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Religious Television: The American Experience by Peter Horsfield

Dr. Peter Horsfield is an ordained minister in the Uniting Church in Australia. He is currently employed on the Electronic Culture Research Project, a special initiative of the Uniting Church's Commission in Victoria to explore the impact of electronic media on global cultures and the implications of this cultural change on religious institutions and on the social experience and expression of religious faith. For ten years previously he was the Dean of the Uniting Church's Theological Hall and Lecturer in Practical Theology in the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. He has published extensively in the areas of mass communication and society and media, religion and culture. Among his publications are two books: Religious Television: The American Experience (Longmans 1984) and Taming the Television: A Parents' Guide to Children and Television (Albatross 1986). This book was published in 1984 by Longman, New York. The text was prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.

Chapter 12: Religious Television and American Culture

A major public concern has been that the paid-time religious broadcasters, through their media activities, exercised a disproportionate power over the American electorate. Though only a few of the broadcasters were politically involved, their wide constituency which was made possible by the mass media and the passionate loyalty which they appeared to engender from this constituency made them a minority group whose power exceeded their number. Particular focus of this concern centered on the fundamentalist preacher and churchman, Jerry Falwell and his related organizations, Moral Majority and the Religious Roundtable. These preachers, representing traditions that had previously played little active part in national elections, entered the political arena not just with a general message for Christians to be politically involved but with a specific agenda of policies and preferences and formed political alliances to further the cause of these preferences.

Social commentary on the broadcasters at the time of the elections reached close to a fever pitch, with fears being expressed that the broad- casters held such power as to hold the key to the election outcome. The election of Ronald Reagan as president, the paid-time broadcasters' chosen candidate, provided for many evidence to justify their fears. Now that much of the pre-election tension and anxiety has abated, however, a more calculated analysis of the broadcasters' actual and future potential influence in the political sphere can be made.

Subsequent research on the political influence of the religious broad-casters indicates that they were not a major influence in the actual election outcome. There are several pieces of evidence for this conclusion. First, many of the fears expressed developed around the belief that the broad- casters were drawing comparatively large audiences containing a broad representation of the American population. As has been noted in chapters 8 and 9, audience research indicates that the broadcasters consistently were watched by a significantly smaller audience than was generally believed; and that this smaller audience was not universally representative of the American population but was a highly segmented one in terms of demographic characteristics.

Subsequent research also indicates that the potential influence claimed by the broadcasters in relation to their actual supporters was exaggerated. Hadden and Swann note, for example, that during the 1980 campaign Jerry Falwell claimed that Moral Majority had from two to three million members, which included 72,000 pastors. However, the circulation of their newsletter, The Moral Majority Report, at election time was only 482,000. It is unlikely that such a vital communication as the regular newsletter would be sent to only 16-24 percent of the supposed membership: the more likely assumption is that the total membership of Moral Majority was in fact substantially lower than what Falwell claimed. The figure of 482,000 also parallels more closely the projected national membership total based on state membership figures.(1)

The case studies presented by Moral Majority of candidates who were unexpectedly defeated in Senate and Congressional elections because of Moral Majority opposition -- Senators Birch Bayh and George McGovern and Representative John Brademas, for example -- are neutralized by other case studies of politicians who had been targeted for defeat by the New Right coalition but who retained their seats. Jewish representative Barney Frank, for example, in Massachusetts retained his seat in a heavily Roman Catholic area despite late, strongly directed attacks by the conservatives and the Roman Catholic Archbishop in the area over the issue of abortion.

Further research verifies that evangelicals and fundamentalists as groups are not as politically homogenous as the broadcasters had hoped. Polls conducted throughout the campaign indicated that political preferences among "born-again" voters showed a consistent split between Reagan and Carter. A voter-exit poll conducted by The New York Times and CBS showed that white "born-again" Protestants voted 61 percent for Reagan and 34 percent for Carter, a split which closely parallels that of other sectors of society.(2)

Subsequent research has sought to identify the influence of religious broadcasters and the Christian right on voters' choices. Johnson and Tamney studied 262 voters from "Middletown," a population representative of the voting patterns of the whole country. In their study of the factors influential in the choice of a particular candidate, they measured such variables as party preference, perception of political ideology, and religious attitudes on various issues. Their findings indicated that in terms of a general index devised to measure identification with the Christian Right, there was no difference in the percentage who chose Reagan compared to the general population. The authors found that the major independent variable that identified preference for Reagan was perceived political ideology, (i.e., those with a conservative political ideology voted for Reagan more than did the moderates). However, the conservative-moderate political ideology was found to be unrelated to religious preference. The most significant variable found in determining Reagan's election, according to this study, was the issue of inflation. Finally, people made their presidential decision on the basis of who they perceived would best solve the problem of inflation. The authors concluded from their research that: "In the 1980 Presidential election, the Christian Right had virtually no influence at all . . the most important issue was inflation and those who picked it voted for Reagan 2 to 1."(3)

Because of the large number of variables that intervene between the message of a television personality and final political choices, it is unlikely that the contributory effect of a single factor could ever be isolated definitively. The weight of research into political decision making and the influence of mass media in this decision making suggests that most voters have established patterns of political choices. Television's main effect is in crystalizing or reinforcing these predispositions rather than in changing them. At the same time, the research indicates that television can have a significant effect on those who are politically undecided by helping them define issues and identify personalities. Given the small margins which typify many elections, this small influence could have a major social impact.(4)

The research mentioned above, however, suggests that in the 1980 election the political activities of the religious broadcasters were not a significant factor in the election outcome. There is no reason to assume, however, that the broadcasters could not be a significant influence in the future, given a situation where the issues on which they choose to focus attention become critical issues in the eyes of the electorate, and where a marginal influence may play a major part in determining the outcome. If American leaders and the American population learn from their historical experiences, however, it may be more difficult in the future for religious leaders to exert their influence primarily by bluff and threat: their future claims may be received more critically following the experience of exaggeration in 1980.

The more significant effect of recent trends in religious broadcasting may not be the immediate actual influence or lack of influence which religious broadcasters had on the outcome of the 1980 national elections, but the contributory effects which current religious television has on conservative trends in America and other Western countries. More significant also may be the particular effect the broadcasters have had on the development of American religious culture.

Stewart Hoover has noted that the greater influence of television lies not in its ability to brainwash or radically change people's minds on particular issues but in its ability to coalesce an audience around a particular issue.(5) Jerry Falwell's major success in 1980 may have lain not in achieving the dramatic effects of which he boasted but in demonstrating for religious and social leaders the potential of television and its associated media to bring together elements of society that had previously been scattered. There has always been a significant fundamentalist movement in American society: Falwell did not create it. However, fundamentalism in American society has typically consisted of unrelated, often antisocial small pockets of society. Falwell was able to put together a religious and social media package which brought together a diversity of people in a potentially dramatic way. It is quite likely that many of these were people who did not agree with all of Falwell's package, nor even with his central Fundamentalist theology, but who felt otherwise disenfranchised over a particular issue of concern to them, whether it be deterioration of the family, the spread of pornography, abortion, prayer in the school, or the restoration of traditional American life. In the absence of any possible alternative action, many may have moved behind Falwell on the basis of agreement with only one of his issues.

That this group was not radically influential in the 1980 election has already been suggested by the research: the dominant concerns were not those represented by Falwell, but rather the single issue of inflation. However, the potential for future influence among these people remains strong. As we noted earlier, attitude change by the media is most effective where the new attitudes being promoted are seen as being extensions of old, existing attitudes. Where there is an identification with a personality such as Falwell on one issue of concern, the possibility is greater for the extension of his attitudes to other areas of the viewers' thought and behavior. The influence that religious broadcasters may have is more significant, therefore, when they are viewed within the broader context as indicators of a general cultural trend among groups of disenfranchised citizens.

The influence of paid-time religious television also takes on a wider significance when considered within the broader context of the structures of the mass media in their political and economic dimensions. It is wrong simply to view the owners of mass media as the sole determinants in the shaping of media organizations and messages. They stand within a larger historical context and are themselves played upon by historical events and the circumstances these events thrust upon them. Horace Newcomb has noted that the ideas and symbols in American television have not been created there but frequently have a history in American culture.(6) Television is rarely an innovator of social forms or ideas but is more commonly a purveyor and reflector of those forms. Should the television programmers move too far away from what is publicly perceived as historically and socially appropriate, they would soon lose the attention of their audiences.

Similarly, as stated previously, the current evangelical-fundamentalist phenomenon on television is not a new one in American life. The major aspects of its message and its media style can be seen in earlier fundamentalist movements, particularly in the distinctive style of revivalist tent meetings, emotional expressions, dramatic incidents, and vitriolic challenge. Never before, though, has this minority movement been able to dominate a medium to the virtual exclusion of other religious expressions as it has on television in recent years.

The significance of this domination for religious culture lies not in its individual characteristics, but in its relationship with the media themselves. For while the media, and particularly television, serve mainly as mediators of the culture, the political and economic interests of the media controllers pass the culture through discreet but generally well-defined filters which are effective in serving their own purposes, namely reinforcing the economic status quo and suppressing challenge in the form of specific critique or overall diversity. Michael Real has noted in his recent work Mass-Mediated Culture that;

Mass-mediated culture primarily serves the interests of the relatively small political-economic power elite that sits atop the social pyramid. It does so by programming mass consciousness through an infrastructural authoritarianism that belies its apparent superstructural egalitarianism.(7)

This dynamic was identified more than 35 years ago by the media researchers Lazarsfeld and Merton and presented in their seminal article "Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action:"

The social effects of the mass media will vary as the system of ownership and control varies.. . . Since the mass media (in America) are supported by great business concerns geared into the current social and economic system, the media contribute to the maintenance of that system . . . not only from what is said, but more significantly from what is not said.(8)

In the early years of television, this establishment of authoritarian interest was occasionally apparent in overt conflicts between management, producers, and advertisers. Descriptions of these conflicts are provided by such practitioners as Eric Barnouw (Tube of Plenty) and Fred Friendly (Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control). Given the primarily economic motive of the American broadcasting industry, it was finally the advertisers in their relation to the media management who gained the upper hand. Having won this battle for power over the forces of innovation and independent creativity, these established political and economic interests have become institutionalized within the industry. Challenges today in the name of diversity, realism, and innovation are discreet and usually ineffectual, strongly contained within the general parameters which have been set by the media controllers. One may note, for example, the description of the television creative process given by a leading Hollywood television writer:

You have an idea and you make an appointment (with a network executive). It's usually easy to get in the door. Your first meeting is with a Vice President in charge of programming -- a tasteless thug who was once a network salesman. With him are four flunkies. All of them have titles -- Assistants in Program Development. All of them put in their "two cents worth." . . . Then you go through the usual steps -- more meetings, more suggestions from the flunkies. After a while you begin not to care about your original idea -- you just hang on to see if you come out the other end.(9)

One of the important issues arising out of recent trends in religious television lies in the symbolic and actual implications of religion's acquiescence to this process and the subjugation of religion on television to this normalizing process. The Christian church had been one of the few remaining alternative ideologies to remain in creative interaction with the television industry. In its local organization, the church remained a culture counter to the highly centralized, individualized, and depersonalized culture represented by general television programming. Though many compromises had been made to accommodate the distinctive features of the television medium and management, sustaining-time religious producers retained their ties to the local church and retained significant control and input into program content from their perspectives. Because sustaining-time programs were not placed under the same demands to maintain or increase ratings as were other television programs, sustaining-time programs were able to maintain a greater community representativeness and integrity of content. This perspective is reflected in the freedom apparent in the comments by CBS religious programs producer, Pam llott in 1970:

When asked about the low ratings her programs had, she replied that if she were only after ratings, she could add pop groups or produce something like Bishop Sheen. She is content, she said, with the million or million-and-a-half viewers she now has who "get something out of the programs and take it a step beyond -- discussing it with their friends or taking action." . . . This is more valuable, she said, than a mass audience.(10)

The paid-time religious producers sacrificed that freedom of programming when they made themselves dependent on their popularity with their television audience. This placed them in a situation where they were forced to blend into the television culture in order to appeal to those for whom this culture was realistic. The preceding comments by Pam Ilott can be compared with the philosophy reflected by the paid-time religious broadcasters:

One of the unwritten laws of mass communication is that the more people you reach the further your dollar goes but the more it costs overall. Another unwritten law is that you can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want. There's an additional law in religious broadcasting -- the larger the audience, the greater the response in terms of lives changed.(11)

The author of the statement, Ben Armstrong, does not appear to recognize the innate contradiction in his statement: the essential distinction between giving people something they want and something that will change them.

The key in the difference between the two broadcasting approaches lies in the economic basis and this, it has been noted, was the issue over which programming issues were first raised in the early years of television in the 1950s. The growth of paid-time religious programming and its adaptation to and endorsement of the economic competitive basis of American broadcasting represents in many ways the final takeover by television of the last of its programming to be independent of its economic intentions. This is another of the significant issues in the recent growth of paid-time religious programming: by displacing all other types of religious programming, the paid-time religious broadcasters have virtually eliminated the community- responsibility orientation of media functioning in America which had been represented by public-service programming, much of which was religious in orientation. The paid-time religious broadcasters have reinforced the economic competitiveness of the television industry as the adequate basis for the maintenance and development of social thought; they have challenged the practice of religious diversity by the presentation of only one strand of American religious culture; they have endorsed the normalizing of religious thought to that which corresponds to existing mass-media mythology and intent.

The effects of this endorsement of the normalization of religious thought by the paid-time religious broadcasters may be twofold. First, it has reinforced the power of television, with its limited views, to act as an adequate determinant of the presentation of religious cultural thought. The fundamentalist view has come to be preferred because of the economic advantage it offers to the television industry and because elements within this thought are in harmony with television's goals of reinforcing the social status quo with the economic basis of American broadcasting, and with the promotion of a consumer orientation toward social issues and human relationships. There is no reason to believe that such a preferential relationship between broadcasting and paid-time religion will continue, however. It is likely that only as long as paid-time religion serves the interests of the broad- cast industry will it remain in the preferred situation which it now enjoys.

The second effect to be considered is that on American religious culture as a whole. While television is not the only source of American culture and thought, it has a significant effect in the conferral of status on particular movements and issues, and in the setting of personal and social agendas. While there remains a significant diversity in American religious culture, of which fundamentalism and evangelicalism are still only minority views, the presence of these two traditions on television is reinforcing the perception that they are in fact the dominant expressions of Christianity in American society.

The further danger is that while mass-mediated religions can effectively transmit certain aspects of religious faith and practice, they tend to vitiate other aspects. Religion on television, for example, cannot fully convey the participatory elements of religious faith and practice, the emotive impact of silence in worship, or the indispensable theological aspects of awe and mystery. Yet by excluding these elements the mass media effectively rob religious faith of its essence and mutate it into being primarily information about religious occurrences or observed spectacles. No longer is the viewed presentation distinctively Christian, nor for that matter essentially religious. It has sold its rich birthright of meaning, fellowship, and joy for a potage of public exposure, and has become indistinguishable from other elements of television entertainment, simply another part of the total mass media environment to which modern people have become enslaved.

It is difficult to measure specific effects of paid-time religious television on American religious faith and practice. However, several research perspectives suggest possibilities. The cultural indicators research program has demonstrated that the major effect of television lies not in its stimulation of direct imitation, but in its steady cultivation within viewers of assumptions and perceptions about the nature of life and the world. By measuring the patterns of reality presented on television, it is possible to predict the influence they will have on those who are heavy consumers of these patterns. If it is the recurring patterns as presented on the major social forms of communication which are effective in the molding of culture, greater attention needs to be given to the study of the dominant patterns and images shown on religious television programs and how these relate to other and traditional expressions of religious faith. To what extent are paid-time religious programs consistent with traditional Christian thought, and to what extent are they shaped by the environment in which they have been cast? Of interest also is the phenomenon already noted; the extent to which paid-time religious programs on television are bypassing reference to the group expressions and aspects of religious faith in favor of an individualized and privatized faith.

The paid-time religious broadcasters have not created this trend. Other studies indicate that there are strong individualistic conceptions of religious faith in America. A Gallup Poll in 1978 revealed that 80 percent of Americans believe that "an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues," and 76 percent believe that a person can be a good Christian or Jew even if he or she doesn't attend church or synagogue. (12) In their lack of reference to church involvement, the religious broadcasters possibly recognize this social reality. By acquiescing to it and avoiding reference to the necessity of corporate dimensions of religious faith, however, the broadcasters simply reinforce the individualized social conception and extend its application.

Virginia Stem Owens in her book The Total Image notes how the mass-cultural acquiescence seen in the paid-time religious broadcasters is part of a broader infatuation by evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity with mass commercial and advertising culture. Lying at the base of it is the adoption of "image advertising" in the promotion of religious faith, the technique by which one paints for the customer "a total picture of the kind of person he would like to be and then makes him believe your product is a necessary part of that picture." The problem, according to Owens, is that the elements of the image created by these religious communicators in their presentation of the Christian faith are less determined by the original Gospel message and more by the expectations created by the commercial world. The goal, or at least the effect, of such image adaptations of the Christian faith to the culture is to erase the distinctions between the Christian message and the cultural environment. Influenced again by the dominant functioning of the mass media, the method employed in mass religious communication lies in demonstrating that acceptance of the religious message involves not a radical change (repentance and conversion) but simply a modification of outlook -- a slight cultural re-adaptation. In this form of religious communication, therefore, similarities between the message and one's existing life-style are stressed and affirmed, while dissimilarities are de-emphasized. Central to the process appears to be the marketing of prepackaged Christian life-styles:

To an outsider it must often seem that what commercial Christianity is promoting is a certain certified life-style. . . . The life-style shopper "buys into" the chosen fashion in much the same way and for the same reason that he opts for polyester double-knit or pre-washed denim. And the lines of demarcation between the styles, even though both consider themselves Christian, are not friendly frontiers, A certified feminist in her peasant blouse and jeans does not fit among the Total Woman in pegnoirs. An OK guy cannot function as a Bill Gothard father. However all of these can blend inconspicuously into the surroundings of their secular counterparts.(13)

Religious faith cannot be culturally ascetic, but what is absent in these expressions of Christianity is the culturally critical dimension which, in its original expressions elevated hot the culturally acceptable but the socially outcast and despised as the paradigms of divine favor and blessedness.(14) This message of elevation of the socially despised is, of course, antithetical to current commercial advertising and the consumer society, though it is likely that should such genuine Christianity become a powerful expression again the industry would mold it into a new image as it did with the counter-culture movement in the 1960s.

In his cultural study of Billy Graham, Michael Real provides a case study of the shaping effect the mass media have on those who progress to become its celebrities. Real suggests that while Graham is not solely a media creation, he has succeeded in the media because of basic similarities between his message and the goals of mass-mediated culture. In the process, however, Graham has served to extend the goals of these media and in some way to provide a religious imprimatur for some of its un-Christian cultural aberrations. Real notes in particular Graham's unique identity as the god-father of American nationalism.

The variety of religion that Graham represents is a blend of Reformation Protestantism and economic capitalism. Graham's evangelism fits the dominant political economy in the United States and its allies, providing a combination of individual righteousness and social authoritarianism. One ethical result is that strange Watergate morality of private machiavellianism overlaid with public puritanism.(15)

There have always been different positions held within Christian thought concerning the relationship of the church and the Christian message to the culture within which they find themselves.(16) These different positions have generally acted in correction of the biases present within the other Christian positions. The present paid-time religious broadcasters have lacked any depth of social critique and as such have found themselves in a poition of having been used by the more powerful interests of commercial television. It remains to be seen whether other expressions of Christianity will be able to correct some of the imbalance shown by these broadcasters, or whether the power of mass-mediated culture may also successfully neutralize such a challenge to its functioning either by displacement or subsumption.

The power to correct the situation may lie finally in the hands of the local church: those face-to-face, interactive groups in which the essence of Christianity as a genuinely social yet personal religious movement is maintained. The strongest ally of the Christian faith in resisting the shaping effect of mass culture may lie not in a charismatic leader who satisfies the image functions of mass media, but in strong and virile groups of interactive, compassionate, and sensible Christians who genuinely care for each other, who are active in reaching out to need within their environments, and who creatively relate the historic dimensions of their faith to their present experience. These non-technological, decentralized expressions of Christian community may well be the best defense against the manipulative, homogenizing drive of commercial mass culture.


  1. Noted in Hadden and Swann, Prime-Time Preachers, p. 164.

2. Ibid., p. 163.

3. Stephen D. Johnson and Joseph B. Tamney, "The Christian Right and the 1980 Presidential Election," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 21, 2, pp. 123-131.

4. Comstock, Television and Human Behavior, p. 362.

5. Stewart M. Hoover, The Electronic Giant, Elgin: The Brethren Press, 1982 p. 125.

6. Horace Newcomb, "Assessing the Violence Profile Studies of Gerbner and Gross: A Humanistic Critique and Suggestion," Communication Research, Vol 5, No 3, July 1978, pp. 264-81.

7. Michael R. Real, Mass-Mediated Culture, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1977, p. xi.

8. Lazarsfeld and Merton, "Mass Communication." p. 567.

9. Quoted in Tracy Westen, "Barriers to Creativity," Journal of Communication, Spring 1978, pp. 36-42.

10. Kahle, "Religion and Network Programming," p. 1.6.

11. Armstrong, Electric Church, p. 137.

12. Gallup, "Unchurched American," p. 9.

13. Owens, Total Image, pp. 36-37.

14. See particularly the beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-12.

15. Real, Mass-Mediated Culture, p. 201.

16. For a useful discussion of these, see H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, New York: Harper and Row, 1951.

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