Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Converts or Disciples Part 3: Selling It

This is Part 3 of the series. Other parts (will be updated as I post them):


Converts or Disciples Part 1: A Musical Analogy

Converts or Disciples Part 2: The Problem With the Missionary Project

Converts or Disciples Part 4: The Theological Story is Shit

Converts or Disciples Part 5: The Fruit is Shit





Converts or Disciples Part 3: Selling It


 Joe Izuzu was actually funny, though, unlike real car salespeople.


We all know the sorts. Those neatly dressed families that descend on your neighborhood, cold calling to proselytize. Yep, those Jehovah’s Witnesses who disturb your weekend, and are often difficult to get rid of. 


Or perhaps it is that person you thought was a friend, but just wanted to recruit you for Amway or whatever the latest Multi-Level-Marketing scam is making the rounds. They are usually selling overpriced, inferior products: the key feature of the business is the upper levels preying on the lower levels - the marks (or, if you prefer, converts.) 


Or how about the last time you bought a car? “What will it take to get you into a car today?” Doesn’t that feel an awful lot like “If you were to die today, do you know for sure you would go to heaven?” It’s an opening gambit in a game….one the customer is intended to lose. 


Recently, a group of Fundie donors put together a thoroughly tone-deaf advertisement at the cost of $20 MILLION to try to do image rehabilitation for American Christianity, which is, to put it mildly, having a serious problem with its reputation at the moment. Just a FEW of the responses from outside the bubble to this bit of offensive marketing: Deadspin, Huffpost, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - who, like me, is a Christian. 


And hey, how many “evangelism crusades” (unfortunate choice of words there….) have we seen in the history of the United States? (They are a primarily American phenomenon, if you think about it.) 


I think it is high time we admit what these all are:




Selling it.


This too is a modern capitalist-consumerist approach that we experience in literally every facet of our lives. You can’t go anywhere or do anything without being constantly bombarded with advertising. It is on every billboard, every video online, every article you read, standing on every street corner. 


More than 90 percent of the phone calls that come into my home and cell phones are advertising. (And mostly outright scams.) Even at the office, every day brings sales calls. A high percentage of these are outright scams too. 


Or all the people whose “suggested friends” show up on your social media feed…and it turns out they are professional influencers. 


For me personally, I absolutely loathe all the selling that pervades our lives. Everyone has a hustle, it seems. Everyone wants to sell you something. Make the money, close the deal. 


The fact that religion in our consumerist society is all about selling a product should surprise nobody. But that doesn’t mean it is right. 


This is at the heart of why I find pretty much all “witnessing” or “sharing Jesus” to be offensive - and actually counterproductive. Whether it is door-to-door sales or giant advertising campaigns, it is just commerce. Advertising. Selling it. 


It feels just as gross as the JW who won’t leave you alone, or the MLM “friend” who doesn’t want to be an actual friend because the relationship is all about commerce, or the ostentatious waste of money during the Super Bowl. 


Speaking of which, have you noticed that you cannot have an actual friendship with either an MLM true believer or an “evangelism” true believer? True friendship requires equality, mutuality, exchange of ideas, respect, common interests, and so on. Marketing is poison to friendship. When one person sees the others as a potential customer, it isn’t friendship, regardless of what is being sold. Selling religion is no different from any other product - if you see someone, not as an equal - a full person - but as a potential convert, then you aren’t being a friend. You are selling it. 


At least with the car salesman, you know what you are getting into, and can choose when it happens. 


I should also point out that by definition, the Evangelical form of “witnessing” lacks the fundamental mutuality of actually listening to the other person. Listening, of course, is a threat, because true listening means understanding that other people’s experiences are as valid as your own. And also understanding that you (or your particular sect) does not have a monopoly on truth or goodness. Not to mention, of course, the risk that it might be your mind that is changed. 


I for one am so fucking tired of people trying to sell me stuff. I no longer engage with door-to-door people. I tell them “not interested” and close the door. In their face if necessary. And this goes double for religious marketers. I hang up on telemarketers, I skip ads online whenever I can. I refuse to buy stuff that needs a ton of advertising to sell - that is an automatic tell that it is overpriced crap. I know I am not the only one who feels this way. 


Here’s the thing about the personal sales jobs: it is an egregious violation of boundaries. 


I mentioned this in a prior installment, and I think we introverts particularly understand why this is a violation - in much the same way a sexual assault or a spit in the face is, if not quite at the same level. To steal someone’s time, to insert your product into their very personal space, to treat them like a customer when they don’t want to buy - that’s just really offensive. 


I knew when I saw that video pushing “evangelism” (see previous posts) that it was wrong, that it was a violation. My conscience felt sick. And I know I am not the only one. THIS is why most of us sincere, devout Christians do not go around “sharing the gospel.” It’s not because we don’t take our faith seriously. It is because we take “love your neighbor” seriously - and violating their boundaries is not love. 


Pretending to be someone’s friend when all you really want is to convert them or sell them something is lying. It is fraud. And people know it. If you want to be a friend, be a friend. If you want to sell your religion, at least be honest about what you are doing, and don’t pretend to care about others beyond the sale. 


“Evangelism” sorts tend to talk about how to take advantage of people trapped next to you in airplanes or buses. I think this is teaching people how to be abusive. I do not want to talk about your religion. I do not want to hear how your particular theology is “different.” Just like I do not want to talk about how your particular MLM is “different” and not at all an MLM. In both cases, that is bullshit. 99% of the time, your religion is just the same old Cultural Fundamentalism - authoritarianism, hierarchies, and white christian nationalism - that I already know by heart. And your MLM is just the same as every other one - the people at the top make the money, everyone else gets screwed. 


If I want to know about your religion, I will ask you. 


If you have something I actually want to buy - like, for example, Pampered Chef stuff - just post something when you have an order going in. 


Heck, in both cases, if you just let people know what you have to offer in a quiet, non-pushy way, those interested will find you. 


Realistically, I probably already know all I need or wish to know about your religion - your fruit speaks for itself (more on that in the next installment) - and so does nearly everyone else you think you can convert. Christianity - particularly in its fundamentalist/culture war form - is pretty well known. My atheist friends know Christ’s teachings as well or better than most of my Evangelical friends, for example, and recognize that Evangelical practice has literally nothing to do with the teachings of Christ. Ironically, I have had some of the deepest conversations about religion with atheist friends - they generally have thought beyond the approved talking points and are unafraid to look at the hard questions. They don’t have to protect their fragile beliefs with layers of defense mechanisms.


Which is why I believe that “evangelism” isn’t actually about making converts. If it were, the utter lack of success would lead to a different approach. Rather, it is about Tribalism - reinforcing the “us versus them” boundaries that are so vital to Culture War politics. It also serves as a way to reassure yourself that you are right at those times of doubt and uncertainty. 


By making interactions with “non-believers” always as unpleasant as a sales pitch from an MLM salesman, it reinforces the idea that those outside the tribe are evil and should be treated accordingly; and that the only place for safe and meaningful connection is within the tribe. And THAT is the goal for the Cultural Warriors, of course. 


One more thing on this subject: if you would find something offensive if a JW or an MLM marketer were to do it to you, for God’s sake, don’t do it to other people. Just don’t. That’s literally the Golden Rule. Which somebody famous once said, if I recall. 


Decent people already know this, by the way, which is why very few christians spend time “witnessing.” We know it is a violation of others, that it is fraudulent behavior, and that it just alienates other people. This is why it bothers me when true believers in “evangelism” try to guilt the rest of us into “witnessing” - as if cold-call sales were somehow a core Christian practice. 


In the next part, I want to take a look at the product that Evangelicals are selling. After all, a good product sells itself. But nobody wants to buy poisonous shit. 




High Pressure, Manipulative, and Misleading:


I was going to respond to a commenter on a friend’s post, but now that I have the time, I can’t find it. So, here is my response to the question of what I mean by “high pressure, manipulative, and misleading tactics.” 


This should be universally known, but perhaps I need to mention that salespersons aren’t just making things up as they go. They are trained in psychological techniques to “get to yes.” That is, to make the sale, close the deal. That opening gambit of “what will it take to get you into a new car today” and its various equivalents are all part of that technique of psychological manipulation to push a person toward a particular decision. At every turn, where the customer might back away, there is a counter-move to push them back to the path toward the sale. This is no secret - there is a whole library’s worth of books written about this. 


Or, more germane to my own profession, there is a technique for cross-examination. I am not a particularly great litigator - I have other strengths - but there are times when you know an opposing party is lying, and you need to make that clear to the judge or jury. And so, we learn techniques - commonly called “leading the witness” to box them into a space where their lies become apparent. These techniques are also used to destroy witness credibility where they might not be lying - one of the reasons lawyers get a bad reputation. But they are indeed necessary when dealing with a lying witness. So we lead them down the path to self-incrimination. 


That is what I mean by high pressure and manipulative. It is using psychological techniques to move a person to the desired result. 


Now, in the case of the law, not only is this expected, but it is often necessary for justice. 


In the case of that car dealership, it is at least expected that there will be a sales job put on you. (This is, of course, why people mostly hate car shopping, and have a poor opinion of car salespersons.) 


Notice also that there is a power differential going on here. I am a trained lawyer. I do this all the time. A car salesperson does their job day in and day out. My witness may be on the stand for the first time in their life - it is their first divorce, for example. I might buy a car once every five years at most. Which side in these transactions has the advantage? 


Now let’s look at this in the context of religion. Evangelism Explosion and its imitators admit straight out that they borrow sales psychology from marketing. It’s literally there in the materials. They specifically train their “evangelists” in these techniques. The Roman Road is nothing more than a plan for getting the customer to “yes.” And so are all the other series of “leading questions” that you get trained in. It is the same stuff a salesperson gets, just with a religious veneer. 


So yes, when the goal of an interaction is to “get to yes,” that is inherently manipulative and high pressure. 


Now, the misleading part comes later. Just like when you buy a used car, and it turns out to have serious defects that are not covered under warranty. And then also you find out that the monthly payment is twice the amount you were promised. 


I’ll talk about it more in the next installment, but Evangelicalism promises a lot of love and grace and community, but once you join up, you find out that there are an incredible amount of spoken and unspoken cultural rules, you will only truly belong if you support Republican politics in every respect, and you will be required to hate and attempt to persecute those outside the tribe. If you are not down with that, you will find yourself forced out, just like I did. 




My hunger for genuine - non-conditional - friendship:


One of the consequences of leaving a faith tradition, as I did when I left our church and Evangelicalism more broadly, six years ago, is that you find out really quickly which people in your life were actual friends, and which ones were not. 


I am happy that I have retained some friends from our former church, but I also know that I lost a number. Likewise, I have lost a lot of friends and acquaintances after leaving the Republican Party a decade ago - and even more so when I started speaking out against Trump and the current fascist rhetoric and policies being implemented by the GOP. Not every friendship failed, but many did. 


What is the difference? 


A true friend isn’t a friend because you agree with their politics or religion. And, on the flip side, when you tell someone that their religion or politics (or both) are hurting you and those you love, a true friend is willing to reconsider their beliefs and actions. 


And I will go one further here: when it became apparent that I would no longer validate and affirm my parents’ political and religious ideologies, but would push back on the ways those ideologies were hurting me and others, they threw me and my family away damn fast. The relationship turned out to be conditioned on my agreeing with them and validating their toxic beliefs.


So this is really a hunger I have: friendship that isn’t conditioned on a common ideology. A friendship that has no element of selling me something. A friendship where it is more important to listen than to preach. A friendship where “your ideology is hurting me and mine” is sufficient reason to reconsider the ideology. 


And, might I say it, a friendship where my particular religious beliefs are not the center of the relationship - where I am free to follow my mind and conscience where they lead, even if that ends up being a departure from the faith. Is that really too much to ask? 


1 comment:

  1. "Or perhaps it is that person you thought was a friend, but just wanted to recruit you for Amway or whatever the latest Multi-Level-Marketing scam is making the rounds. They are usually selling overpriced, inferior products: the key feature of the business is the upper levels preying on the lower levels - the marks (or, if you prefer, converts.) "

    Time for a link to Multi-Level Mondays, a series about MLM's and how they're trying to scam people out of their money: