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The broken ethics of the evangelical economy

By Amanda Marcotte
Sunday, June 21, 2009 21:35 EDT
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Via Ezra comes this interesting angle on a lawsuit against “artist” Thomas Kinkade that may have larger implications for the subculture I like to call the evangelical economy. There’s a lot of complications in the Kinkade empire, but the lawsuit in question is over the predatory relationship Kinkade had with his dealers, who signed onto the unfair deal on the incorrect assumption that Kinkade’s art was going to keep rising in value. Classic bubble speculation issues—when something has a meteoric rise in value, one should assume that it’s peaking, not that it’s going to continue exploding in value. There are, after all, only so many Christians with horrible taste that want art to reflect their so-called values instead of their taste to buy paintings, but for some reason, when the bubble mentality kicks in, people forget that there is such a thing as market saturation.

Kinkade runs his company with the same no-ethics attitude embodied by Amway. Which is to say he makes money by getting people to buy products they can’t sell and can’t return. The only difference is that he’s not using a pyramid scheme.

Kinkade forced the dealers to buy expensive inventory which simply didn’t sell, and refused to accept returns unless they were accompanied by orders for three times as much art as was being returned.

However, they signed up, and there’s not much protection for them, right? Well, the Ninth Circuit Court upheld a decision awarding two gallery owners $2.1 million, in no small part because Kinkade exploited their religious faith to get them to agree to this exploitative relationship.

In their lawsuit, Hazlewood and Spinello, former San Ramon residents who operated their art galleries in Virginia and were married at the time, said the company had exploited their faith to reel them in.

At a weeklong presentation for prospective Kinkade Signature Gallery owners, company executives “said they would support us as partners in spreading the light,” Spinello said at the time of the arbitration award. “They said their business was blessed.”

In its February 2006 decision, the arbitration panel said Kinkade and other company officials used terms like “partner,” “trust,” “Christian” and “God” to create “a certain religious environment designed to instill a special relationship of trust” with the couple.

What the company didn’t tell them, said their attorney, was that they would have to sell Kinkade’s works at minimum retail prices while the artist undercut them with discount sales, some of which he made himself on cable television.

Felix Salmon is concerned that this kind of ruling implies that Christians are more trustworthy than other people. I doubt it’ll have any kind of far-reaching effects like that, because it seems to mostly be a boring old contract dispute, and the religion thing is just a minor issue. But if I’m wrong, and the religion thing matters, then this won’t imply that Christians are more trustworthy. If anything, it exposes how businesses that use evangelical Christians as their customer base exploit that faith to get them into fucked-up financial situations. I’m thinking quite specifically of Amway, who took full advantage of the Republican party’s soft hand both with fundamentalists and with people who run pyramid schemes to run rampant over the past decade, and who needs to be squashed out of existence completely.

On this blog and in right wing watch circles in general, we spend a lot of time tracking the religious right’s assault on human rights and secular democracy. But it’s also important to think about how they financially exploit their own followers, who are lured in with Jesus and fetuses and fears of dudes kissing, and told to open their wallets. You can usually tell what’s going on with the wingnuts by what they claim The Left is doing, and so it’s not for nothing that there are constant, baseless claims that feminists are in some baby-killing money-making conspiracy—classic projection, a way to push their own angst about the way they really do financially exploit the everyday follower. As this Kinkade lawsuit shows, the exploitation is endemic, and reaches way past just the televangelist begging. Amway is the most obvious example of this problem, since they have meetings that ape evangelical prayer groups, and then use people’s vulnerable state and the group dynamics of the situation to strong-arm people into becoming Amyway salespeople, which means, for most of them, going into debt buying a bunch of products they can’t sell. Much like Kinkade did to these dealers.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this sort of thing is all over the evangelical community, because they do have their own economy of Jesus gear and half-baked entrepreneurial projects. In the past, I tended to think most of the Jesus gear stuff, from Jesus T-shirts to Christian rock, was pretty harmless, but now I’m not so sure. All these products need distributors, and since most of them rely heavily on word-of-mouth and church-based marketing, there’s a lot of room for exploitation there. It’d be interesting to find out how many other Jesus-y companies are trying to separate believers from their cash in ways other than simply making products that people want and selling them.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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