Christianity Inc.

His image is used to promote cement companies and bakeries, and to sell music CDs, videotapes, T-shirts, hats, mugs, and potato chips. His tours attract corporate sponsors like Federal Express, Mercedes-Benz, Kodak, Hewlett-Packard, and Pepsi.

We're not talking about Michael Jordan, nor Michael Jackson, nor the reigning pop music or movie idol du jour, but about the brave new world of Pope John Paul II, the world's most desirable product endorser. At a time when for-profit culture industries orchestrate human attention to an unprecedented degree, we now witness a strange kind of institutional overlap where religious groups adopt the latest in advertising and marketing techniques and corporations sell their wares by exploiting deeply treasured religious symbols, images, and stories.

Given the stature and aura that still surround the church and papacy for many people, it remains jarring to see examples like these:

—To finance the pope's 1998 visit to Mexico City, the Archdiocese of Mexico City received corporate sponsorship from more than two dozen firms. The single largest sponsor was the Pepsi-owned Sabritas chip company, which paid $1.8 million for the right to use the pope's image in its packaging. The Spanish-language play on words—"Las Papas del Papa" ("The Potatoes of the Pope") was lost on absolutely no one. Equally obvious was the seemingly inescapable TV and billboard ads connecting the pope's picture with Bimbo bread, a local cement company, and other joint promotions between the church and its corporate benefactors....

—In 1999, the Vatican approved a licensing deal with Miami-based Siesta Telecom to issue a Pope John Paul II pre-paid phone card. The card comes with a signed certificate and the pope's likeness on the card; the company already sells phone cards with the Virgin Mary's picture on them. According to Dave Estep, vice president for sales and marketing for Siesta, "Through our business, people will not only be able to buy something that is very useful, but will be gaining a spiritual blessing through the messages sent by the Pope."...

Volvo now claims its cars will "save your soul," MCI uses priests to testify to the reliability of its rate plans, and one particular detergent claims for itself power to wash clean even the Shroud of Turin. Gatorade has built an entire theology—maybe even a new religion—around the person of His Airness (maybe it should be His Holiness), Michael Jordan.... Mercedes-Benz promises a litany of blessings and ends up with the slogan, "Sacrifice Nothing."...

This strange convergence—traditional churches embracing advertising/marketing techniques and ideologies, and marketers eager to utilize Christianity to sell goods, services, lifestyles, and attitudes—begs for explanation. From the ecclesial side, the embrace of marketing flows from a variety of church weaknesses; for the advertisers, religious symbols and metaphors represent yet another cultural resource to be mined and exploited until no longer useful. For both, the object of the game is formation....

The intriguing question is not whether capitalist culture will continue to shape hearts and imaginations more thoroughly than the Way of the Cross, but whether the churches will produce people able to tell the difference between the two.

From Christianity Incorporated: How Big Business is Buying the Church, by Michael Budde and Robert Brimlow, © 2002 Brazos Press. Used with permission.

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