Why you should care

Because a saint might work miracles, but a good publicist can work wonders.

He’s been called the Light, the Redeemer, the Messiah, even Superstar, but that didn’t stop corporate evangelist Bruce Barton from adding a couple more titles to Jesus of Nazareth’s lengthy résumé in the early 1920s: Business Pioneer and Marketing Genius.

Jesus, in the gospel according to Barton, “picked up 12 men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world.” And in his 1925 best-seller, The Man Nobody Knows, the American public relations guru in turn picked up Jesus and transformed him into the “founder of modern business” and the most successful advertising man the world had known B.D.D. (Before Don Draper). It may sound like theological origami, but Barton’s story of Jesus was just the sort of sermon that a largely Christian, and increasingly prosperous, American society was delighted to hear — and its echoes still garner “Amens” in churches and boardrooms today.

Christianity’s global success, Barton suggests, stems largely from Jesus’ phenomenal PR skills.

Over the course of his extraordinary career, Barton also had a number of jobs and titles attached to his name: magazine writer, editor, advertising executive, best-selling author, congressman and presidential adviser. The son of a Congregationalist minister, Barton was devout, optimistic, energetic and, like his contemporary Henry Ford, a profound believer in material progress and the disciples of capitalism driving it. “I am in advertising,” he once proclaimed, “because I believe in business, and advertising is the voice of business.”

Barton, who created the character of Betty Crocker, used his considerable talents to locate the “soul” of his corporate clients and to project that image out into the world. General Motors, in Barton’s campaigns, was not just an automotive giant; it was the maker of vehicles that enabled a doctor to speed to the aid of an ailing child. And when he was not busy salvaging corporate souls, Barton was contemplating “the Man” tasked with saving human ones.

Keenly attuned to appearances, Barton recognized early on that the image of a passive, long-haired, “sissified” Jesus (in Barton’s words) was not all that compatible with the spirit of 1920s America, its lively culture of self-realization and the orgy of consumption catapulting the economy to new heights. “A preacher is really a salesman,” Barton’s father had taught him. And if that was the case, then guess who must have been the ultimate pitchman?

In just seven short chapters, The Man Nobody Knows makes the case for Jesus’ supreme executive ability. Gone is the humble carpenter and the persecuted martyr; taking his place is, as Daniel Siemens writes in Fractured Modernity: America Confronts Modern Times, 1890s to 1940s, “a physically strong, hardened, and attractive young man, an early advertising genius and a successful recruiter and leader of men.”

Christianity’s success, Barton suggests, stems largely from Jesus’ phenomenal PR skills. Much like Donald Trump today, Jesus knew, says Barton, that controversy is what grabs the public’s attention, and unpredictability is what holds it. “Reporters would have followed him every single hour,” Barton observes, “for it was impossible to predict what he would say or do; every action and word were news.”

Copywriters and ministers alike could also learn from Jesus’ messaging, which revealed a preternatural understanding of the principles of modern advertising. Jesus’ parables and sayings were simple, sincere and concise, and they focused on human interest stories and everyday life. They kept people’s attention and didn’t get bogged down in long explanations. According to Barton, Jesus “hated prosy dullness” and “sincerity glistened like sunshine through every sentence” as he, like a good copywriter, distilled the best things in life into one-syllable words such as “love,” “joy” and “faith.”

Besides staking his claim for Jesus as a founding father of modern capitalism, Barton applied his talents to more prosaic figures, like U.S. president Calvin Coolidge, whose bland competence Barton’s magic touch helped convert into the folksy and unassuming “Silent Cal.” Not even the Great Depression could weaken Barton’s abiding faith in American capitalism, but not even Bruce Barton could revive Herbert Hoover’s public image in its wake. Barton did, however, serve two terms in Congress and continued to preach that “advertising is the very essence of democracy.”

In truth, Barton had a knack for making whatever he was doing essential to a grander mission. From business to politics to religion, Barton was quick to inject himself, the virtues of his calling and his unique array of talents into the task at hand. God may have made man in his own image, but Bruce Barton made Jesus in his.

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