The word evangelical has appeared recently in the news mainly as a synonym for the Christian right. But how does it relate to business?
After two decades of consistently rising fortunes, Elon Musk’s star — situated well beyond the planet Mars he currently wants to colonize — appears to be waning. Reporting on this downturn, The Guardian reminds us of Musk’s glory days: “Breaking into a market of gasoline-focused giants to make stylish, emissions-free cars adored by customers was a remarkable feat. Few others had dared, let alone succeeded. Musk’s public presentations inspired an evangelical vibe among cheering audiences.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Evangelical (in US English):
1) (Religious): committed to the principle of never doubting the literal truth of the Christian Bible and the immediate and automatic application of beliefs derived therefrom (real or imaginary) to all current moral and political questions
2) (US media culture): describes the emotions Americans feel and display in the contemplation of power, celebrity and wealth (evangelical fervor, evangelical vibe)
Originally, the adjective “evangelical” referred to the teaching of the Christian gospel by early Christians. It comes from the Ancient Greek εὐαγγέλιον (euangélion, “good news”). The word gospel itself derives from Old English, gōdspel, which also literally means “good news.”
The word evangelical has appeared recently in the news mainly as a synonym for the Christian right as a segment of the vote — a segment that paradoxically supported Sinner-in-Chief Donald Trump. But The Guardian article uses it in relation to business, not religion. Yet the meaning derives from the highly emotional style of celebration in the American evangelical religious tradition. In contrast with other Christian practices, evangelical preachers — and especially the televangelists and pastors of megachurches — deploy their highly charged, sometimes hypnotic rhetoric to provoke collective emotion in the public, a technique that allows them to succeed in their principal mission, extracting money from the faithful.
The Christian evangelical movement in the US traces its origins back to at least the 18th century and the Great Awakening. This marked an important change from the religious culture of the closely knitted local communities built around a single Protestant denomination typical of 17th-century settlements. It was a movement that reflected the mobility of a population spreading across an ever widening land mass, as Christian Europeans pushed against the native populations to occupy the land and consolidate the colonies that would later become states. Itinerant preachers spread their various brands of inspirational religious messages that no longer focused on specific communities, but appealed to the notion of personal salvation. In other words, a religious marketing concept was born and took root across the swaths of land controlled by the European immigrants.
The example of the British preacher George Whitefield illustrates the phenomenon: “Whitefield toured the colonies up and down the Atlantic coast, preaching his message. In one year, Whitefield covered 5,000 miles in America and preached more than 350 times … His style was charismatic, theatrical and expressive. Whitefield would often shout the word of God and tremble during his sermons.”
He more or less defined the role for future evangelists, though he failed to discover the key marketing principle that 19th and 20th-entury preachers learned to apply and which has been taken further by televangelists and megachurch preachers. In his preaching, Whitefield encouraged people to go back to their community churches. Modern Evangelism seeks to replace local churches and has thus proved to be a rich source of income for charismatic preachers. Rather than sending the faithful back to their churches, they create their own church that the faithful are called upon to finance. None other than the founder of Scientology, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, succinctly explained the principle: “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.”
The latest avatar is the prosperity theology. Just last week, prosperity evangelist Jesse Duplantis explained to his world that God had ordered him to buy a new Falcon 7X private jet to accomplish his mission. This appears to be part of a trend.
But American evangelism isn’t confined to religion. Forbes informs us, “The title of ‘Chief Evangelist’ has been around for a few years now in Silicon Valley.” Decades ago, Silicon Valley learned to apply the the wisdom of L. Ron Hubbard to its marketing. Don’t sell hardware. Get people to think of your company as a church that provides a solution to personal salvation. No company has achieved this as successfully as Apple, whose loyal public is inclined to view its products as sacraments.
Elon Musk has followed the game plan to the point of parody, turning baseball caps and flamethrowers into monetizable sacraments, while watching people queue up for communion (at $500 a shot for the flamethrowers).
Is the party over for Musk or Tesla? Perhaps instead of vituperating the media, Brother Elon should simply kneel down and pray.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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