All over Orlando you see forces at work that are changing America from Fairbanks to Little Rock. This, truly, is a 21st-century paradigm: It is growth built on consumption, not production; a society founded not on natural resources, but upon the dissipation of capital accumulated elsewhere; a place of infinite possibilities, somehow held together, to the extent it is held together at all, by a shared recognition of highway signs, brand names, TV shows, and personalities, rather than any shared history. Nowhere else is the juxtaposition of what America actually is and the conventional idea of what America should be more vivid and revealing.
Welcome to the theme-park nation.
"I fell in love with the sense of potential," says Rick Tesch, one of modern Orlando's boosters. "I saw Orlando as a great place to be, globally." Tesch could be talking about franchising car rental agencies. Instead, he is talking about religion. In the 1980s, Orlando's civic elite had decided it could be a leader in faith as well as theme parks. For Tesch, a devout man working for the Orlando Economic Development Commission at the time, the opportunity to lure religious organizations to the Orlando area was a privilege as well as a challenge.
One prime target was Bill Bright, the late founder of the Campus Crusade for Christ. Like Disney, Bright had started out in southern California; his spiritual enterprise, like Disney's entertainment enterprise, soon needed more growing space. Tesch set out to prove that Orlando was just the place for the Campus Crusade to put down roots. Orlando's Hometown U.S.A. persona was a draw. So was the fact that, in religion as in other fields, Orlando was on the cusp of mighty changes in America. Originally a southern prong of the Bible Belt, Orlando was morphing into a stronghold of Middle American spiritual as well as cultural values, a result of massive migration out of the central United States into central Florida.
God wants me to come here, Bright is reported to have said after an exploratory visit. So did the Orlando Economic Development Commission. Working with civic leaders and private donors, it helped broker a deal in which the Campus Crusade for Christ, in exchange for establishing its new World Center for Discipleship and Evangelism in Orlando, was given 165 acres (67 hectares) of land, for free. The equivalent of Disney's Reedy Creek deal, it hastened Orlando's transformation into an important nexus of religious enterprise. Today dozens of megachurches and religious organizations, many with multimillion-dollar budgets, are located in the area.
The megachurch is the culmination, at least so far, of the integration of religious practice into the freeway-driven, market-savvy, franchise form of American life. The emergence of Orlando's largest megachurch, the First Baptist Church, from a small congregation into a powerful, wealthy organization, parallels Orlando's own transformation. The turning point came, as in many Orlando stories, when a sense of mission intersected with a real estate opportunity.