What a Friend They Have in Jesus

by Michael Barton

Dr. Barton is assistant professor of social science and American studies at Pennsylvania State University, Middletown.

This article appeared in the Christian Century September 19, 1979, p. 886. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The connection between modern fundamentalism and popular culture becomes evident in the language of those who boast that they have met the Lord, that they have a personal relationship with Jesus. The “700 Club” and its members are very much in and of the world. But they should be warned that if religion becomes a hit and God becomes a pal, then the world will cancel the one when it becomes boring and snub the other when he becomes demanding.

The television star I am thinking of wears expensive-looking, light-colored suits with dark ties, and faces a studio audience from behind a modern wooden desk flanked by plastic plants. A mural of skyscrapers is painted on the wall behind him. He has a boyish, handsome face, thick hair with an unemployed curl in front, and a great smile that you know survives off-camera. He begins the 90-minute show by chatting with his partner, and then proceeds to interview guests, flattering them with his trusting manner. Singers entertain. A sprightly orchestra opens and closes each segment, and the audience applauds at the right times. The star jokes easily, laughs a little at himself, and avoids controversy (if he states an opinion, he is careful not to sound too opinionated). When the show is over, everyone huddles and shakes hands. This man is one of the most charming and effective hosts of a television talk show today. His network carries him to 600 cities and 22 countries. Who is he?

Slick Evangelism

Shouldn’t such a bright star be easy to locate? No, he is not Johnny Carson, and this is not the “Tonight” show. He is Pat Robertson, host of the “700 Club,” the slickest evangelism I have ever seen. One almost expects the show to begin with the exclamation “He-e-e-e-ere’s Jesus!”

There was a time when one could spot TV evangelism immediately because it took the form of a televised sermon. The preacher was often robed, and he usually preached at high volume and with maximum sanctimony. Not even the “new” Oral Roberts has been able to escape this tradition entirely, nor has Robert Schuller, nor Rex Humbard. Even though Bishop Fulton Sheen didn’t use a pulpit, we knew what his costume signified. But with the sound turned down on the “700 Club,” it would take a while for a new viewer to discover that this talk show is broadcasting the gospel. The evangelist does not shout, and his brand of righteousness is easy to take. The telephone number flashed at the bottom of the TV screen and the camera’s occasional glance at three tiers of telephone operators might make you think you were watching a telethon, with the callers transmitting promises of gifts rather than the confessions of faith they are in fact making.

On the “700 Club” you will hear discussions with dedicated athletes -- athletes committed not just to winning the game, but also to winning souls for the Lord. Or you will hear testimony from a converted politician or a former gang leader. There might be a field report from a brave, exuberant missionary, or an expert’s measured critique of the sex and violence on television (ending not with a plea for censorship, but with an expression of dismay -- these people learned something from the Scopes trial). Then it’s time for a “hymn” -- or whatever one calls religious music that is not a dirge, not a joyous folk song, but a pop ditty whose beat and back-up would fit it to the format of any middle-of-the-road radio station, were it not for the lyrics (try “I Am the Righteousness of God in Christ” to the tune of “Up, Up and Away”). Brief but intense prayers are offered. Sometimes they are lifted on behalf of believers at home, and at other times nonbelievers are prayed for (can it be that many nonbelievers are watching?).

This is modern, middle-class fundamentalism. Because the “700 Club” folk are moderns, they take psychology and “mental health” seriously; because they are fundamentalists, they believe that the Lord of Hosts will drive out devils; they therefore pray unabashedly for both mental and physical healing.

They take modern “communications theory” seriously; like the rest of us, they grew up with television. They know about ratings and “audience analysis”; they bounce their shows off satellites, and they are building CBN (Christian Broadcast Network) University, where believers will be taught the fundamentals of electronic journalism as well as a little theology. They believe in the techniques of scientific advertising, even while they bemoan the character of the commercials shown on major networks. Once some-one on the program said this about advertising: “As Christians we ought to recognize its potential. After all, we have that same opportunity to spread the gospel.” (Perhaps the 700 Clubbers will soon be referring to the “60-second spot Jesus did at the wedding at Cana,” or the “demographics of the Beatitudes.”)

Such faith in advertising is even more amazing when one considers economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s dictum that the basic purpose of advertising is to get people to buy something they don’t need. Do Pat Robertson and company think that people do not need the Word, or that its attractions are not intrinsic, and therefore must be sold? About “marketing principles” they say: “Praise God, they work. There’s nothing wrong with them. It’s only who controls them” (the words are reminiscent of those we used to utter in defense of nuclear energy). Their adherence to these principles shows up in the name of the show itself: referring to a group of “chosen” people, it suggests the exclusive Stork Club or the cheerful “Breakfast Club.” The producers would never identify their program with a label so unsalable as “The Christian Talk Show,” though to do so would be a triumph for “truth in advertising.”

Like all good television shows, the “700 Club” has its competition -- Jim Bakker hosts the very similar “PTL Club,” whose name means both “Praise the Lord” and “People That Love.” And I could be wrong, but I don’t believe that competing evangelist Billy Graham has ever been Pat Robertson’s guest -- perhaps for the same reason that Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin never work together.

A First-Name Basis

The club teaches, explicitly and implicitly, one main idea -- the same thought one finds expressed throughout modern fundamentalism. It is revealed in two key phrases. These people do not say to one another, in a typical conversation, that they have been “converted,” or “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” or even “born again.” They never say that they “believe in God,” since they suspect that that phrase is ordinarily misused by people who don’t really believe in God. Instead, they say that they have “met the Lord,” or that they “know the Lord,” They have a “personal relationship with Jesus” (“Christ” is sometimes left off, not out of disrespect, but perhaps as an indication that they believe one should be on a first-name basis with the Son of Man). In other words, they participate, fundamentally, in a friendship of equals -- in an “emotional” relationship with the Almighty. There is no suggestion of the humble submission of the flock to the Shepherd. (Note, too, how the emphasis on feelings allows the evangelist to de-emphasize doctrinal differences among the denominations; when referring to such distinctions, Pat does it with a chuckle.)

This language shows the clear connection between modern fundamentalism and popular culture. I do not know the precise history of those two key phrases, but I would guess that their origins are fairly recent -- say, in the 1920s or 1930s, when media began to “personalize” and “democratize” so much of American private and public life. In popular culture now, for example, we personalize the relationship between the president and the people; we try to create an emotional relationship of equals. Hence, the president will “share” with us an idea, or speak to us “personally” on radio and television, and we, in turn, intrude upon his privacy in the desire to “know” him and his kin. The question in our minds is not so much “Does he govern well?” as it is “Can I trust him? Do I like him?” Likewise, we personalize the relationship between film stars and their fans. We no longer admire heroes so much as we copy “personalities” (can you imagine such a  “personal” magazine as People circulating in the 18th or 19th century?).

At the same time, marriages and families have become essentially emotional and egalitarian relationships rather than institutional and hierarchical ones, Thus, when marriage and family fail to satisfy, when they do not make all members feel “happy” and “fulfilled,” then these arrangements begin to dissolve, or at least to be regarded as needing repair.

In the armed forces today the mission is “personnel management.” In the bureaucracies of government and business, too, there is great concern for “morale” and “openness” and the “needs” of employees. After all, the workers must first “get along” with one another. Countless college students aspire to be “personnel directors” or “counselors” in large organizations rather than to become entrepreneurs running their own shops (unless they plan to set up their own psychological “practices”). In nursery, primary and secondary schools teachers are more delighted with a pupil’s good “social skills” (“getting along”) than with the high marks of a solitary child. I remember that on my own report cards in the 1950s these skills were listed under the heading of “citizenship” -- a usage of that term that would have completely baffled George Washington.

Artificial Friendliness

Of course, in modern times impersonalism, not personalism, is the rule. Mass societies specialize in, even survive on, superficial or artificial friendliness. But because we sense that true friendship is still necessary today, we constantly talk about it and encourage it. A remarkable statement I once heard on the “700 Club” unwittingly combined the ideal of personalism with the fact of impersonalism: urging viewers to call in and talk things over, Ben, Pat’s black colleague, cheerfully promised that the caller could speak with a “nameless, faceless person who cares” I should think such calls are bound to be frustrating, just as the rest of life is often frustrating: you presume that the president “likes” you, but then he tries to raise your taxes. You think the boss appreciates you, but then he fires you. You believe that you get along well with your professor, but then she flunks you.

The loneliness of modern life may also account for another conspicuous characteristic of “700 Club” fundamentalism: there is the repeated assurance of God’s “love” for us, and the command that we should “love” one another. Yes, this has been the good news of the Christian message for centuries now, but I suspect it has a different meaning today: because of his love, we can “talk” to God casually, rather than feel obliged to worship him formally. But if such spiritual “friendships” with God are mainly emotional, if they can rise as feelings rise, then they must fall as feelings fall, and thus friends might become strangers again.

The Club seeks to combat loneliness in yet another way: these believers would create artificial communities by means of bumper-sticker slogans. They “say” to one another, “Honk if you love Jesus,” or “I’ve found it!” It is not quite the same thing as scratching a sketch of a fish on the ground or lighting candles in the catacombs.

But if fundamentalism’s glossy personalism is a panacea, it is not an awfully bad one. These people are quite sane and decent. They cherish life and devote themselves to fine ideals and acts. Their enthusiasm and joy are authentic. Such a faith has civilized formerly vulgar men and women, and they have ceased to be social problems. (To be more precise, the Clubbers are only slightly interested in “social problems,” for they believe that the most basic problems are, again, “personal.”) These evangelists are not dangerous, and they have nothing in common with Jonestown, whose citizens chose to be neither in nor of the world. The “700 Club” and its members are very much in and of the world. But they should be warned that if religion becomes a hit and God becomes a pal, then the world will cancel the one when it becomes boring and snub the other when he becomes demanding.