new generation knows how to brand him.

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