December 23, 1995 in Features

For Some, It’s Good Business To Profess Faith Spiritual Niche Marketing Is Also Making A Small Inroad In The Mutual Fund Business.

Bill Lindelof Sacramento Bee

Micki Moore was a recent widow in 1990 when she started looking to purchase her first car alone.

A friend recommended she see Gene Snider, owner of Action Auto Sales, because he was a “good Christian man.”

“My creed is, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,”’ Snider said recently. “That should be the creed of all used-car salesmen - all people, really.”

Snider sold Moore a gray 1986 Mercury Topaz that ran great for the three years she owned the car. Moore’s purchase was an example of buyers trading with sellers, at least in part, because they share the same faith.

Those with spiritual similarity buy used cars from one another, purchase “affinity credit cards,” invest in spiritually conscious mutual funds and choose a long-distance carrier that promises not to “dance with the devil.”

“That sort of thing is proliferating,” said R. Laurence Moore, a history professor at Cornell University and author of the recent book “Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture.”

Those who participate warn that people still must be on the watch for the dishonest, no matter how strongly they profess faith.

Micki Moore said she wanted someone who would take her needs into consideration and not just unload a clunker.

“To me that is the Christian attitude,” she said. “It is not enough that they tell me they are Christian or have a Christian fish symbol on their ad. … Their attitude is what tells me they are a Christian.”

Selling to people with a common interest is the business of MBNA America Bank of Wilmington, Del. The company issues “affinity” credit cards to 4,000 different groups, including alumni groups, the National Education Association, 49er fans, the Sierra Club and NASCAR, as well as Christian and Jewish groups. The groups receive a small portion of each transaction.

Carl Thompson plans to expand into affinity credit cards, but for now he is marketing long-distance service to Christians.

“Affinity marketing means if you can help support a cause you like, you use the product,” he said.

Thompson, president of Lifeline Long Distance Co. of Oklahoma City, Okla., has watched his company grow from 11,000 clients billing $178,000 a month in 1993 to 450,000 clients billing $6.8 million a month today.

Abortion foe Randall Terry’s radio program, Christian Coalition chapters and other religious groups encourage followers to use Lifeline. In turn, the groups get a small percentage of the charges from each call.

Thompson said he buys from long-distance carrier WilTel and then resells the long-distance service. His company will not work with secular carriers AT&T;, Sprint and MCI.

“We believe that AT&T;, Sprint and MCI are dancing with the devil,” said Thompson.

Specifically, he objects to the major carriers marketing to gay and lesbian groups and backing abortion rights senators and congressmen.

“We are right-wing, Christian fundamentalists,” he said. “We believe the church should rule over the state. That makes us a little bit different.”

Berk Stinson, AT&T; spokesman, agreed that the company marketed to gay and lesbian groups. Campaign contributions, he said, are based on a politician’s appreciation of long-distance business, not on abortion views.

Spiritual niche marketing is also making a small inroad in the mutual fund business.

The Timothy Plan, based in Winter Park, Fla., is “honorable to the Lord and dedicated to him,” said fund President Arthur Ally.

Fund managers pledge not to buy shares in companies that have anything to do with companies they perceive as supporting pornography, abortion, casino gambling and the production of alcohol and tobacco.

Companies deemed clean enough for the 18-month old fund, which has $7 million in assets, are screened by three Christian ministries. Some of the companies the fund won’t invest in are Disney, American Express and AT&T.; So far, the Timothy fund is only up 9 percent this year, while the average stock fund is up closer to 25 percent, Ally said. Ally believes the fund will perform better soon.

Ally said that without the research provided by the ministries, it would be difficult to select companies because conglomerates often include firms that Christians can support and ones that some find offensive.

Even Zondervan Publishing, the leading publisher of Bibles in the United States, is linked to a corporate relative that has come under fire. Zondervan is owned by Harper-Collins, which is owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox Television Network, which has been criticized for what some consider offensive material.

“Married … With Children” in particular has come under fire by Michigan homemaker Terry Rakolta, who launched a campaign to get sponsors to cancel ad time.

However, Murdoch’s ownership has not changed operations at Zondervan, said spokeswoman Judy Waggoner.

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