American Dreams ‘R’ US: Amway returns to the Motherland
Some have called it a pyramid scheme, a pioneer of multilevel marketing, a cult. Over the years, its founders became a major funding source of the conservative movement. Now, after nearly a decade of concentrating on its overseas operations—including Russia, China, and India—which have become the backbone of its bottom line, Amway (now operating as Amway Global) is spending millions of dollars on television commercials, and on print ads in newspapers, magazines, and online, laying the groundwork for a return to the Motherland.
Founded in 1959 by two high school buddies from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Richard DeVos and the late Jay Van Andel, Amway—short for “American Way”—peddled all sorts of products including health, beauty, and household items. These days, Nutrilite, which the company calls “the world’s leading brand of vitamin, mineral and dietary supplements,” is one of the company’s leading moneymakers.
The company’s most important product has always been selling its version of the American Dream: the notion that any person with a fair amount of desire, spunk, and initiative with a get-up-and-go persona and a little bit of up-front money, could shape their futures. They can get rich, and their futures would include a fair amount of well-deserved wealth.
The truth has always been vastly different: The overwhelming majority of those recruited into Amway/Quixtar motivational organizations lose money. Instead of promised wealth, they wind up with garages full of products, motivational tapes, and sales booklets, for which they paid a handsome price.
Few have explained the inner workings of the company better than Eric Scheibeler, who, along with his wife, reached the founder’s Emerald level—a level less than 1/25th of one percent of Amway participants are able to achieve—before they uncovered company fraud and deception, and were hounded out of the organization. Scheibeler explains how Amway operates in his book Merchants of Deception: An Insider’s Look at the Worldwide, Systematic, Conspiracy of Lies That is Amway/Quixtar and their Motivational Organization.
As the company grew, the DeVos and Van Andel clans—two very conservative Christian families—become major underwriters of Republican Party political candidates and religious right causes. According to Progress for America, Amway’s founders contributed $4 million to conservative 527 groups during the 2004 election cycle. In April 2005, Rolling Stone reported that Amway CEO and co-founder Richard DeVos was connected with the dominionist political movement in the United States, and that DeVos had given more than $5 million to the late D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Ministries.
In a piece I wrote in April 2005 for Media Transparency, I pointed out that:
Richard DeVos and Jay Van Andel’s Amway Corporation has its tentacles firmly planted in late-twentieth and early twenty-first century Republican Party politics. Masquerading as a Christian-oriented family enterprise, Amway leaders have made billions by selling a phony version of the American Dream, while bilking thousands of ordinary American dreamers out of their hard-earned life savings. The wealth of the founders has supported the nearly 30+ year conservative makeover of American society through millions of dollars in donations to the creation and development of right-wing institutions and causes.
Rethinking Redemption: The Case of Charles Colson
In 1990, the author/essayist Tarik Ali wrote a novel titled Redemption; Ninety years earlier, Leo Tolstoy wrote a play called The Living Corpse (the original Russian title, Zhivoi trup, is translated as “Redemption”); Redemption is the name of a heavy metal band, and the title of a number of record albums including one by the metal group Vomitory, and the hip hop duo GRITS; “Redemption” was the title of a two-part episode on television’s “Stargate SG-1,” and also of a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” two-parter. “Redemption Song” was one of many of Bob Marley’s extraordinary musical contributions, and if you haven’t seen The Shawshank Redemption, rent it immediately. In spite of its artistic cachet, in twenty-first century America there is no single pathway to “redemption.”
The “redemption” of Watergate felon Charles Colson appeared complete when President Bush awarded him the nation’s second highest civilian honor, the Presidential Citizens Medal—one of twenty-four bestowed at the White House in early December 2008. The Presidential Citizens Medal is designed to recognize Americans “who have performed exemplary deeds of service for the nation.”
What of Colson’s service to the nation? He was an avid supporter of the Vietnam War, a willing architect of, and participant in, the Nixon administration’s attempted shredding of the Constitution. He spent seven months at Alabama’s Maxwell Prison for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, and he was an erstwhile co-conspirator, according to Senate Watergate testimony, in a plot to bomb the centrist Brookings Institution.
Although the White House ceremony received minimal coverage in the mainstream media, it was covered by Christian conservative news outlets, where Colson is a revered figure.
In response to news of the award ceremony, I wrote a piece for Buzzflash entitled “The Fallen Have Risen: Charles Colson honored by White House,” and subtitled “In his final days in office, President Bush is pallin’ around with a former felon and bomb plotter.”
Despite the snarky subtitle’s intentional dig at Bush, the article acknowledged Colson’s recent achievements: A few years ago, Time magazine named him one of the twenty-five most influential conservative evangelical Christians in the country; he had a chair named in his honor at Calvin College, a small Christian college based in Grand Rapids, Michigan; for years he has had the ear of top-shelf Republican Party political leaders; and he has been a prolific author of books, writer/co-author of columns, and is regular host of a Christian radio news program. Receiving the Presidential Citizens Medal (PCM) was Colson’s most prestigious comeback award.
The man with the checkered resumé was now, in the eyes of his brethren and the Christian press, fully redeemed.
What was Colson’s path to redemption? In 1976, shortly after serving time for his involvement in Watergate, Colson became a born-again Christian and founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, a faith-based based “outreach” ministry “to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers.” Prison Fellowship Ministries, according to its Web site, is the “largest prison ministry in the world,” and “partners with thousands of churches and tens of thousands of volunteers.”
One conservative reader irked by the column’s questioning of Colson’s fitness for a PCM, wrote: “Oh, please. Hope you never need redemption.”
How are we to understand the concept of redemption? Of the five definitions in the American Heritage Dictionary, three are economically related: the paying of an obligation (government bond); the recovery of something pawned or mortgaged; the “deliverance upon payment of ransom.” The final definition is “salvation from sin through Christ’s sacrifice.” In modern-day America, redemption has become a cultural construct as well as a spiritual state.
Who confers redemption? Is one redeemed because a president or head of a foundation or charity allows that you are? Can redemption be earned, say with a string of good deeds, or handsome donations to homeless shelters or battered women’s refuges? Does one campaign for it by hiring a good public relations firm? Is there a “redemption” school or camp? Is making one’s way through alcohol or drug rehabilitation redemptive?
Fallen religious leaders are major-league candidates for redemption. Ted Haggard appeared to be striving for it after his drug and sex scandals, but then he dropped out of a pastor-administrated program, apparently deciding he had been redeemed enough. Jim Bakker, who served time in prison for swindling thousands of his followers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, is these days hosting a little-watched religious television program. What about political leaders? Did Richard Nixon achieve redemption at the end of his life when the media revisited and burnished his tarnished legacy with attention to his foreign policy accomplishments?
And what about Colson? How does his ministry to prisoners contrast with or outweigh his sometimes combative and pugnacious public persona? Colson has been an unapologetic supporter of President Bush’s War in Iraq, going so far as signing on to a 2002 statement declaring the impending war to be a “just” war. Not long ago, Colson accused several highly respected opponents of Bush’s faith-based initiative, including the Rev. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, of enabling terrorism.
In 2004, Colson warned that the Senate’s failure to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment would only end up endangering the lives of American citizens:
We must be careful not to blame innocent Americans for murderous attacks against them. At the same time, let’s acknowledge that America’s increasing decadence is giving aid and comfort to the enemy…
Radical Islamists were surely watching in July when the Senate voted on procedural grounds to do away with the Federal Marriage Amendment. This is like handing moral weapons of mass destruction to those who use America’s decadence to recruit more snipers and hijackers and suicide bombers.
Are these the acts of a redeemed man? Is the culture playing fast and loose with the concept of redemption? What is the social function of the “redemption” of disgraced or fallen public figures? What do these public “morality plays” provide us as individuals?
“‘Redemption’ all too often seems to me to be a word that relates to a different model of religion than mine, a model that includes fast conversions, a confidence in one’s ability to read God’s mind, an afterlife, and the Bible’s ‘inerrancy,’” Roger Martin, a former moderator and Sunday school teacher at Peace Mennonite Church, in Lawrence, Kansas, told me in a series of e-mail exchanges. He continued:
Colson may say that he’s been forgiven; those around him say that his ministry is proof of this. The business of calling people ‘terrorists’ probably stems from being convinced, to the utmost degree, that you are right.
However, I prefer the idea of God tendered by Karl Barth, who refers to him as the ‘divine incognito.’ Barth writes that ‘God is the unknown God, and, precisely because he is unknown, he bestows life and breath and all things. Therefore the power of God can be detected neither in the world of nature nor in the souls of men. It must not be confounded with any high, exalted force, known or knowable.’ What that says to me is that you can have no subjective assurance that you have God’s stamp of approval, whether you are Charles Colson, Charles Manson, Mother Theresa, or Karl Barth. That lack of assurance is humbling—and important—and puts you out of the business of judging others, I think.
The Role of Religion in US Politics
Is it too late for another Top Ten list for 2008? Check out Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s “Top Ten List of Church–State Stories for 2008,” where “The Role of Religion in the Presidential Campaign,” occupies the top spot. And if such longtime religious right organizations—including Lou Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition and Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association—have their druthers, one of next year’s top stories may be indeed be titled “The Role of the Religious Right in Undermining the Administration of President Barack Obama.”
The editors of Americans United’s Church & State magazine pointed out that:
Not since 1960 when John F. Kennedy the first Roman Catholic president was elected, has religion played such a large role in a presidential campaign. News media representatives grilled candidates on what sins they had committed and what their favorite Bible verses were. Barack Obama fought false rumors that he is secretly a Muslim, and Mitt Romney’s Mormonism became a controversial topic. Candidates were held accountable for the incendiary comments of their pastors and their clergy supporters, such as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and TV preacher John Hagee. Many observers thought the whole thing was an unholy mess, especially in a nation that separates religion and government.
For the other stories—and explanatory notes—making Church & State’s Top Ten list, see: “The Resurgence of the Religious Right”; “The Battle Over Gay Marriage”; “The Ascendancy of Rick Warren”; “Religious Right Influence at Justice Department”; “Battles Over Creationism in Public Schools”; “Church Politicking Plot”; “Defeat of Jeb Bush Referenda”; “Blocking of ‘Christian’ License Plate”; and “The Christmas Wars.”
Rick Warren 101: If you were lucky, none of your holiday gatherings, dinners, gift exchanges, meet-ups, e-mail, or twitter posts were sprinkled with talk of Pastor Rick Warren. The Saddleback Church Pastor whose name was for years pretty much confined to the musings of religious cognoscente, has burst out of that ghetto, big time. Due to right-wing clatter, I was moved to repost a long piece about Warren from March 2006—before Warren-mania (RD’s Warren coverage can be found here).
Barth’s Place: From stories about a circumcision libel suit to exposing deadly “witch” hunters in Africa to the discovery of perhaps half-a-million Iberian Jews, no one does it better than Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion, an absolute must-read for those following religious happenings in the United States and around the globe. Consider the following recent posts, produced by Richard Bartholomew:
A report about a libel suit by one John F. Singer, a 49-year-old Queens, New York, man who claims that Centropa (the Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation, an oral history project based in Vienna and Budapest that focuses on Jewish life and culture in the 20th and 21st centuries), published false information stating he was uncircumcised;
A lengthy follow-up comment from a fellow suggesting that Bartholomew may himself be a witch because of the writing he has done exposing the horrific fate of children in Africa accused of practicing witchcraft (see “Channel 4 Highlights Nigerian ‘Witch Children’”);
News that Michael Freund, the founder of Shavei Israel, has connected the genetic dots and found “that 20% of the population of Iberia has Sephardic Jewish ancestry.” A paper published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, states that …The finding that 20% of the population of Iberia is descended from Jews will likely take Spain and Portugal by storm…Imagine if just 5% or even 10% of Spanish and Portuguese descendants of Jews were to return to Judaism. It would mean an additional 500,000 to 1 million Jews in the world.”
Interestingly enough, one of those who has found Freund’s work fascinating is James M. Hutchens of the Christian Zionist “Jerusalem Connection,” who has been promoting the piece. Why? Bartholomew: “I can see why Freund would enthuse over this, but it’s less clear why a conservative evangelical like Hutchens would want to promote the idea of 500,000 to 1 million Portuguese and Spaniards embracing a religion other than Christianity. Such are the mysteries of Christian Zionism.”
Coral Ridge Ministries Produces Is Jesus God?: Since the death of Coral Ridge Ministries’ D. James Kennedy, the organization has been on the down-low. They have seemingly traded activist conservative politics—hosting annual conferences mobilizing the base—for marketing what must be a warehouse full of books, pamphlets, tapes, and videos. In mid-December, however, CRM, fed up with attacks on Christians and Jesus, announced that it had produced a program titled Is Jesus God? which would air on a number of television stations (mostly religious) across the country. “It is just amazing what God has done in history, and we as Christians need to know this information because our faith is challenged,” said Dr. Jerry Newcombe, senior producer of The Coral Ridge Hour. “But it’s challenged by baseless feelings and opinions, a lot of which is based on people’s desires to reject God because they want to do what they want to do in the bedroom or out of the bedroom.”
Faith-Based Initiative Watch Closes Down: The Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, which has been tracking President Bush’s faith-based initiative since 2002, a year after the initiative’s creation, recently announced that beginning in January 2009 the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life “will continue the Roundtable’s work, focusing on research and analysis of faith-based social services.”