God And The Holidays

Got God? Your holiday sales may depend on it. Just in time for the all-important yuletide season, marketers from Hollywood to Okeechobee are tapping religious faith in the pursuit of heavenly profits.

Take Diane Duyser. Just days before Thanksgiving, the 52-year-old Floridian made $28,000 on eBay from the sale of a 10-year-old, partially eaten grilled-cheese sandwich said to feature the face of the Virgin Mary seared into its surface. In response, others began hawking sandwiches supposedly bearing the images of everything from the Virgin Mary’s used chewing gum to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

And why not? Even in an election year that saw both major parties pander to the faithful, God is emerging less as a red state/blue state issue as one that’s decidedly green. Intent on harvesting more than a few pennies from heaven, a disturbing number of marketers seem hell-bent on turning manna into some serious moolah.

Look at Mel Gibson. After brilliantly enlisting evangelicals to help turn his $30 million, self-financed crucifixion flick into a $600 million bonanza, he’s found new ways to capitalize on Christ’s misery. Who on your gift list could resist the sterling-silver pendant shaped like the nails Roman soldiers drove through Jesus’ palms? Or the Passion Cross with Christ Mug, the Passion Men’s 14Kt Gold Ring, and the nylon Bible case with nail-shaped zipper pull? There’s even a catchy tagline: “Dying was His reason for living.”

Still, no one compares to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the bafflingly successful Left Behind book series. Does your husband hanker for adventure novels? Nothing says “I love you” like the Left Behind box set, which foretells an apocalypse where anyone who doesn’t hold certain fundamentalist views—such as many Christians, Muslims and Jews, for instance—is thrown screaming into the fiery pits of hell.

At LeftBehind.com, you’ll find “end time” trivia games, calendars, music, comic books, etc. There’s even a $6.50-a-month online Prophesy Club newsletter.

As Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times recently put it, “This isn’t religion, this is brand management.” Maybe so. But just imagine the Rockwellian tableau of kids sipping eggnog in their PJ’s on Christmas morning as they contemplate eternal damnation.

Of course, while the piety of some of the year’s hottest religion-themed products may be questionable, the profits are nothing short of righteous. The Left Behind empire, for instance, has already earned more than $1 billion in revenue worldwide, according to Christian Retailing.

To be fair, many of these products have evangelized to, and inspired, millions of people around the world. Proceeds from many of them have generated massive amounts of funding for good causes. (Jenkins, for instance, tells the Times that 20-40 percent of his income goes to charity.) And none of the ribbing here is meant to disparage anyone’s faith, or the motivations behind any of these offerings.

But still, with millions made off Christ’s ancient sacrifice and the prophesied suffering of others, what’s left over from Left Behind, The Passion of the Christ and their brand extensions would probably bring a blush to Ebenezer Scrooge.

No wonder major marketers from Simon & Schuster to News Corp. to EMI are racing to develop their own religious products—a $5.7 billion market, according to Market Research.com.

Surely some of these new products will enhance people’s spiritual lives. But far too many will reduce cherished symbols of faith, including my own, to so many trinkets and trash.

Of course, few will ever come close to Duyser’s return on investment. But, with God as their witness, many are making millions from some unsavory cheese of their own.