Faith & Reason: A shabby studio or a decent obscurity

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The Independent Culture
THIS YEAR'S most unlikely piece of religious news slipped through on the business pages: Pat Robertson, the American televangelist who ran for president in 1988, has joined the board of Laura Ashley. Yes, this is the same Pat Robertson who announced that the last hurricanes to hit Florida were God's righteous judgement on the city of Orlando for recognising gay partnerships. I can't wait to see how he gets on in the world of interior decoration.

Last week, a further announcement was made: that he would be joining the Bank of Scotland as an investor in a new telephone bank operating in the American Midwest. The two stories together highlight an astonishing fact about American conservative religion: that it is actually ahead of secular society in its marketing and sales techniques. Robertson was not born a poor man: his father was a state senator in Virginia; but his family had nothing like the sort of fortune required to make a run for president. He started his television empire with one shabby jury-rigged studio, and he sold part of it 20 years later to Rupert Murdoch for $200m.

It's possible the Holy Spirit was just looking after his own here; Mr Murdoch is after all a papal knight. But lowlier minds will point to Pat Robertson's great business innovations. The first of these was the telethon. He actually invented this now standard fund-raising trick, at a time when it was the only thing that could rescue his studio from bankruptcy. The second, which has been much more widely imitated, was the use of mailing lists, later computerised, to nourish a base of regular customers even in a business as impersonal as television preaching. His main chat show was called the 700 club after the number of regular large donors. This technique was and remains the basis of the political power of the religious right in America.

The basis of their financial alchemy is that they can turn putting a cheque into an envelope into a social, almost friendly transaction. It is a trick which all modern businesses have tried to learn from them. There is nothing that Richard Branson could teach Pat Robertson about personality-led marketing. Of course, Branson does not stud his television appearances with claims to be miraculously healing members of his audience or to be diverting, by the power of prayer, hurricanes from their course. Even so, I think it is the feeling of belonging which makes the difference, rather than the miracles which must always happen to third parties rather than to any particular customer.

The final innovation that Robertson pioneered also came about by accident. He was the first to discover that old films could be reshown on cable television to the delight of advertisers and the profit of the station owner. This was the basis of the economics of the Family Channel, which he sold for so much to Rupert Murdoch. He was thus the inventor of the Holy Grail of the modern media industry: delivering carefully targeted audiences to advertisers by using the cheapest possible content whose providers are, ideally, dead. He is one of the world's most influential Christian leaders.

All this may be hard to believe because we are so used in Britain to the idea of Christianity following trends rather than starting them. And the belief among Christians tends to be that, if only they could lead the world, instead of following it, all would be well.

The career of Pat Robertson provides one powerful counter-argument to this. Another is supplied by the death of Canon William Vanstone, who died last week. After a career of staggering brilliance at Oxford and Cambridge, in which he picked up three first class degrees, and followed them with another in America, he spent his working life in the decent obscurity of the Anglican parish ministry on the nasty edges of unpleasant places like Manchester. Other, less talented, contemporaries rose to become Christian leaders. Vanstone did not want the jobs. "He had this conviction that bishops were either stupid or vain, and in some instances both," said one Cambridge friend, Robert Runcie.

As a priest, he was too busy to write. His contribution to ecclesiastical economics was to sell the vicarage furniture to patch the church roof. Eventually he retired to Chester, and there wrote three little books, Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense; The Stature of Waiting; and Farewell in Christ. Very occasionally, he would write for this column, Faith & Reason. He was not a terribly easy man to deal with; perhaps he would have written more if I had not been so frightened of ringing him up, but the combination of being extremely clever and extremely deaf made him hard work for someone as vague as I am on the telephone. No one I respect who knew him did not love him. "He had a gracious goodness and simplicity," says Runcie.

It's difficult to think of a figure more old-fashioned than such a scholar- priest. It's difficult to think of a greater affront to Birtist principles than that he should spend his gifts as he did. I doubt very much that as a parish priest he converted many people. But I'm not sure that a church is meant to be a model to business organisations. There's something to be said for making it a school for saints instead, and Bill Vanstone's life says it.

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