God and Mammon on the Web
by Reid Vineis
million Americans surf the web for faith-related reasons, according to a
recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life project. Many of them are
Want a daily
Bible verse on your desktop? Information on what movies you can safely take
your kids to? For the savvy Christian consumer there are myriad sites
designed to meet a wide range of needs. How about an eight-question quiz to
test your piety? (The present author tested straight into Hell.)
Most of the
popular Christian sites offer niche products that appeal only to, well,
Christians. The search engine Biblegateway just doesn’t attract much
attention from the secular set.
The biggest of
these niche players today is
www.GodTube.com.A YouTube knock-off, Godtube
is full of wholesome content—no inappropriate comments or uncouth images are
permitted into its rosy world of spiritual uplift, Christian rock, and cats
playing with balls. In late May, its most popular video was “Lifehouse
Everything Drama”—a musical pantomime in which a young woman is assailed by
all the temptations of this world until she is rescued by Jesus or possibly
her youth minister.
hosts a variety of churchly content. Sermons, ministerial blogs, worship
services, and church homepages are all just a few clicks away. The site
enables users to chat, share videos, and make GodTube friends. It even
features a virtual rock wall where users can post their prayers for all to
launched last August by Christopher Wyatt, a former CBS producer and a
member of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. Wyatt had become frustrated
with the state of morality in America and, as a student at Dallas
Theological Seminary, been made aware of a sharp decline in American church
attendance. Determined to evangelize youth, he set out to create an
alternative to monotonous Sunday morning services.
The site does not
make faith a criterion for joining. Good evangelical that he is, Wyatt
encourages non-Christians to log on. But when you register for all the
benefits of membership, GodTube tries to screen out the violent and the
criminal. Would Jesus have done that?
When it comes to
content, there are very few Internet sites that screen as rigorously. The
Plano, Texas-based company employs its own “video police”—14 theology
students who monitor all uploaded videos. Users themselves can flag content
as inappropriat. Rudeness, cursing, pornography, or violence are all
markets itself as a social networking site where pious young people can meet
each other, check out ministries, or just chat. Writing in the Christian
Science Monitor February 6, Dmitry Kiper called it a “supernal scenic
outlook on the Information Superhighway.”
Clark, a professor at the University of Denver, remains skeptical about the
ability of sites like GodTube to convert non-believers. “They say, ‘Someone
will stumble upon us and be converted to Christianity,’ but sociological
studies suggest otherwise,” she told the Christian Science Monitor’s
GodTube was the
fastest growing website in the world in its first month of existence,
drawing 1.7 million viewers and prompting Wyatt to portray the site as “the
next-generation television network.” Those numbers have dropped off
significantly since then however, leaving the site a distant also-ran behind
the social giants Facebook and MySpace. Still, New York Times
business reporter John Metcalfe was able to report May 12 that
GodTube had won a $30 million investment from GLG, a London-based hedge
fund. This would, wrote Metcalfe, bring the site “one step closer to
building a kingdom on earth.”
Thus far, to
build a true earthly kingdom, a Christian site has got to have crossover
appeal. The most significant example of such secularizing success is
eHarmony.com. Designed to be the Rolls Royce of Internet dating sites,
eHarmony boasts that it actually does bring its clients true, long-lasting
marital relationships. It does, indeed, have one of the highest success
rates in the industry.
eHarmony, founder Neil Clark Warren was a mere evangelical Christian
psychologist with an M.Div. from the Princeton Theological Seminary and a
Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. After years of counseling frustrated
couples in private practice, he paired up with his Web-literate son-in-law
to attack America’s high divorce rate at the source: by building unbreakable
marriages from the start.
“My agenda is to
do two things: change the World and build a business,” Warren proclaimed to
Salon’s Rebecca Traister in a June 10, 2005 interview.
guarantee wedding bells for all subscribers. And gays and lesbians need not
apply. Warren asserts that he’s not discriminating against same-sex
relationships. It’s just that he finds the issue too divisive and refuses to
encourage his clients to undertake a relationship that is against the law in
almost every state of the Union. “We don’t really want to participate in
something that is illegal,” he told Janet Kornblum of USA Today May
The secret to
eHarmony’s success is its “personality test.” Users answer an exhaustive
list of questions ranging from “How important is your match’s age?”
to “How bossy are you?” Subscribers are also asked to identify their
religion, their preference among other faiths, and what specific
denominations are kosher for companionship. Hopefuls can ask for matches
with Baptists, Catholics, or Mennonites but not Quakers.
Those who aren’t
religious should probably seek other ponds to fish in. While eHarmony does
not declare outright that it is only for Christians, there is a certain
preferential option for them.
“A couple of
years ago, one disgruntled visitor to the site went on Good Morning
America and complained that he had been rejected by eHarmony because he
wasn’t spiritual enough,” Christopher Palmieri wrote in an article on the
site in the February 20 issue of Business Week. “Warren says that he
took one look at the guy’s body language and concluded that he was
depressed, which would explain why he flunked the personality quiz.”
This is not an
isolated incident; many would-be subscribers have complained that eHarmony
has denied them a match because of their lack of faith.
boasts obtaining over 1.3 million members a year. And while Warren won’t
disclose income numbers, the site is widely regarded as an industry leader.
But he wasn’t always rolling in dough.
How did eHarmony
get to where it is today? For many years, it languished in obscurity,
foregoing advertising in favor of word of mouth to spread its particular
Then, in 2004,
James Dobson’s flagship evangelical radio show Focus on the Family decided
that eHarmony was A Good Thing. Dobson, who Warren has called his “biggest
supporter,” also started out life as a licensed psychologist and professor
(of child development). He plugged the site between his espousals of
evangelical family values.
Warren went on to
publish one of his books, Finding the Love of Your Life,
through Dobson’s publishing company.
relationship with Warren seemed like a match made in heaven until Focus on
the Family took a harder political turn during the 2004 election cycle.
Growing uncomfortable with his buddy-buddy relationship with the now
pre-eminent figure of the religious right, Warren distanced himself from
Focus, even buying back the rights to three of his books so that the
organization’s name did not appear on the cover.
“I have a lot of
respect for a lot that goes on in Focus on the Family,” Warren told Salon in
2005. “Where I get nervous is when people think we’re political like Focus
on the Family.” Today, Warren spends about $80 million in television ads
that avoid any indication of his Christian background.
remained skeptical about the break-up. “Is [Warren] a moral man who has
begun to question the narrowness of the Christian right, especially their
position on gays? asked Salon’s Traister. “Or is he a savvy opportunist
looking for a bigger market share?” Whatever the case, Warren has reaped
great rewards after the divorce.
More secular than
it used to be, eHarmony is now the 1,000th most popular website on the
Internet, according to Alexa.com. To be sure, it is still no match for its
much less wholesome rival, Match.com.
Created by Gary
Kremen, the former owner of Sex.com, Match teases viewers with partners up
front, then quickly prompts them to pay up. Match now rates among the top
But eHarmony is
leaps and bounds ahead of GodTube, and the reason is not hard to find.
chasing cool,” GodTube’s Wyatt told Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today
December 17. “Our demographic is religious.”
“I think there is
something very incredible about Jesus,” Warren told Janet Kornblum of the
same paper. “I don’t back away from that. At the same time…the public we
want to serve is the world.”