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The Last Word

Selling Faith
 

Conservative Christian entertainment is alive and well in the United States today. At the time of this writing The Passion of the Christ is the number one movie in the U.S. having earned more than $200 million in just 12 days. Consumers have snapped up over 55 million copies of the Left Behind series of books based on interpretations of end time events in the book of Revelation. Veggie Tales, the popular cartoon video series with a Christian message, has sold over 21 million copies since 1994. Popular recording artists like P.O.D. regularly address spiritual issues in their music and videos.

Why the sudden fascination with evangelical Christian entertainment? Although journalists and others have pointed to everything from a conservative political climate to the aftermath of September 11th as explanations, the truth of the matter is that Americans have long been captivated with religious entertainment, a point that historian R. Laurence Moore illustrates in his superb book, Selling God. For well over 200 years Americans have combined their religion with popular culture, purchasing religious books, singing hymns whose musical structures were taken from popular drinking songs, and attending religious revivals.

I suppose what makes the commercial success of The Passion of the Christ, Veggie Tales, and the Left Behind series surprising (and perhaps a little unnerving) to some is that the popularity of conservative religious entertainment is sometimes thought to reflect an increase in numbers and cultural influence of evangelicals in the United States. Evangelicals have seemingly come from nowhere to exert their political and cultural power. Collectively, it is argued, they have become a force to be reckoned with. They demand popular entertainment that reflects their worldview and since their numbers are larger then ever before, they get what they want.

Current estimates suggest that there are somewhere between 25 to 75 million evangelicals in this country (depending on how one defines the term). Yet these rates have remained relatively stable over the past three or so decades which would seem to rule out the idea that the recent visibility of evangelical entertainment is due primarily to an increase in the number of evangelicals.

Personally, I think that the journalists, cultural critics, and scholars who feel that evangelical demand is responsible for the popularity of evangelical entertainment are missing something very important. Namely, that how a product is produced and distributed can sometimes better explain its popularity. I would argue that changes in how evangelicals have marketed and distributed their products have contributed to increased visibility and sales far more than increased consumer demand. In short, it’s just as much (if not more) about supply than demand. Let me explain…

The industry primarily produced Bible study materials, Southern Gospel music, and home décor until the early 1970s. The countercultural movement and the subsequent Jesus Movement created a climate that encouraged the industry to focus their evangelistic efforts on baby boomers in their teens and early twenties. The industry began mimicking the commercial entertainment found in the counterculture, producing Christian rock and other forms of “hip” youth-oriented popular culture in order to evangelize members of this generation.

The market continued to mature throughout the 1980s and 1990s but three things happened that changed the way evangelical entertainment was produced and distributed. First, the industry quickly discovered that most of their sales were generated by members of the evangelical Christian community and not non-Christians. In essence, their evangelistic efforts weren’t very effective. Second, a study commissioned by the industry in the 1980s revealed that only 10 percent of evangelical Christians frequented Christian bookstores, the primary outlet for conservative Christian popular culture. And finally, many of the largest Christian record labels and book publishers either partnered with or were purchased outright by non-Christian companies.

The industry quickly responded. By the late 1980s Christians had become the primary targeted marketing group. The industry redirected its efforts away from the evangelization of non-Christians to ministering to (and entertaining) fellow evangelicals. Christian companies began to use their new partnerships with non-Christian companies to distribute their products to places where 90 percent of evangelicals shopped… namely, discount chains and box stores like Barnes & Noble, Borders, Target and Wal-Mart. Evangelicals who never frequented Christian retail stores were now able to see and purchase Christian products. This has had an enormous effect on Christian retailing. Not only have sales increased to make the industry one that sells over $5 billion per year, it is now estimated by some that close to 50 percent of all industry sales are now through non-Christian retailers like Wal-Mart and Barnes and Noble.

What this suggests is that The Passion of the Christ, Veggie Tales, and other evangelical forms of entertainment are not reflective of an evangelical resurgence, only a shift in marketing and distribution to reach evangelicals that never shopped in Christian retail stores. The visibility and increased sales of evangelical popular culture has more to do with how these products are distributed and marketed than an increase in evangelical numbers or even cultural influence. We are becoming more aware of evangelical entertainment because it has entered the mainstream through new channels of distribution. So for those who fear that the popularity of The Passion of the Christ and other evangelical cultural items are symptomatic of an evangelical resurgence I would say don’t worry… you’re merely looking at the wrong side of the equation.

Charles M. Brown, Ph.D.
– Charles M. Brown, Ph.D.

is assistant professor of sociology.
He studies and writes about
Christian popular culture.

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