Studying the Faithful Consumers

If someone had created a stock market for spirituality in the 1990s, all of the prime indicators would have gone off the charts.

That made sense, the experts told CEO Steven Waldman. The economy was on fire and this new wealth caused many people to ask big questions. Times were good, yet they felt empty. They went shopping for answers.

Then the nation plunged into recession, while signs of interest in spiritual matters kept increasing. That made sense, said the experts. People were struggling and, thus, they turned to faith for comfort and insights. This trend intensified after 9/11, even if the impact didn't last in traditional pews.

So what's the bottom line? Faith is not a niche-market trend.

It's true that the look and feel of "mainstream" American religion is changing, in part due to people searching on the World Wide Web. "Organized religion" may be in a recession, but the rest of the "spirituality" numbers continue to add up, up, up.

"Wall Street considers a trend that lasts 10 years to be significant. This one has lasted 10 millennia," argues Waldman, in a research paper he calls "The Faithful Consumer & The Spiritual Marketplace." He recently cranked out a 13th draft, trying to keep up with the latest data.

"While philosophers have studied the faithful soul and politicians have courted the faithful voter, the marketing and business communities have so far ignored The Faithful Consumer. This is a big mistake."

In the wake of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" -- with its $600-million-plus payday -- there has been increased research into the size of the "Christian marketplace" for goods and entertainment. Waldman is, of course, interested in these numbers because the vast majority of Americans tell pollsters that, to one degree or another, they consider themselves Christians.

What is harder to document is the broader spiritual market. The sprawling website -- with 4.5 million subscribers to its digital newsletters -- is thoroughly interfaith, with cyber-homes for everyone from evangelicals to pagans, from Orthodox Jews to feminist Mormons, from smells-and-bells Catholics to progressive Muslims. I should mention that I am the editor of the site that is linked to the through its "Blog Heaven" forum.

It's relatively easy to document what is happening in bookstores, radio networks, CD sales, cable television and magazines. What is harder, said Waldman, is to factor in the economic clout of spiritual consumers in areas such as education, health care, charity and even the travel industry.

However, he has arrived at what he considers a very conservative estimate of total spending in the "spirituality sector" of the economy -- $225 billion a year.

People of faith are not part of a strange trend far from the mainstream, he said. They are the mainstream. What Waldman calls the "Faithful Consumer" is the normal consumer, part of a demographic group that is larger than the sectors called "women," "Baby Boomers," "singles," "teens" or any of the usual ethnic groups.

Some marketing professionals seem afraid to talk about these numbers, in part because religion is often controversial and this demographic is so hard to pin down. Are "Faithful Consumers" people who believe in God or the gods? Are they united by their broader spiritual concerns or divided by their narrow, specific dogmas? Are they prickly true believers or blowing-with-the-wind seekers?

These days, the safe answer is "all of the above." Americans love to shop.

So far, 18 million consumers have bought "The DaVinci Code" by Dan Brown, with its head-spinning blend of historical speculation, Gnostic legend, goddess worship and anti-Vatican polemics. Another 20 million-plus have embraced the up-beat, easy-going sermonettes of evangelical superstar Rick Warren.

It's safe to say that some people bought both. This is America.

"There are people out there who do things like that, even though that confounds all of our stereotypes," said Waldman. "We may not be able to understand some of the spiritual choices that people make. But you know what we can say? We can say that they cared enough about matters of the soul to buy these books and read them. ...

"People are out there searching and if all we did was wake up the business world to that reality, we would have accomplished something."