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August 11th, 2008

Blood Into Money

From Forbes Magazine comes this account of Jerry Falwell’s money machine…

Biblical Bling

Hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the ministries of Bible Belt televangelists in the 1970s-80s. But these fortunes would never have materialized without a secular weapon from the North–a Massachusetts marketing outfit begun by a group of twenty-something Harvard business school grads called Epsilon Data Management. Falwell began using the company in 1976; he was the first televangelist to sign up. When his contributions exploded, other preachers like Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Oral Roberts and Rex Humbard contracted with Epsilon and made a pile, too.

Before Epsilon, Oral Roberts used punch tape-driven Friden Flexo-writers. Billy Graham handwrote every homespun fundraising appeal himself. "You could see the buckwheat flying off the paper," recalls Gaylord Briley, one of the top religious fundraisers of the era. In a few years Epsilon was doing work for 7 of the top 10 televangelists in America. 

Two threads joined together in the 1970s to produce the political machine we now know as the religious right.  In the early 1970s, the feds began challenging the tax exemption of many fundamentalist schools over their race segregation policies.  I’ve blogged about that previously Here

But the spark that lit the roaring fire that eventually consumed the republican party wasn’t integration specifically…

In a recent interview broadcast on CNN the day of his death, Falwell offered his version of the Christian right’s genesis: "We were simply driven into the process by Roe v. Wade and earlier than that, the expulsion of God from the public square." But his account was fuzzy revisionism at best. By 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled on Roe, the antiabortion movement was almost exclusively Catholic. While various Catholic cardinals condemned the Court’s ruling, W.A. Criswell, the fundamentalist former president of America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, casually endorsed it. (Falwell, an independent Baptist for forty years, joined the SBC in 1996.) "I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person," Criswell exclaimed, "and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed." A year before Roe, the SBC had resolved to press for legislation allowing for abortion in limited cases.

While abortion clinics sprung up across the United States during the early 1970s, evangelicals did little. No pastors invoked the Dred Scott decision to undermine the legal justification for abortion. There were no clinic blockades, no passionate cries to liberate the "pre-born." For Falwell and his allies, the true impetus for political action came when the Supreme Court ruled in Green v. Connally to revoke the tax-exempt status of racially discriminatory private schools in 1971. Their resentment was compounded in 1971 when the Internal Revenue Service attempted to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, which forbade interracial dating. (Blacks were denied entry until that year.) Falwell was furious, complaining, "In some states it’s easier to open a massage parlor than to open a Christian school."

Seeking to capitalize on mounting evangelical discontent, a right-wing Washington operative and anti-Vatican II Catholic named Paul Weyrich took a series of trips down South to meet with Falwell and other evangelical leaders. Weyrich hoped to produce a well-funded evangelical lobbying outfit that could lend grassroots muscle to the top-heavy Republican Party and effectively mobilize the vanquished forces of massive resistance into a new political bloc. In discussions with Falwell, Weyrich cited various social ills that necessitated evangelical involvement in politics, particularly abortion, school prayer and the rise of feminism. His implorations initially fell on deaf ears.

"I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed," Weyrich recalled in an interview in the early 1990s. "What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation."

Dig it.  It wasn’t abortion.  It wasn’t militant homosexuality.  It wasn’t rampant sexual hedonism.  It wasn’t the secularization of America’s schools.  It wasn’t even racism, that lit the fire the brought the fundamentalist leadership charging into our political system in a blind destructive frenzy.  It was their tax exemption.  It was money.

The second thread is the advent of computerized direct marketing.  Richard Viguerie was a pioneer in its use for the republican party.  Viguerie had more then a mailing list.  His genius was in applying computerized database analysis techniques to it, tracking the giving patterns of the names in his database.  He paired that with a ruthless analysis of which marketing campaigns worked, and which did not.  Viguerie, a right wing extremist, wasn’t interested in informing the republican base so much as in pushing their buttons so they would open their wallets and go to the polls.  And he got results.  With his database and direct mailing technique, Viguerie almost single-handedly turned around the fortunes of the Republicans after Watergate. 

Remember, this was a time before the Internet, before the widespread use of cable TV and the appearance of 24 hour cable news, before even talk radio as we know it today, with its national audiences and personalities.  Viguerie showed the republicans how they could bypass the news media of that day, and not only get their their message out on their own terms, but do it below the radar of the popular culture.  His mail appeals were Targeted.  The message was tailored and precise, and didn’t have to appear in any newspaper or television ad where the rest of the country could see it too. 

Falwell saw the success of Viguerie’s technique, and revamped his own direct mailing effort…

Computerized database marketing turned the late 1970s into an era known as the golden age of direct mail prospecting. Direct mail was still an almost clandestine medium. The content of such correspondence was rarely exposed to media scrutiny. Falwell crafted his letters with theological abandon, hitting his mortal enemies with blunt force. Epsilon led Falwell to discover that the secret to steady income is consistency; getting lots of donors to give a little, but regularly. Epsilon also taught Falwell that most donor lists contain "compulsive contributors"–usually amounting to four percent of the list, says Briley. 

These twin threads of course, have a common root.  Money.  It was all about the money.  That is why there is a religious right today.  And that is why they’ve made common cause with the corporate world, the world of Caesar, the world of mammon, that they once disdained.  When Carter went after their tax exemptions, they found had a lot in common with those kings of business after all.

And how do you push the rube’s buttons enough so they’ll give you money, over and over and over again?   Well…here’s one way…

Besides Epsilon, Falwell had the formidable talent of Jerry Huntsinger. Then 45, he was a former minister who lived on a farm near Richmond who had been taking advertising concepts from the for-profit world and applying them to nonprofit religious ventures. Huntsinger brought a novelist’s touch to direct mail. He considered every fundraising letter a first cousin to the short story. "A short story has a problem that seems insurmountable, a sympathetic character that is a victim of the problem, complications and obstacles, but finally, a resolution." He advised his clients that emergency appeals work best because they give donors a feeling of "excitement at coming to the rescue."

Huntsinger was also a master at fine tuning the mechanics: the color of the envelope, the position of the address window, which paragraphs to indent, which sentences to underline. He knew how to lure a reader’s eye just to where he wanted.

Huntsinger encouraged Falwell to focus on wedge issues in his mailings, excoriating the feminist movement and attacking homosexual rights, often equating both with the dangers of communism. As one letter stated: "Dear Friend: Homosexuals are on the march in this country. Homosexuals do not reproduce, they recruit, and many of them are after my children and your children….This is one major reason why we must keep "The Old Time Gospel Hour" alive…So don’t delay. Let me hear from you immediately. I will be anxiously awaiting your reply."

The sense of impending doom the letter conveyed fit perfectly with Huntsinger’s operating credo. It turned a pitch into a storyline (gays on the the march) with sympathetic characters (children) under threat from sex offenders (gay pedophiles). It was an emergency appeal that sought to panic his audience into coming to the rescue.

The Forbes excerpt ends on the note that the gay bashing appeals actually raised very little money.  Given the history of the religious right’s move into politics, I don’t believe it.  Before Anita Bryant showed them that waving the gay menace at people could practically stampede them to the polls, the Falwells and the Robertsons actually did very little gay bashing.  But on the day Falwell stood by her side in front of reporters and declared that "a homosexual will kill you, soon as look at you", he knew she was on to something.

Falwell and his kind didn’t create the climate of fear and contempt toward gay people.  But in the 1970s they began to whip it into a frenzy.  For money.  Never mind all that love your neighbor as yourself crap.  The harder you push their buttons, the more they open their wallets.  And the best button of all was the Homosexuals Are On The March And They Want Your Children button.  It worked.  The money came rolling in.  For Falwell.  For Robertson.  For Dobson.  And for all the other crusaders for Christ.  The money came rolling in.

And here’s the color of money…




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