TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- As marketing vice president for Chrysler Corp., John B. Damoose was one of the auto industry's rising stars. He gave it up to help direct Pat Robertson's media conglomerate, convinced he should promote Christianity instead of cars.
"People at Chrysler thought I'd dropped off the deep end," Damoose says. "Frankly, for a while I thought so, too."
Five years later, at 51, he believes the switch was part of a divine plan to prepare him for the marketing campaign of a lifetime.
Damoose and his family have established Freedom Ministries of America Inc., an evangelical group. Its founding premise is that the United States was divinely ordained to carry the Christian gospel to the world, but is falling down on the job.
To help, Freedom Ministries is organizing a "freedom train" modeled on the Bicentennial train that crisscrossed the nation in 1976. The group plans a five-year tour, beginning in 2000, with stops in about 250 cities for crusade-style worship services, concerts and other activities.
"The mission is simple," he says. "Join hands to evangelize the United States and prepare it to evangelize the world."
For much of his life, Damoose says, he was a "Christian of convenience." Went to church, donated to evangelical groups, but was more focused on climbing the corporate ladder.
He worked for 10 years in sales and marketing with Ford Motor Co., then jumped to Chrysler in 1982. Then-chairman Lee Iacocca recruited him for the team that would mastermind the No. 3 domestic automaker's comeback.
Damoose was vice president of Chrysler Canada and general manager of the Dodge Car & Truck Division before rising to vice president of marketing for the entire corporation. Automotive News listed him among the industry's top 20 executives.
"John was very bright. He had a terrific future at Chrysler; Iacocca really liked him," says Edward Lapham, the trade publication's executive editor.
Damoose became a hero to the Christian right in the early 1990s.
Disturbed by sex and violence on network television, he began shifting Chrysler's $750 million advertising budget elsewhere. He mentioned the new policy during a speech to a marketing group in Chicago. News reports seized on it.
Religious broadcaster James Dobson, head of the Colorado-based group Focus on the Family, urged listeners to write or call Chrysler in support. Some 30,000 letters poured in; callers jammed the switchboard.
Then in October 1993, Damoose and his wife spent a weekend with Robertson and other big donors to the evangelist's organization. As the gathering ended, Robertson asked Damoose if he knew someone who could light a fire under his various enterprises.
"So I told him, in what I thought afterwards was a weak moment, that maybe I could help him," Damoose said.
He became senior vice president of marketing at International Family Entertainment. Added later was the post of president for programming and product development at Christian Broadcasting Network.
Eventually, Damoose began thinking of forming a separate ministry, one particularly suited to his business skills.
Last year, he and his family started Freedom Ministries in Traverse City. Damoose is chairman and treasurer. His wife, Nancy, is president and secretary. Their son John, nicknamed "Ance," is vice president.
Freedom Ministries has produced a two-hour video with CBN, and Ance Damoose has co-authored a book.
The next step, the elder Damoose says, is the 24-car freedom train. Already being assembled in Sarasota, Fla., it will have a moving walkway to take people past high-tech exhibits of biblical scenes. The train will spend four or five days in each city during its five-year trek, Damoose says. There will be tents for picnics and viewing of Christian films, an amphitheater for worship services and concerts, stores selling books and mementos, and more.
To keep the spirit alive, Freedom Ministries and local supporters plan to establish a permanent "freedom center" in each town visited. Damoose visualizes the centers as offering Bible classes, entertainment and religious books in a relaxed, coffeehouse atmosphere conducive to recruitment of new Christians.
Freedom Ministries has budgeted $21 million for all this, and hopes to raise the money through private donations and sales of books, videos and concessions. Damoose says millions of dollars have been raised already.
"We want to do this project the way Disney would do it -- first class," he says.
Bill Bright, Ance Damoose's co-author and leader of the Campus Crusade for Christ, believes the vision is no pipe dream.
"He's a getter-doner," Bright said.
George Hunter, world mission and evangelism dean at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., is skeptical that Freedom Ministries will raise a new Christian army.
Non-believers he has interviewed through the years show little desire for glitzy attractions such as the freedom train, he said. Besides, many organizations -- particularly radio and television ministries -- have goals similar to Damoose's.
"This movement will have to establish its market niche and look relevant," Hunter said, "not like the same old thing others are doing in slightly different clothing."
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