Film

How Bible Salesmen Paved the Way for Capitalism to Devour Evangelicalism

The classic documentary Salesman, which turned 50 this year, presaged our current age of megachurches and Christian influencers.

From Salesman (courtesy Criterion Collection)

“The bestseller in the world is the Bible.”

This is the opening line of David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin’s 1969 documentary Salesman. Zwerin and the Maysles, later known for films like Gimme Shelter (1970) and Grey Gardens (1975), follow four door-to-door Bible salesmen across the United States. Their targets are working-class Catholics, many of whom cannot afford the luxury of an ornate Bible but cave to the salesmen’s tactics. Paul Brennan, referred to as “The Badger,” is the world-weary center of the film. He is under no illusions about the predatory nature of his work and the toll it’s taking on him. As Brennan experiences a dispiriting slump in sales, his coworkers (James “The Rabbit” Baker, Raymond “The Bull” Martos, and Charles “The Gipper” McDevitt) travel with him along the East Coast. The filmmakers accompany them on their sales trips and meetings, creating a fascinating portrait of a suburban America seemingly untouched by the era’s sociopolitical reckoning. On its 50th anniversary, Salesman’s recognition of the relationship between capitalism and Christianity remains eerily relevant in light of contemporary America’s embrace of prosperity theology.

From Salesman (courtesy Criterion Collection)

Brennan, McDevitt, Martos, and Baker are all self-aware enough to understand that selling Bibles door-to-door is no holy higher calling; it’s a job no different than the blue-collar careers held by their potential customers. This is most evident in a scene near the end of the film, wherein one salesman claims that Brennan sells these specific Bibles because as a devoted Catholic, he believes in the product. There’s then a quick cut to Brennan driving to his next sale, laughing at an offscreen question presumably about this comment about his faith. But their lack of conviction — or simple awareness of the reality of the situation — doesn’t stop them from exploiting their customers’ genuine religious sentiments. They consistently imply that purchasing one of these massive tomes for $49.95 (nearly $350 today) is a step closer to salvation. When customers say they simply cannot afford the cost, the salesmen push and guilt and charm them even harder. The lingering close-ups capture both the salesmen’s rapid calculations and the customers’ inner turmoil. It’s “What can I do to close this sale?” versus “Do I pay now or on Judgement Day?”

The Maysles and Zwerin do not explicitly condemn the salesmen for their or their industry’s callousness. Interactions between them at motels or on the road humanize them, demonstrating the job’s demands of physical labor, constant travel, and separation from their families. The wear and tear are most apparent with Brennan, who is demoralized by his downward trend. They are not innocent, but a more illuminating peek into the corrosive power that can arise within commodified Christianity comes via an all-company sales meeting which the foursome attend in Chicago. There, the “theological consultant” for the Bible they are currently selling speaks to the crowd. He says that their work is aligned with “[their] Father’s business,” making a farfetched comparison to Luke 2:49, wherein a young Jesus is separated from his parents and eventually found in a temple conversing with scholars.

From Salesman (courtesy Criterion Collection)

Selling Bibles on such arguably predatory terms is not a byproduct of devotion, but a logical outcome of religion and business becoming so intertwined that it gets hard to tell which is which. Today, door-to-door Bible selling is all but extinct, but the economic forces behind it are still hard at work. Prosperity theology, a Protestant belief in economic security and wealth as bequeathed by God, has origins in the New Thought movement in the United States and the rise of televangelism in the 1980s. It can still be considered a fringe movement, but the rise of the megachurch and celebrity preachers like Joel Osteen have given its tenets new prominence. Today, one of the most influential of the prosperity preachers is Paula White, who’s also head of the Trump administration’s “Faith and Opportunity Initiative.” Some of these church leaders, such as Liberty University president and fellow Trump ally Jerry Falwell Jr., have been accused or convicted of various forms of tax fraud.

Although not as outwardly pernicious as the Falwells and Whites of the world, another prevalent modern development in this vein is the Christian influencer. Mostly younger white women, they combine religion with parasocial intimacy and hustle. They talk about their interpersonal relationships, maintaining your bond with God through personalized prayer, and even modest fashion advice. Popular personalities, like Sadie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame or Emma Mae Jenkins (a student at Liberty), engage with their followers in a relatable manner and then trade in that goodwill for brand partnerships and speaking tours. Robertson, who has already found success with her Live Original tours and podcast, recently launched her own line of shirts adorned with minimalistic and trendy designs and vaguely Christian sayings. These women sell a saccharine, seductive vision of faith tied to their media presence without acknowledging the self-serving benefits behind the brands they’ve created.

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The companies in Salesman no longer exist, but the forces behind them have only grown in the intervening decades. Zwerin and the Maysles were too subtle and measured to give an explicit warning, but 50 years later, the similarities between their subjects, yesterday’s televangelists, and today’s influencers are a sober reminder of the ways that capitalism takes advantage of sincere belief.

Salesman is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection and to stream on various platforms.

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