Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Are you running with me, Jesus?” the Rev. Malcolm Boyd once asked. To which Catholic Supply of St. Louis enthusiastically replies, you bet.

Log on to the company’s Web site to find Jesus Sports Statues, a line of figurines featuring the son of God lending support and inspiration to kids on the playing field. For the junior halfback in the family, there is Jesus handing off the ball as he brushes off a hugging tackler. For Little Leaguers, there is Jesus giving batting tips. Soccer moms can purchase Jesus on the run, ball at his sandaled toe, passing to his young teammates.

Unfortunately, Jesus apparently does not support Title IX; there is no slam-dunk Jesus for aspiring WNBA-ers. On the bright side, the firm does sell St. Christopher sports medals for girls, as long as they stick to games like tennis and volleyball.

There is a ready market for this kitsch. Contrary to earlier reports, God is not dead, particularly not among young people. In conversations and focus groups with kids and teens, Irma Zandl of Zandl Group finds that “everyone is praying all of a sudden.” Forget about the dreams of dot-com millions. “More young people are saying their biggest wish is to go to heaven and be with God when they die,” the firm reports.

Teen religiosity came out of the closet in the wake of Columbine with the story of high school martyr Cassie Bernall. Cassie was the one who paid the ultimate penalty for standing up for her faith when asked by the Columbine killers if she believed in God. If Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were still around, they would be disheartened to know that Cassie has inspired something of a mini-cult, with relics such as books, videos and bracelets emblazoned with her words, “Yes, I believe,” celebrating her memory.

In fact, Harris and Klebold would find that religion is not only alive and well at school but burgeoning, thanks to Supreme Court decisions and changing federal policy during the ’90s. On today’s playground, the slogan “What would Jesus do?” has at least as much currency as “Whassup?”

For example, See You at the Pole, a movement initiated by some Texas high school kids in 1994, organizes an annual student-led religious demonstration in which kids are urged to gather around the school flagpole to pray. Last year, the group claims, 3 million kids participated.

The youth religious revival is not sectarian. After all, respect for diversity is an article of faith among the young, too. This means there is room for observant young Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Wiccans (yes, even paganism has gotten a boost). It’s not any one religion that’s cool, but religiosity itself.

Nevertheless, Christianity has the overwhelming market share in this country, so that is where most of the action is. Christian musical acts fill huge venues with fervent yet well-behaved fans. Hybrid Good Book/sci-fi page-turners sell in numbers that John Grisham might envy. The Christian subculture that flowered in the ’90s represents a kind of alternative universe to the godless world of secular branding. And it uses all the slickest tricks of marketing to sell very different kinds of messages.

Nowhere is this more evident than in religious marketing to the young. Jesus Sports Statues are the not-so-distant cousins to promotional Gandalf tchotchkes from the fast-food joint. Meanwhile, the Bible is being sold to kids like Mountain Dew. Teens in search of the Word can find it in the Extreme Teen Bible, with its purple cover and snowboard-type logos. If that’s not to their liking, there’s the Extreme Faith Youth Bible. Fans of the X Games might respond to Cross Train: Blast Through the Bible Front to Back, while hard-core rebels with a cause can get inspiration from Bad to the Bone: Fifteen Cool Bible Heroes Who Lived Radical Lives for God.

Yet I wonder whether the age of MTV-modeled religious marketing to teens isn’t coming to an end. These books, all published in the last three years, already seem a little dated, along with so much other “edgy” marketing. An effect of Sept. 11 has been to take the nation’s long-documented turn toward “spirituality” (a less polarizing term than “religion”) and put it front and center. Now advertisers and their agencies, many of whom already think about brands in quasi-religious terms, really do face the challenge of responding to consumers’ reawakened yearning for community and spiritual comfort.

If up to now contemporary religion has taken its marketing cues from secular branding, in the near future secular branding may well take its cues from religion.