Torri Walters, a Manhattan hair stylist, had seen the ads often enough to be intrigued. The 30-sec. TV spots featured celebrities such as Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte and former Miss America Heather Whitestone McCallum testifying that their most important relationship was with God and praising a book called Power for Living.
The ads ran about 50 times a day on CNN alone; print versions showed up in TIME and other magazines and on the walls of the A train Walters took to work. They were mysterious. They bore the name of no known ministry but merely the words Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation and an 800 number for ordering a free booklet. “I kept seeing it and seeing it,” Walters says. “And one day I just thought, O.K., let me check it out.” She did so, she acknowledged later when quizzed about the book’s impact on her, partly because she had been feeling a bit distant from God. And partly out of curiosity. “I was thinking, What’s the gimmick? There’s always a gimmick. And who is this foundation?”
Who, indeed? Although the spots’ frequency has been reduced for summer, the advertising database CMR reports that in the six months ending last March the DeMoss Foundation spent more than $27.8 million–a sum outpacing the media buy of a presidential campaign–on a saturation blitz that was most likely publicizing Power for Living. DeMoss ranks 73rd among U.S. foundations, and it’s one of the most secretive. Journalists who call its Florida offices receive demurrals (“We’re not a cult, but we can’t say what we are,” one was told) and a fax stating “The Foundation has a history of not seeking publicity.” Foundation grantees sign a confidentiality agreement so strict that they will not even discuss the group to praise it.
Like a majority of DeMoss undertakings, the Power for Living campaign turns out to be a simple call to Christ. But a significant minority of the foundation’s projects are harder edged, targeting abortion and gay rights and promoting a vision of a Christian America some find overzealous. The DeMoss family, led by matriarch Nancy, 61, is politically and theologically conservative. Its charity was “an early and significant supporter of the religious right,” says William Martin, author of With God on Our Side, a history of the movement. As the DeMoss Foundation demonstrates its willingness to pour tens of millions into reaching a mass audience, it inevitably courts the question, What are its larger social goals?
Arthur S. DeMoss, who died in 1979, began his working life as a bookie. He ran two profitable Albany, N.Y., “horse rooms” and owned three Cadillacs by age 24. A year later, however, a revival-tent conversion redirected his energies. He embarked on what Tony Campolo, a Philadelphia-area pastor whose congregation DeMoss and his wife Nancy once belonged to, calls “the most consistent Christian life of any person I’ve ever known.” Campolo recalls an early talk with DeMoss. “He said to me, ‘I’m gonna give my life to full-time Christian service.’ I asked him if he was going to be a missionary. He said, ‘Oh, no. We have enough missionaries. We need people who will make a huge amount of money to support missionaries.'” DeMoss sold insurance to conservative Christians, whose clean living made them good health risks. Once his National Liberty Corp. went mainstream, its TV ads, featuring Art Linkletter and a prominently displayed toll-free number, pioneered direct marketing. DeMoss gave nearly half his salary to his missionary foundation. When he died on a tennis court at age 53, he added $200 million more. Says Campolo: “He kept his commitment from beyond the grave.”
And his family carried it on. Nancy is the foundation’s CEO, brother Robert is president, and three DeMoss children are directors. Nancy plays host at evangelizing dinners for the rich and powerful at her houses in Florida and Manhattan (one invitee estimated the events’ cost at $80,000 each). Privately, she contributed $70,000 to Newt Gingrich’s political-action committee, GOPAC. A daughter, Deborah, worked for Senator Jesse Helms as a Foreign Relations Committee aide, specializing in the right-wing Latin American parties Helms favored in the 1980s. (She has since left the foundation board.) Mark, a board member, worked for Jerry Falwell before founding the DeMoss Group, a p.r. firm for evangelists like Billy Graham’s son Franklin. Mark’s father-in-law is Art Williams, the insurance magnate who bailed out Falwell’s debt-ridden Liberty University with a $70 million gift.
The foundation’s first campaign to draw wide attention was a series of soft-focus TV spots with the tag line “Life. What a beautiful choice.” Featuring tableaux of beautiful children who the ads noted had not been aborted, they aired in states facing abortion-related referendums and went national by 1993 at a cost estimated at $20 million a year. The commercials thrilled the antiabortion camp. Says National Right to Life Committee president Wanda Franz: “They ran daily for years. It was the kind of campaign an organization like ours could never have begun to touch.”
If the antiabortion ads were a major (if tasteful) foray into hot-button advocacy, the Power for Living campaign is closer to pure tract evangelism. Viewers who dial the 800 number receive the 134-page booklet, which employs simple metaphors like a country road or a broken golf club in support of the classic invitation. “All you do is, by an act of your will, say, ‘I want You, Jesus, to take over my life.'” Participants in an earlier Power drive in 1983 have claimed that several million people ordered the book.
Such numbers make some people nervous. “If they say they’re just trying to win hearts for Jesus, fine,” says Chip Berlet of the left-of-center group Political Research Associates. “But given their history, I’m looking for the other shoe to drop.” He cites The Rebirth of America, a 1986 book published by the foundation and edited by DeMoss daughter Nancy Leigh DeMoss that lists the gay-rights movement, abortion and “our humanistic, secular public school system” as proof that “Americans have lost their way in part because they do not know their own Christian heritage.” Given that philosophy, critics look with skepticism on the foundation’s promise not to pass along the Power mailing list. Moreover, says Alfred Ross, head of the Institute for Democracy Studies, “they don’t need to pass it on. They are the religious right.”
Evangelical leaders find this overdrawn. Says minister Campolo, whose moderate credentials won him a job counseling Bill Clinton, post-Monica: “Their purpose is to propagate the evangelical commitments, and that includes the social values associated with those commitments. But what they are really about is old-time religion, endeavoring to see that every person in the world comes to know Jesus.”
The foundation’s 1997 tax filings show both sides of the group’s character. Of $25 million in expenditures, some $9 million paid for foreign evangelism. Domestically, roughly the same amount was put into a TV campaign for youth abstinence (“You’re worth waiting for”). Thus three-fourths of DeMoss’s giving qualifies as relatively noncontroversial. However, $1.6 million went to the American Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit law firm founded by Pat Robertson that opposes gay marriage, defends abortion protesters and promotes various types of school prayer.
Not that this fact would influence Torri Walters, the New York hair stylist. Her copy of Power for Living arrived promptly. As advertised, she received no solicitation afterward. A member of a nondenominational church who stopped attending services three years ago because she works on Sundays, she says the book has provided enlightenment. “You slip,” she says, “and it puts you back on track.” That the foundation’s work against abortion may not be in accord with her own “mixed views” is immaterial. “What they gave me is good,” she says. “It stands on its own right.”
Already, two people who have seen her reading Power–a woman in the subway and the stylist who works the chair next to hers–have decided to order their own. “You know,” Walters says, “it’s a domino.”
Aug. 9, 1999
David Van Biema