TAMPA – Insomniacs and fans of graveyard-shift TV may have spotted a curious program recently starring one of the Bay area’s most prominent men of God.
There was Randy White, the hip, contemporary pastor of Tampa megachurch Without Walls International, flashing a smile and urging viewers to call a toll-free number on the TV screen. White wasn’t promising eternal salvation on this night. Just a bottle of Omega XL fatty acid pills at $49.95 a pop.
“I guarantee you emphatically and unequivocally it’s going to change your life,” White says on the infomercial. His wife, televangelist Paula White, also appears on the 30-minute program.
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Prominent ministers have long promoted religious items, from books of inspirational testimonies to Christian movies such as the “Left Behind” film series. But with his recent infomercial, White stepped into an emerging role for big-name church pastors: mainstream product pitchman for personal gain.
Nationwide, health care supplement companies in particular have learned that church ministers can make great salesmen. They have loyal followings and, through their ministries, build a huge reservoir of goodwill. Aside from White, James and Betty Robison of “Life Today” television fame pitch vitamins in an infomercial for TriVita Inc., based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Meanwhile, televangelist and political commentator Pat Robertson created a weight-loss shake, Pat’s Age-Defying Shake, a few years ago and provided the recipe free to the public. The minister, based in Virginia Beach, Va., still makes the recipe available, but he now earns profits by licensing the recipe to a supplement company, according to his hometown newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot. The shakes have retailed at GNC stores.
Experts say the role of preachers in such mainstream commercial ventures is hotly debated within Christian circles. In one camp are people who say God wants people to be healthy in both body and spirit. So, they think it’s OK to promote healthful products, said Michael Giuliano of San Diego, a former professor at California’s Westmont College who has studied televangelists.
In the other camp are people who think it’s an uneasy nexus of religion and commerce. Is the preacher just recommending a product, or is he implying God wants the viewer to buy it, Giuliano asked.
During a recent weekday morning interview, White didn’t look like your traditional, button-down Billy Graham-style pastor. With his hair slightly mussed and the tails of his white dress shirt left untucked over his jeans, White, pastor of a church boasting 26,000 members, slouched in his chair, feet propped up on his office desk.
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
Like some other preachers in the so-called “prosperity gospel” movement, White and wife Paula never signed on to a vow of poverty. Prosperity gospel preachers often teach that God wants people to be successful in life, including financially. The Whites live in a tony Bayshore Boulevard home that the county property appraiser estimates is worth $2.7 million. White drives a Bentley; his wife drives a Mercedes-Benz.
White doesn’t deny using the celebrity he has acquired from his ministry to benefit his personal business, RAW Reality Enterprises Inc. (named for his initials).
“What are [Jesus’] principles?” White asked. “If you think Jesus was poor, wants his clergy to be poor and have a vow of poverty, I would debate that.”
Several years ago, White said, he was facing a health crisis. A type of fat in his blood, triglycerides, was at a sky-high level, and his physician told him he needed to change his lifestyle if he wanted to see age 50.
His cardiologist, Benedict Maniscalco, told him about Omega XL, an anti-inflammatory agent derived from a mussel found in the waters of New Zealand. White said that after taking the drug, his aching joints felt relieved and his triglyceride level fell dramatically.
A mutual friend introduced White to Ken Meares, the chief executive officer of Omega XL manufacturer Great HealthWorks of South Florida. After hearing of the pastor’s testimony, Meares seized the opportunity to ask White to star in an Omega XL infomercial.
“It was totally unplanned, and it was divine intervention,” Meares said of the infomercial’s genesis.
White contributed some seed money to broadcast the infomercial, and today it runs on Christian and mainstream TV stations in up to 150 markets. Besides the Whites, Maniscalco, Meares and a nurse practitioner star in the 30-minute TV spot. A few months ago, Great HealthWorks began funding the product’s expansion rather than White. White receives $5 for every $49.95 bottle of Omega XL sold, he said.
Sales have gone better than expected, and White hopes that his income from Omega XL reaches into the millions. That money goes into White’s personal business account rather than Without Walls’ coffers, he said. But even as he keeps his private business strictly separate from the church, he uses some of his personal wealth for charity. For example, he estimates he has helped 100 people attend college or receive some form of career training, he said.
“I could not do what I do today if I did not have the finances,” White said.
Overall, the Omega XL infomercial doesn’t carry religious overtones. Without Walls International Church isn’t mentioned in the TV spot, and the Whites aren’t even identified as church pastors. Generally, the Whites and the other infomercial stars chat about how the pills have helped Randy’s life and how they could do the same for viewers. In perhaps the only religious reference, at one point Paula White says that people’s health is a gift from God and that viewers should make an investment in it.
In another potential mix of church and commerce, RAW Reality Director of Operations Jason Drenner said some Without Walls members can choose to take part in Great HealthWorks’ small multilevel marketing program, in which they become distributors of Omega XL.
Not The First, Nor The Last
White is hardly the only minister to pitch a commercial product, said William Martin, a professor emeritus of sociology at Rice University. In the 1930s, radio evangelist John Brinkley became famous for suggesting that goat glands could help boost men’s sexual virility. Brinkley promoted the implantation of goat glands into men, then performed the operations himself, thereby profiting from it. The so-called “goat gland man” nearly won the governorship of Kansas, Martin said.
That was an extreme example, to be sure. More recently, prominent preachers Joel Osteen of Houston’s Lakewood Church and Rick Warren of California’s Saddleback Church have earned millions from the sale of their inspirational books. But Martin said he still was surprised when he saw Robison, the Texas televangelist, pitching vitamins in an infomercial for TriVita Inc. Traditionally, preachers sold items more directly tied to religion or spirituality, Martin said.
“I didn’t pause to contemplate it [the TriVita infomercial] a long time, but I didn’t think James would do this,” said Martin, himself a boyhood evangelist.
TriVita CEO Michael Ellison explained that he approached Robison about the infomercial about three years ago. The televangelist prayed about it because few, if any, other televangelists were making such endorsements. He eventually decided God would approve because people need to care for their bodies just as they do their spirits, Ellison said. Robison earned an appearance fee for the infomercial but doesn’t receive a percentage of TriVita sales, he said.
“Today, one of the hottest topics in Christian television is health,” Ellison said. “Every time we talk about it the phones light up.”
As some preachers in evangelical Christianity continue to promote physical health, along with spirituality, more commercial endorsements might be on the horizon, said televangelist expert Giuliano.
“I think the natural logical progression is exercise machines,” Giuliano said, without a hint of sarcasm.
For his part, the chief executive of Omega XL doesn’t apologize for the infomercial. Meares said he will use Randy White and other ministers to send the message about what he considers a powerful health product.
“If I could get Billy Graham to do this [endorse Omega XL], I would do it,” Meares said. “If I could get Joel Osteen to do this, I would do it.”