(RNS) When Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker spoke last Saturday (April 25) to an influential gathering of Christian conservatives in an Iowa church, he brought along a little reading material.
Standing before more than 1,000 people at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, the Wisconsin governor used part of his time to read from “Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence,” a Christian devotional written in the first-person voice of Jesus by missionary-turned-author Sarah Young.
“‘The way to walk through demanding times is to grip my hand tightly,’” Walker read to the crowd. “‘Regardless of the day’s problems, I can keep you in perfect peace as you stay close to me.’”
According to reports, the crowd was “rapt.” In the days after Scott’s talk, the book shot to the top of a couple of online retailers’ best-seller lists, including Amazon.
Not that the book needed Walker’s help.
“‘Calling Jesus’ didn’t need Scott Walker to get a bump,” said Marcia Z. Nelson, until recently the religion reviews editor at Publishers Weekly, which tracks the publishing industry. “Christian publishing has had a massive hit on its hands ever since ‘Jesus Calling’ was published in 2004.”
And that may have been the point of Walker’s use of the book: a quiet signal, to evangelicals that Walker is one of them, that he even reads the same books. “Jesus Calling” is more of a megaphone for the still-undeclared candidate, a preacher’s son who opposes hot-button issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
Phyllis Tickle, former religion editor for Publishers Weekly and the author of multiple Christian titles herself, said she could not remember another book — let alone a religion book — being read in public by another presidential hopeful.
“I mean, sure, candidates will cite books,” she said, “but not like this.”
Walker would be a lucky candidate if some of the success of “Jesus Calling” rubbed off on him. According to Publishers Weekly, the book sold about 59,000 copies in its first few years, largely through word-of-mouth, and then seemed to hit a tipping point. In the first half of 2013, it outsold a book that was more dog-collar than dog-whistle, “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Publishers Weekly reports that “Jesus Calling” has now sold 14 million copies in its many iterations — calendar, smartphone app, children’s book.
“It’s a franchise,” Nelson said.
And one with a lot of company. Devotionals are the bread-and-butter of religion publishing. The first devotional, “My Utmost for His Highest,” was written in 1924 by Oswald Chambers, a Scottish pastor who died before its publication. Its rerelease in 1990 by Barbour Publishing garnered 6.5 million sales to date and kicked off a Christian craze for devotionals.
Today, it is hard to find a single religion-oriented publishing house without at least one. Thomas Nelson, the Christian branch of Harper Collins and publisher of “Jesus Calling,” has been devoted to devotionals for at least two decades.
“We had no idea Scott Walker had the book and would use it,” said Stefanie Schroeder, a HarperCollins publicist. “It’s always nice to hear about how ‘Jesus Calling’ touched someone’s life.”
“Jesus Calling” is not the first book to get a bump from a politician. In 2008, when President Obama was still Senator Obama, his book-bump abilities were second only to Oprah Winfrey’s, as books he mentioned reading became immediate best-sellers. And in 2012, Republican candidate Mitt Romney lent attention to Jared Diamond’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner, “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.”
That instance did not end happily. Days after the mention, Diamond, a geography professor, wrote in The New York Times that Romney mischaracterized his work.
“(It) is so different from what my book actually says that I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it,” Diamond wrote.