We talk a lot about Christianity being, in essence, a business–which makes evangelistic Christians into salespeople for their worldview, which then becomes simply a product they’re pushing at prospective customers, who will–they hope–then go on to purchase the product by adopting that worldview. In the past, for various reasons, Christianity didn’t need sophisticated sales techniques or a particularly proficient sales force. That’s changed significantly over time, but Christians haven’t adapted to that new reality. Well, now there’s another similarity to the business world that we can add to the growing list: Christianity is a brand of sorts, and slowly–oh, very slowly!–the religion’s leaders are starting to recognize just how tainted that brand really is. Today I’ll show you one of the most important recent developments in the religion–and the surreally out-of-touch course of action that Christians are suggesting as a response to that development.
Lying for Jesus
Most of us have already heard about lying for Jesus. That’s when a Christian utters a baldfaced lie (often one very easy to disprove or see right through) for what they consider to be a good cause. The “good cause” varies. Often the lie is told as part of an evangelism effort the Christian is making–the lie might be part or all of the Christian’s own sales pitch (called a testimony), or the Christian might lie later to others in and out of the tribe about how effective the pitch was. Other times, you’ll see the lie told to hide something the Christian is doing that they know would hurt their credibility. Entire groups will often lie to hide criminal activity, as well.
The one thing that unites all of these liars-for-Jesus is that they think the lie serves a greater purpose. They’re keeping their eyes on the prize; they’re thinking in the long term. They see themselves as enemy agents in a hostile land, and lying is the very least of the compromising deeds they will need to commit to carry out their master’s bidding. When another Christian criticizes these liars for being dishonest, the critic will often be the one who is vilified and demonized for muzzling the oxen or putting a bushel basket over the light.
(These exact phrases came up, in fact, when I dared criticize my then-husband Biff for lying during his testimony. None of our peers had a problem with Biff’s lies, only me. Obviously the problem was that I didn’t want people to go to Heaven. I got guilt-tripped with lurid tales of people burning in Hell just because I was too nice and precious to lie to them a little to get them “saved.” When I noticed the Crisis Pregnancy Center manual’s use of this exact same tactic, it didn’t take me long to connect the dots and deconvert!)
Christians show every single day that they are perfectly willing to break their own rules in order to make sales or increase their own standing and credibility in others’ eyes.
Freedom for me–but not for thee.
It’s not just a phrase; it’s a way of life.
But now that way of life is being challenged by a most unlikely newcomer to Christianity: Consumer choice.
I’m sure it’s all very, very scary and unfamiliar to a lot of them still, but it sure doesn’t look like that situation is going to change anytime soon.
Now, suddenly, Christians know the awesome power–and the terrible fragility–of a religious brand as their own stands not above the great global marketplace of ideas where they are accustomed to being, but rather shoulder-to-shoulder alongside all those other ideas jostling for consumers’ attention.
The power of a label
A company or group’s brand is its most cherished asset. There was a time when brand names didn’t particularly exist in America–and it wasn’t that long ago that things changed. Imagine a time when you might go to the store for cereal, flour, potatoes, or fabric and you got it all out of barrels or bins or bolts or bales with not much in the way of brands listed anywhere at all.
This way of distributing and selling goods had its limitations, obviously; one of the biggest limitations was that if a manufacturer did choose (against all economic sense, almost) to create goods of better quality, nothing stopped another manufacturer from claiming that rival’s brand name–or making false claims about their own goods’ quality. Customers had no way to know who was telling the truth and who was lying–they could only trust, blindly, that what they were buying was what they thought it was.
Food manufacturers in the 1800s quickly saw the potential of a protected, registered brand name as a way to allay customers’ concerns about quality. Smaller boxes that could be sealed tightly kept out moisture and at least some of the bugs, preventing spoilage, and boxes represented a great expanse of advertising potential. John Harvey Kellogg, C.W. Post, and many others began to brand their boxes with their company name and blurbs about their product. Very quickly, laws evolved and were created starting in the early 20th century to protect these manufacturers from fakes and imitators.
Even in those heady early days, brand names and their perceived quality levels were important.
The power of a name brand
Now most people are familiar with store brands–product lines that aren’t associated directly with recognizable name brands. Wal-Mart alone operates dozens, even hundreds of store brands. Equate, Ol’ Roy, Parent’s Choice, and Great Value compete on shelves with Johnson & Johnson, Purina, Wyeth, and Sara Lee–and ironically, often the name-brand product competing with the store brand on Wal-Mart’s shelves was produced in the same factories by the same company.
These store brands claim to keep costs down by not buying advertising and marketing, but to be the exact same quality as the name brands. I’ll leave that question to philosophers. It seems like most people maintain a mental list of which products must be a certain brand, and which can be a store brand or other brand; I’m no different. When it comes out that a store-brand product is nowhere near the same quality as its name-brand cousin, I’m not sure anybody’s really surprised–even when that difference in quality turns out to be dealbreaking.
But all these store brands likely couldn’t exist without a significant change in the way that these products were originally labeled. When I was a kid, we called store brands “generics” and dreaded seeing their packages show up in our parents’ paper grocery sacks. They were like a stamp of poverty: pure white boxes with black words on the front, looking like nothing so much as military labeling, announcing the boxes’ contents and ingredients. Even the generic-labeled beer was depressing (it was a pure white can with “BEER” printed on the front). The contents of these packages were uniformly the same too: almost, but not quite, entirely unlike whatever they were imitating.
I’m not sure when those labeling customs (maybe even requirements) changed, but the shift opened the door for more families to consider switching to these store brands for monetary reasons–without that stinging slap of shame from those stark white labels. The NYT has a piece from 1986 about how generic products’ labeling was starting to change to look more colorful and resemble more closely the real brands they sought to replace, and the timing sounds about right.
We all absorbed, no doubt, the lessons of those “generics.” Brands are important. Brands are everything. Brands are an expression of both personal choice and consumer power. The power to choose one brand over another is important too–because those brands reflect not only who we are, but who we want to be.
At least, that’s the lesson manufacturers wanted us to take from these years.
Little wonder that the same era is responsible for bringing the world designer jeans.
(I wasn’t immune by any stretch. My preferred brand of jeans as a high-school girl in the 80s was Jordache. I even had a red fabric wallet with their line-art horse-head logo screen-printed on it. My dad carried a strikingly similar wallet, except without the logo. I’ll let you imagine the comedy of errors that ensued one time when those two facts collided. Yeah. I’m sure he was quite surprised that morning when he got to work on-base and had to show his ID to the gate guards and discovered only my then-boyfriend’s Olan Mills photo in the clear card pocket.)
When a scandal breaks out about a company’s brand, it’s a potential catastrophe for that company. Their entire future might be at stake if the scandal can’t be contained and defeated somehow. Forbes describes what they see as the worst possible ways for a brand to become tainted:
- Violating your brand promise
- Violating values that are important to your followers
And I can see both of those, yeah. Remember how many movies seem to end with a climax like we see at the end of 1989’s UHF, where the villainous R.J. Fletcher accidentally reveals to his hometown exactly what he thinks of them?
The scientist in the scene is the one who planted the spycam. No, he never gets in trouble for it. These were the 1980s.
And that scene unfolds exactly like all the others featuring similar denouements: Fletcher is rejected by the townsfolk. He loses his entire broadcasting company. People hit him and push him into the mud. In the end, only the town’s homeless guy shows him any sympathy. These scenes all feature a brand imploding to the tune of a million justice boners popping forth.
That implosion can happen in realtime too, especially if the brand depends upon one person upholding the brand’s promises and vision. If it’s a larger company, it’s far less likely that the damage will be fatal—but it can be. If the betrayal is seen as serious enough, consumers will reject the brand to the point where the company owning it is at risk.
Southern Baptist Convention: A toxic brand
That’s what we see going on right now in Christianity. I noticed something that really shocked me a couple of years ago: Southern Baptist churches were avoiding using the brand “Southern Baptist Convention” (SBC) on their signage and websites. Sometimes I had to really hunt through a church or denominational website to find any hint of the affiliation. It’s like these churches were ashamed of it.
And no wonder they were. As I saw back then, people were starting to be repelled by the SBC brand. If they found out a church was SBC, that information alone was starting to make them not ever want to visit it–much less become members. And the SBC’s own research team had figured out that their brand was toxic.
Churches had known that for a while, of course, which is why they’d begun avoiding naming their links to the imploding denomination. The Wartburg Watch post where this trend initially came to my attention had been written a solid year earlier, and it was based upon a Baptist News Global piece on the same topic. So none of this should have been surprising news to the SBC’s top leadership.
I began to wonder at the time if evangelicals would ever figure out that the SBC’s brand problems were simply a small part of the religion as a whole’s issues with its own brand.
I guess we got our answer earlier last month when suddenly a splutter of articles began coming out of fundagelicals’ blogs about their newly-recognized branding problems.
Evangelicalism: Another toxic brand
It’s still a painful identity for me, coming from this election.
An evangelical student at Fuller Theological Seminary
The simple truth is that evangelical, as a label, has come to represent some really vile, horrifying qualities–and it seems like evangelicals themselves are the very last people to have figured out something this important, as usual. Valerie Tarico was calling this one a year ago.
It’s certainly taken them long enough to recognize the writing on the wall.
A process that the Chicago Tribune identifies as starting with the Reagan-era culture wars appears to have hit its final flowering in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election and then evangelicals’ subsequent near-unanimous support of Roy Moore in Alabama in last month’s election there. Those two elections, and the behavior of evangelicals throughout in support of their “godly” candidates, may have been what some folks in the tribe–particularly younger ones–needed to see to realize exactly what kind of people they’d aligned themselves with.
Ed Stetzer, onetime mouthpiece of the SBC and now doing much the same work at his new gig at Wheaton College, is upset because he perceives that the label “evangelical” now means “people who supported candidates with significant and credible accusations against them.”
You know it’s got to be serious if Ed Stetzer is upset.
And as usual, the exact same response we’ve come to expect
What, you might ask, are evangelical Christians doing now that they realize that their brand is this irrevocably and irredeemably tainted?
They’re talking about adopting a totally different label while keeping all the horrible stuff that they like being and doing.
I’m not kidding.
I wish I were.
Over at Christianity Today, we see the writers there deciding that yes, evangelicalism as a concept is “a broken word describing broken people in a broken movement.” But in the end they decide that the ideas are still totally awesome and “Good News,” not noticing that this “Good News” has created exactly the toxicity they describe.
Scot McKnight, over at the Patheos Evangelical channel, declares that “it’s time to bury the word ‘evangelical.” His reasoning: “The word ‘evangelical’ now means Trump-voter.” He says he’s going to call himself Anglican. There’s no indication about whether or not he still supports all the culture wars that led his tribe straight to Donald Trump and Roy Moore, however.
Over at The Gospel Coalition, always a reliable source of fundagelical blathering, we find the Christians there wringing their hands over what they should call themselves now that evangelical is such a dealbreaker for their sales marks. The author concludes,
Historians (including me) will keep on using the term “evangelical” and examining what it has meant in the past. But in public references to ourselves, it is probably time to put “evangelical” on the shelf.
And then, having neatly disposed of the brand problem facing him, he moves on to wondering what label he and his tribemates should adopt now. If you were wondering, he favors “gospel Christian” or “a follower of Jesus Christ,” because that’s totally going to fool everyone, yup, yup, totally, no doubt at all, j-law-OK.gif, and we surely do hope he don’t worry his pretty l’il head too much over it because that is totally obviously going to totally fix his religion’s brand problem.
He glibly ends the post with this:
I know there are occasions where you just can’t be nuanced. But if “evangelical” has become fundamentally politicized and divisive, we can get along fine without employing the term.
I really wish I could scream the truth at him and have him really, truly hear it, I mean in a way that he can’t just rationalize away or wave his hands to dismiss or plug his fingers in his ears and chant LA LA LA LA LA over and over again, which is what it feels like fundagelicals do when confronted with uncomfortable realities about themselves. I wish I could tell him this:
Way to not notice that it’s politicized and divisive because you and your pals made it that way, dude. Adopt another term, and you’ll just taint that one too in short order because you’re still going to be the same sick, dysfunctional, diseased, dying product inside the new labeling, and nobody’s going to be fooled by your evasions and continued lies about yourselves.
Lie all you want, pretend you’re different all you want. It won’t work. We’ve seen this tactic many times already outta you lot, and you’re not nearly as good at lying as you think you are.
It truly confounds the mind and short-circuits the imagination into a Blue Screen of Death to see why Christians think that lie is going to work. But then, we’re talking about people who are so deeply committed to being horrible human beings that they will literally grab at any straws at all, even ludicrous ones, if it means they don’t have to examine their own behavior or change it. Not a single one of them is even questioning the party line about the culture wars: their war on women’s rights, their war against reproductive rights in particular, their war against LGBTQIA people, their war against children’s rights, their war against ending capital punishment, their war against sensible gun regulation, their war against ending racism, and so much more besides.
None of them are talking about changing any of that. They are literally only talking about changing the label on the same product, because they seriously think that’ll fool everyone into trusting them long enough to hear a sales pitch. And let’s be clear: they’re not the young, disaffected fundagelicals who are eschewing the label because they’re also eschewing the behaviors and attitudes that go into the label. They’re literally just the same old fundagelicals that we know and loathe–and as sterling example of their general lack of character, they’ve decided that the label–and not they themselves–must be the problem causing their tribe’s sharp declines in so many directions.
Having thus decided that they can’t possibly be the issue here, their stated solution to the problem they see is to simply lie about it and misrepresent themselves. Oh, they may be just as politicized and divisive as their brand-name peers–hell, they may even be worse. But they’d rather further alienate their potential marks–and stir our distrust of them to ever-greater heights–than actually examine why their behavior might possibly be causing their brand to tank with their marks.
So if you run into a Christian who is as curiously evasive about their beliefs as any MLM distributor is about exactly why they want to go to lunch with you all of a sudden, that’s why.
I’m looking forward to seeing the first waves of liars-for-Jesus trying to pretend that they’re totally not evangelicals with more-hardcore-than-thou doublespeak about being followers of JAY-zus and the like. Oh, my, you just know they’ll be cranking those Preacher Eyebrows up to 11 while they do it. Yes, I’m looking forward to it.
The resulting metaphorical carnage in the waters promises to be glorious.