The TV ads are puzzling. Successful-looking people confide to the camera that their lives are empty, their spirits dead.
One 30-second ad spotlights a well-dressed woman with zombie demeanor, who says her husband has been promoted, her kids are doing fine–but she’s “just not happy.” Viewers pondering her problem may wonder what’s being promoted or what the advertiser wants from them. The answer, interestingly, seems to be: nothing.
The Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation is again spending multiple millions of dollars in magazines and on TV, this time hoping to send you a free gift. It’s a book called “Power for Living” that promises to end your presumed depression and despair by leading you to a more personal relationship with God.
No strings attached, no contributions solicited or accepted, no respondents’ names to be used for any other mailing lists in future, the ads promise. Just the book.
And that’s the mystery.
Why would any group spend so much money to give away a product, and ask nothing in return?
“It could be some sort of cult,” theorized one psychiatrist, who watched the ad on TV recently at a local deli. “I’m, frankly, afraid of a group that spends so much yet reveals so little about itself.”
Gila Reinstein, a New Haven, Conn., former teacher and a mother of three, finds the ads odd because “this is a market economy. From day one we’re taught not to expect something for nothing. Why would someone pay [for ads] who has nothing to gain from them?”
But others think the DeMoss folks might want to help improve people’s lives because they believe they can–without asking anything in return.
Helen Alvare, a Washington, D.C., mother of three who works in public relations, says the ads seem to be everywhere.
“At first I thought they were for a pharmaceutical firm or mental health group because they seemed to target depressed people,” Alvare says. “But when I finally paid attention, I realized these ads very effectively link feelings of well-being with deep religious conviction. They are getting at a great truth: Having or not having faith affects very practical matters in your daily life.”
The DeMoss Foundation isn’t talking. Phone the 800 number given in the ads, and you reach people who say they know nothing about the foundation; they merely take orders for the book, which was written by Pastor Jamie Buckingham, and takes four to six weeks to deliver.
Calls to DeMoss headquarters in West Palm Beach, Fla., are deflected by answering machines and by occasional live people who politely decline to identify themselves, grant interviews or discuss the foundation and its projects.
Public records show that the nonprofit group was begun in 1955 by Arthur S. DeMoss, a Pennsylvania insurance mogul. Since his death in 1979, it has been run by his widow, Nancy. The publicly stated purpose of the group, which has about $300 million in assets, is to “support [Christian] programs initiated and managed by the foundation that are evangelistic and disciplining in nature.” The foundation gives no support to “local churches, denominational agencies and/or schools.”
Another Ad Also Raised Questions
Similar questions about an ad campaign arose five years ago, when the low-profile, conservative, family-run foundation saturated TV with its ads themed “Life: What a beautiful choice.”
Those ads showed an ultrasound image wriggling in its mother’s womb, while a printed message slowly appeared: “Hello. I hope to be born in April. . . . Anywhere in this country I can be aborted right now. . . .” The spots, which ended with the “beautiful choice” tag line, requested no donation, offered no number to call. Ad industry professionals called the campaign moving and powerful.
Then, as now, reporters trying to interview members of the DeMoss family were turned away.
According to some news reports, even the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Pro-Life Secretariat, in Washington, D.C., was impressed with the ads and wanted to know more about the DeMosses. Richard Doerflinger of the bishops’ group told reporters that his group had approached the foundation, hoping to explore the possibility of an alliance. But “they pretty much keep to themselves,” Doerflinger said.
A Times reporter who phoned the foundation headquarters in West Palm Beach was offered a short printed statement by fax:
“The Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation is a private philanthropic organization that identifies and addresses some major concerns within our society. . . . The objective of the ‘Power for Living’ project is to acquaint people with the biblical account of how [they] can know God in a personal way. This is done by . . . promoting the free, nondenominational book. . . . The Foundation has a history of not seeking publicity for itself . . . but, rather, of letting its projects speak for themselves. . . . We will continue to adhere to that policy.”
Theology experts aren’t very aware of the campaign.
Nancy Ammerman, a specialist in conservative Protestant and fundamentalist religion and professor at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn., says, “Evangelism in this country is a very active grass-roots movement, so it’s not surprising that there is a foundation, an author or a book that isn’t on [the experts’] radar screen.”
Different From Other Groups
Jann Cather Weaver, associate dean and assistant professor at the Yale Divinity School, says the DeMoss group “sounds very different than other evangelical groups such as the Christian Coalition and the 700 Club.” From what she’s heard, the DeMoss people apparently seek no donations, sell no materials.
“They seem to want only to spread ‘the good news,’ which is what the word evangelical means in the original Greek,” she says.
Her reservations about the ad campaign are twofold: “First, it seems to imply that depression can be cured by having a personal relationship with God.” In some instances that may be true, she says. But clinical depression is a dangerous medical disease and requires medical treatment. Furthermore, she says, many clinically depressed people do have a close relationship with God. One does not preclude the other.
William Dyrness, dean of the School of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, says he was a missionary in the Philippines in the 1970s when he had contact with the DeMoss Foundation, which helped fund a Christian magazine that he and a colleague were starting.
But when DeMoss died, Dyrness says, foundation support stopped. Nancy DeMoss apparently “decided to put all the money into direct evangelistic activities. This latest ad campaign is totally consistent with that view,” he says. It seems to target a broad Christian audience whose members appear, in the ads, to be of similar ethnic and economic background.
“I’m not so troubled by what [the ad campaign] does say but more by what it fails to address,” Dyrness says. “It is not sensitive to current diverse cultural realities, does not speak to the many different segments of our population in their own cultural context.”
Arthur S. DeMoss, born in 1926, probably could not have imagined in his lifetime the cultural diversity that exists in America today. As founder of the National Liberty Life Insurance Co., he helped pioneer the art of selling low-cost insurance by direct mail. When he died in 1979, on the tennis court of his 50-acre Bryn Mawr estate, National Liberty had 1.5-million policyholders, $500 million in assets, and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Along the way, DeMoss had become an evangelical Christian, known locally for his philanthropy and the elegant dinners he and his wife, Nancy, held. Roy Rogers and Art Linkletter, the latter of whom was the firm spokesman and a member of the board of directors, were often invited, according to DeMoss’ obituary in a Philadelphia paper.
DeMoss Visits Cleaver in Prison
DeMoss briefly became a national newsmaker in 1976 when he put up a $41,000 bond to free Eldridge Cleaver from prison. The former Black Panther had undergone a religious conversion while serving time on assault charges resulting from a shootout with police. DeMoss told reporters he had visited Cleaver in prison, believed his conversion was genuine, and “I welcome him into the Lord’s family.”
Since DeMoss’ death, his wife has run the foundation, and does not grant interviews. Nor do his children, who are all active in foundation work and other evangelical Christian causes. One son, Mark, worked for Jerry Falwell before starting a Christian public relations agency of his own. A daughter, Nancy Leigh, works for Life Action Ministries. Deborah DeMoss was a staffer for Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
And what about this book, “Power for Living,” which the foundation now gives away?
It was written more than a decade ago by the late Jamie Buckingham, a pastor who wrote 44 other religious volumes (nine of them co-written with Kathryn Kuhlman).
Buckingham’s widow, Jacqueline, remembers: “It was 1984 . . . [the foundation] had a committee which tried to write the book, but Nancy DeMoss was not happy with the result. . . . They asked my husband to rewrite it. We went to our prayer group and prayed on whether he should do it.” The answer was yes, and “my husband wrote what was requested in exactly five days.”
She says the book is “meant for new converts” and was offered on TV once before, about 10 years ago. She’s looked at the new version and is happy to see that it’s “just the same–Jamie’s words and writings–except they’ve added some new testimonies.”
She sounds sincere and appears to believe in the good deeds being attempted by the DeMoss Foundation. In fact, cynics who suspect ulterior motives in these DeMoss ads will find little research to bolster their fears.
Says Yale’s Weaver, “My sense of the group, from what I’ve heard, is that it seeks to have great integrity, to not be exploitative.”
Jan. 19, 1999
Bettijane Levine, Times Staff Writer