Chapter Five: The Electronic Church and Its Message
Not every one who says to me "Lord, Lord," shall enter
the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my
Father who is in heaven.
Not every one who says to me "Lord, Lord," shall enter
the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my
Father who is in heaven.
The Great Awakenings and The Electronic Church
The l970s and 1980s in America saw the flowering of the electronic church on both radio and TV. For the week of February 4, l980 Time magazine devoted its "Religion" section to "Stars of the Cathode Church," depicting "the continuing drama of TV-radio preaching, one of the most successful and controversial enterprises in American religion." The article described how the "billion dollar industry" was opposed by many local pastors who feared "that with worship-by-tube, the living room sofa is supplanting the pew and gifts mailed to televangelists are taking the place of Sunday offerings." It quoted the assertion of National Religious Broadcaster`s Ben Armstrong that broadcasting is shifting power from the clergy to the layman "with his hand on the dial. . . . It is a change in the power structure of American religion."1.
Understanding the phenomenon of the electronic church is one of the the best ways to understand the dilemmas confronting religion in our culture. For while the use of the new electronic technology is new, in many ways these ministries are the extension of a religious response that is older than America itself. They are part of the Great Awakenings -- that series of religious responses to changes in American society whose roots reach back to a time prior to the founding of the nation.
William G. McLoughlin in his study of the Great Awakenings points out that they have been shaping American culture from its inception. He identifies four periods of Great Awakenings in our history, plus the one in which we find ourselves today: the Puritan Awakening, l610- 1640; the First Great Awakening (in America), l730-1760; the Second Great Awakening, l800-1830; the Third Great Awakening, l890-l920, and the Fourth Great Awakening, l960-90(?).2.
McLoughlin points out that awakenings are not merely periods of intense religious activity and reexamination, but instead are times of a fundamental intellectual reorientation of the entire American belief system and worldview. Each awakening has occurred during a period of profound cultural disorientation, when the whole cultural system was jarred by disjunctions between old beliefs and new realities, past norms and present experience, dying patterns and emerging patterns of behavior. The period which spawns a Great Awakening is a time when the realities of life in society have deviated so far from their moral and religious understandings that the authority of the old institutions are questioned. It is a time when
". . . The churches do not offer solace and acceptance of the prevailing order; the schools cannot maintain discipline over their pupils; the police and courts cannot maintain orderly processes of action (they often infringe the very laws they are supposed to enforce); the hospitals cannot cure; the jails burst at their seams; and, finally, the government itself fails to function with the respect and authority it requires. Political rebellion in the streets and schismatic behavior in churches create civil and ecclesiastical disorder, to which the authorities in church and state can react only by more sanctions, more censures, more punishments." 3.
Some degree of cultural stress is normal in any society. But there are times when the stresses become abnormal, when the populace truly is at odds with each other, when people cannot agree on the proper measures for coping with dangers and problems, when they blame those in authority and flout the establishment by unpatriotic acts.
Such a situation calls for major cultural reorientation, and this signals the beginning of a cultural awakening. Each awakening has extended for at least a full generation, perhaps more -- a 30 to 40 year period. It is not a time of neurosis, although considerable cultural confusion results; rather it is a time of revitalization. It is a time when new leaders emerge who articulate a set of commonly shared beliefs and understandings -- a new worldview -- which the vast majority of the population accept because it makes sense in terms of their own experience, regardless of their particular denomination or religion or formal belief or affiliation.
Each of our Great Awakenings has brought about major changes in our cultural orientation. The First Great Awakening (1730-1760) made the 13 colonies into a cohesive unit by inspiring them to believe that they were, "and of right ought to be," a free and independent people, thus setting the stage for the revolution from Great Britain. The Second Great Awakening (1800-1830), coming shortly after the Constitution had launched the republic, defined what it meant to be "an American," and what was the manifest destiny of the new nation. The Third Great Awakening (1880-1920) followed a few years after the Civil War, and it helped us come to terms with the demands of science and industrial progress which were then shattering the old worldview, and led us to a liberal optimism which resulted in our attempt "to make the world safe for democracy" through two world wars.
McLoughlin proposes that the Fourth Great Awakening began about 1960, following the undeclared war in Vietnam, and that it has appeared at a time when once again we are seeking a new understanding of who we are, how we relate to the scientific worldview, and what is the meaning of the many domestic and worldwide crises that threaten our security, our sense of order, and our self-image as a mighty and righteous world power.
Each awakening has followed a similar pattern. It begins with a period of individual stress, when people lose their bearings, become psychically or physically ill, break out in violence against family, friends, and authority, or become apathetic and incapable of functioning. An unusual number of people may destroy themselves by alcohol, drugs, or suicide. Families come apart, children are abused.
At this point there always arise a number of traditionalist movements, attempts by those with rigid personalities or with much at stake in the old order to insist that the solution to the current disorder is to adhere more strictly to the old beliefs, values, and behavior patterns. These traditionalist movements stress a return to the "old time religion," "the ways of our fathers," and "respect for the flag." They mistake symptoms for causes. They find scapegoats upon whom to project our national fears (witches in the l8th century, foreigners in the l9th, communists and atheists in the 20th).
This response accords with sociologist Anthony F. C. Wallace`s insight that "rigid persons apparently prefer to tolerate high levels of chronic stress rather than make systematic changes," preferring to look backward to the "golden period" when the former worldview and social system worked; they insist it will work again if people will only conform to the old standards.4.
In the final stage of each awakening, the traditionalists have polarized the alternatives, the traditional alternatives themselves are rejected by most of the populace, new leaders emerge who are able to articulate a new and generally accepted worldview, and the society begins to rebuild its institutions.
This pattern is important because in each of our Great Awakenings there has been a strong religious revival movement. I believe that the electronic church movement should be understood as part of the developing Great Awakening that is currently under way.
We can learn a great deal about today`s religious response to the cultural situation by understanding the pattern followed in previous awakenings. The First Great Awakening was heralded by spontaneous and emotional conversion experiences, scattered throughout the colonies. Soon massive and continuous revival meetings were being kept in motion by traveling preachers who were some of the best informed and most effective communicators of their day. People began to understand that their experience in the New World had opened up an enormous gap between them and Great Britain with its king, their royal father, who refused to grant them freedom and maturity.
At this point a number of traditionalists reacted to the new demands for freedom, characterizing them as the work of the devil, and in some cases urging withdrawal into communities of the perfected saints to preserve a "saving remnant" from God`s wrath as the world came to an end. But eventually the determination to throw off all authority -- except God`s -- won the day, resulting in a new political concept of government and of the public good: the duty of the government was to restrain the selfishness of the individual for the sake of the common good. Regeneration, republicanism, and revolution blended to set the stage for American withdrawal from the authority of British tyranny and the establishment of a new commonwealth.
The Second Great Awakening came after the American revolution had created great anticipation for the future, but that future was not being realized. Missionary work on the frontier was carried out by uneducated preachers who, in the eyes of many, were incapable of preaching true religion or restraining the wild passions of the rough, unruly frontier folk. Early in this awakening there appeared the new traditionalist movement, led by Timothy Dwight, who preached return to the old order, aroused the populace against the dangers of foreigners, attacked deistic heresies and rebellion among the youth, and urged maintaining the old establishment of religion. But the traditionalist view again lost the day, with the result that the new religious orientation included the separation of church and state (Jefferson and Madison), a democratic faith in the common person (Jacksonian democracy), and acceptance of a new romanticism which brought about a flourishing of the first truly national literature, art, and architecture.
The Third Great Awakening of l890-l920 also began during a time of grave social tension. Slavery was still an issue, there was widespread unemployment and labor agitation, corruption ruled the big cities, Darwinism was attacking the laws of creation, Freud was laying bare the human psyche, and liberal Christians were attacking the uniqueness of the Christian religion. Into this crisis came a number of revivalists, but none so creative and dynamic as Billy Sunday.
Billy Sunday led the traditionalist attack. He championed "the old-time religion" and the evangelical beliefs of the 19th century. He rejected Darwinism and evolution, attacked the new naturalism and the liberal religionists, and denounced the influx of "new immigrants" (by which he meant those from eastern and southern Europe) as subverting the American way of life. But Sunday also was aware of the social ills of his day. He devoted a great deal of time to the problems of alcoholism, and in one revival city after another he succeeded in destroying the grip of the city bosses and in cleaning up corruption.
Once again, however, the traditionalist movement was rejected. The final result was the rejection within mainstream culture of biblical literalism with its repudiation of history, geology, and the scientific method, and an acceptance of the contributions of science, of evolution and Freudian psychology, of a "higher criticism" of the Bible, of the move from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy and its need for high technology, and of a rearrangement of political views to accommodate social planning and reform which became known in the churches as the Social Gospel.
By l960 liberalism had begun to fail the expectations of the people for a better life. Once again America was plunged into a crisis because the cultural worldview did not explain what was happening in experience. The ferment of the 60s produced a challenge to our belief system that may have been the most drastic in our national history. Nuclear catastrophe seemed more likely than ever. The Vietnam War brought with it serious doubts about our mission in the world and our credibility as a nation. The "Death of God" movement raised questions about the bankruptcy of our present churches and their religious systems. The welfare state, which grew out of the liberal movement, was full of corruption and failed to meet its goals. Thus began the Fourth Great Awakening, which continues today.
Into this situation, right on schedule, came the traditionalist response. This time the movement has been characterized by a revivalist campaign perhaps unparalleled in its vitality and pervasiveness, for its leaders had a new and more powerful tool than any of their predecessors -- the electronic magic of radio and television.
The Beginnings of Religious Broadcasting
Religious broadcasting is almost as old as broadcasting itself. The first religious program was broadcast less than two months after the first licensed commercial station went on the air, when on January 2, l921, station KDKA in Pittsburgh provided a remote broadcast from Calvary Episcopal Church. The Rev. Edwin Jan van Etten, the assistant minister, spoke because the rector of the church was too busy.
However, within a short time ministers across America seized upon the radio medium as an evangelistic tool. In l923, Walter A. Maier, a professor of Old Testament at the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod`s Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, wrote an editorial entitled, "Why Not a Lutheran Broadcasting Station?", and on December l4, l924, KFUO ("Keep Forward, Upward, Onward") became the first religious station, broadcasting from the seminary`s attic.
By l925 some 63 stations were owned by church institutions. But the rise of commercial broadcasting made frequencies increasingly valuable, and many churches were persuaded to sell them to commercial entrepreneurs, in many cases accepting a promise of free broadcast time as part of the transaction. By the l930s the rash of church- owned stations had all but vanished. But the broadcast of Sunday services on commercial stations, either from church premises or station studios, had become common.
Stations and networks -- the National Broadcasting Company, formed in l926 and Columbia Broadcasting System, in l927 -- faced a thorny problem as the radio evangelism spread. Which churches, groups, or sects should or could be accommodated? Broadcasters encouraged the formation of local and regional councils of churches to help them cope with this issue. On the national level the Federal (later National) Council of the Churches of Christ represented more than a score of denominations.
The councils tended to be dominated by the mainline Protestant denominations; groups and individual preachers not favored by the arrangements began to seek access by buying time on a commercial basis. At first CBS welcomed such purchases, selling network time to the Lutheran Missouri Synod as well as to the fiery Father Charles E. Coughlin of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan. But as Father Coughlin`s broadcasts turned highly political and sometimes seemed anti-Semitic, CBS adopted the NBC policy of refusing to sell time for religious purposes, instead apportioning a limited amount of free time to major Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faith groups. Those who were bypassed, or not satisfied with their allotments, increasingly focused on local coverage, free or purchased, and in some cases organized ad hoc hookups of stations via leased telephone lines. Many made over-the-air appeals to help them continue to expand their radio evangelism.5.
When the Communications Act was being debated in l934, an amendment was proposed by Senators Wagner and Hatfield which would have allocated 25 % of the broadcast frequencies for the exclusive use of nonprofit groups.6. Broadcasters were furious at this proposal from educators, religious groups, farm agencies, and other nonprofit organizations, and during hearings they assured the Senators that they -- the broadcasters -- had provided ample opportunities for such groups in the past, and that they could be trusted to continue to do so in the future. The Wagner/Hatfield Ammendment was voted down, but not before Congress wrote into the bill Section 307(c), a mandate to the newly created Federal Communications Commission:
The Commission shall study the proposal that Congress by statute allocate fixed percentages of radio broadcasting facilities to particular types or kinds of non-profit radio programs, or to persons identified with particular types or kinds of non-profit activities and shall report to Congress, not later than February 1, l935, its recommendations together with the reasons for the same.7.
The FCC set hearings on the matter as one of its first orders of business, and in January of l935 recommended that, since the broadcasters were making their facilities available in a spirit of "unity and cooperation," no fixed percentages of broadcast facilities should be allocated by Congress for the use of nonprofit activities. However, the report said:
In order for nonprofit organizations to obtain the maximum service possible, cooperation in good faith by the broadcasters is required. Such cooperation should, therefore, be under the direction of the Commission.8.
Thus religious leaders and the other non-profit groups did not get their frequency allocations, but they were told that the FCC would make certain that broadcasters would continue to give them time to be heard on the commercial stations.
In most cases, Protestant religious broadcasting continued to be handled through religious advisory committees of the networks, which looked to the Federal Council of Churches as its representative agency for Protestant denominations. However, some denominations and independent evangelists not related to the FCC purchased time from nonnetwork stations. The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod began syndicating "The Lutheran Hour" in l930. The Seventh-Day Adventist Church began its radio broadcasts in l924, and its first regularly scheduled program, "The Voice of Prophecy," in l930. Several Roman Catholic dioceses and orders, and hundreds of local preachers sought time on local radio. Independents such as Charles E. Fuller, Aimee Semple McPherson, M. R. De Haan and H. M. S. Richards put most of their funds into buying time. By l933, conventional Protestant broadcasting accounted for only 28% of the total religious radio output.9.
A basic policy difference developed among religious broadcasters. The larger, established, mainline denominations generally held the view that broadcasters should provide time on the air for a balanced presentation of religious views, roughly representing the proportion of various religious groups in the community, even if this required stations to supply the time without charge, and that this was consistent with the understandings reached between Congress and the broadcasters when the allocation of nonprofit stations was defeated. The smaller, more sect-type groups believed that they were being ignored, and accused the cooperative groups of attempting to silence them, even though the networks set aside some free time for them. They chose to purchase time and to make financial appeals over the air.
After World War II, with the rise of television, the American networks emphasized a policy of "cooperative broadcasting." The major faith groups were invited to provide assistance to the networks in the production of weekly half-hour television series dedicated to religion, such as NBC`s "Frontiers of Faith" and CBS`s "Look Up and Live." The American Broadcasting Company, split off from NBC in l943, was represented by "Directions."
A wide diversity of groups maintained a presence on radio and television. The Mormons were represented on network radio (first NBC, then CBS) by a nondoctrinal musical program, "Music and the Spoken Word," featuring the Tabernacle Choir. The Seventh-Day Adventists were represented by "The Voice of Prophecy," begun in l930. In l945 the Jewish Theological Seminary of America started "The Eternal Light," offered weekly over NBC radio and occasionally on television. Some groups sought to extend their coverage through program syndication -- the United Methodists with "The Way," the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod with "This Is the Life." Many Catholic groups were program producers, including the Paulist Productions "Insight" series, the Franciscans` syndicated radio dramas on the lives of the saints, and later a series of television spots. Commercial sponsorship became a factor when Texaco sponsored Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen in "Life Is Worth Living," on Dumont and ABC television. In l968 the U.S. Catholic Conference established an Office of Radio and Television to represent it in all broadcasting matters.
For thirty years, TV network audiences for the mainline programs ranged as high as 15 million viewers per week. All three faith groups maintained weekly network radio programs as well.
But, as the FCC became increasingly lax in its congressional mandate to insure that "non-profit organizations obtain the maximum service possible," individual evangelists discovered the power of broadcasting, and television in particular, and they began to purchase the better quality time which broadcasters were reluctant to provide churches as a public service. The major pioneer into television evangelism was Billy Graham.
Characteristics of the electronic church
Where Billy Sunday`s revivals left off, Billy Graham`s picked up. In many ways, Graham is the spiritual descendant of Sunday. Both grew up in fundamentalist homes. Both experienced powerful personal conversions. Both had a gift for pulse-quickening oratory. Both burned with a sense of mission. Both felt the world was headed for imminent catastrophe. Both were convinced that they must first save individual souls, and that social reforms would follow. Both were backed by rich and powerful men -- Sunday by John D. Rockefeller, Graham by William Randolph Hearst. Both innovated communication techniques that startled the world -- Sunday with his elaborate teams of "experts" and sophisticated and expensive "revival machinery" that developed huge audiences; Graham with his even more impressive cadre of technicians, and his use of television to extend his reach beyond the wildest dreams of earlier evangelists. Using these innovative techniques, both achieved success -- in fact, far more income and power than any other previous evangelists.
Sunday and Graham also shared essentially the same theology: a fundamentalism that urged a return to basics -- the Bible, the family, hard work and clean living, and simple belief in God`s power. They attacked many of the same social ills -- alcohol, sloth, swearing, crime, adultery, communism. They attacked the same religious perspectives -- liberalism, the Social Gospel, higher criticism of the Bible, and, to some degree, Roman Catholicism. They possessed a similar preaching style -- Bible in hand, striding about the stage, completely self-assured and filled with authority, speaking in plain terms to the masses without much thought to structure or logic -- presenting an image both dynamic and convincing.
Billy Graham`s message and timing fit perfectly into the traditionalist reaction which has come with each Great Awakening. He appealed to the growing personal alienation, the sense of nuclear doom, and the international disillusionment that characterized the postwar era. The solution he proposed was a return to the traditional Christian imagery and rules, coupled with a strong emphasis on law and order. His success to no small degree was due to the support he garnered among the wealthy and the captains of industry who found in Graham the perfect carrier of the Puritan values of hard work, clean living, and individual morality. His endorsement of the social status quo and the dominant power structure endeared him to the nation`s political and economic elites.
But Billy Graham had one thing which Billy Sunday never possessed: the ability to reach millions of persons directly, immediately, and visually, through television. Because of his message and his technique, together with the growing dominance of the world created by television, Graham became far more of a national celebrity than any of his predecessors. Whereas Sunday once met with President Wilson during World War I, Graham was the welcomed guest and spiritual advisor of Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and, to some extent, Johnson and Ford. Whereas Sunday was a known name in America, Graham became a celebrity in much of Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America as well.
However, Billy Graham was only the avant-garde of the electronic church movement. Many were right behind him. In fact, in terms of style and technique, we already have seen four generations of electronic church preachers, and a fifth is on the way.
Graham represented the first generation. By the l950s he had brought television cameras and sophisticated advertising techniques to his mass meetings and, with the help of Hearst`s newspapers, became an overnight success. His technique was relatively simple. It depended primarily on generating massive rallies, and the TV cameras were brought in to cover the rallies as they might cover a football game or a political assembly.
The second generation, in terms of style and technique, appeared with Oral Roberts. Roberts was originally a tent evangelist who began to buy radio time. But he quickly saw the power of television and by the mid-l950s had the idea of bringing the cameras into the tent so that the cameras (and the audience) began to participate in his preaching and healing sessions. Roberts even offered to heal people right in their own homes if they would place their hands on the TV set. Inevitably, as television began to spread his fame, the medium began to take control of the tent meetings themselves, until finally Roberts moved out of the tent and into a formal TV studio setting.
The third generation developed in the l960s, when Rex Humbard, another early tent evangelist, built the first church designed expressly for television. "The Cathedral of Tomorrow" in Akron, Ohio, came complete with a 360' rotating stage with risers, like a huge revolving birthday cake, on which the entire Humbard family could stand and sing "God Is Love" while the cameras picked out first Rex, then "Our Mom" Maude, and finally all their children and grandchildren, clothed in color-coordinated pastel suits and dresses. The entire "service" was basically a TV production.
The fourth generation of the electronic ministries is best exemplified by Pat Robertson and The 700 Club. Robertson, son of the late U.S. Senator A. Willis Robertson of Virginia and a graduate of Yale Law School, failed the New York bar exam, then attended New York Theological Seminary and tried starting a ghetto ministry in New York City before moving back to Virginia. He bought a tiny defunct UHF station in Portsmouth, Va., for $70 in l959, and over the next 20 years perfected a 90-minute format which closely resembles the most popular commercial TV host-show programs.10.
Robert`s program, The 700 Club, got its name from one of the television marathons he developed financially in the early days of his ministry. In terms of style, not only had the tent and stadium disappeared from the 700 Club, but the program`s elements were almost indistinguishable from those of the "Tonight Show," with a genial host (Robertson), a foil with whom the host can banter (Ben Kinchlow, who now has become a "co-host"), guests lounging around a coffee table, musical breaks with cut-aways to commercials (for mission projects and CBN membership) and a "studio audience" to applaud and laugh.
The fifth generation of electronic-church programming has recently emerged, and it represents a complete departure from the old formats. Pat Robertson, with his enormous cash flow and no stockholders, has had sufficient funds to put together a genuine TV network, feeding some 5,500 cable systems nationwide via satellite on a 24-hour-a-day basis. This CBN Network program service consists of "family" programming, including the 700 Club (broadcast twice each day) and "Christian commercials". Many of the shows are reruns of family-oriented fare from the l960s ("The Flying Nun," "Hazel," "Father Knows Best," "Wagon Train," "Gunsmoke") and old game shows ("Name That Tune," "Tic Tac Dough").
The development from the first generation of religious-TV evangelism to the fifth is a development from covering the old-style rallies of Billy Graham to a format and style which has become less and less distinguishable from secular commercial television. It remains to be seen whether the fifth generation, a commercial network, will crowd out the first four because the audience is basically interested more in simple TV with less sex and violence than the present fare, or whether the old evangelical styles will continue to appeal to many of the audience precisely because they tune to the electronic-church programs to get away from commercial TV and return to "the old-time religion." The most likely scenario is that the latest "religious" programming will only further segment the audience in an already-crowded field.
The total audience for electronic-church programs peaked in l977, when the weekly audience for the top 10 TV evangelists ranged from 423,000 for James Robison to 3.9 million for Oral Roberts. Audiences dropped after that, although Pat Robertson`s "700 Club" has increased its share through the cable systems which were fed via satellite by the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN).
The following were the top-rated electronic-church programs, as of November l986, according to the A. C. Nielsen report:11.
1. "The Hour of Power" (Robert Schuller) 1.27 million
2. Jimmy Swaggart 1.05 million
3. Oral Roberts 814,000
4. "The World Tomorrow" (World Wide Church of God) 560,000
5. "The Day of Discovery (Radio Bible Class) 449,000
6. "The Old-Time Gospel Hour" (Jerry Falwell) 438,000
7. Kenneth Copeland 367,000
8. Dr. James Kennedy 363,000
9. "The 700 Club" (Pat Robertson) 309,000
10. "A Study in the Word" (Jimmy Swaggart) 265,000
Every evangelist among the top ten in 1985 lost audience during 1986, and Jim Bakker dropped to eleventh place with 220,000 households.
While overall audience size is much smaller than claimed (in 1980 Jerry Falwell boasted 25 million when he had no more than l.4 million viewers), the cultural impact of the electronic church has been
substantial, in part because of the political ties of many of its preachers, beginning with their support of a number of conservative causes and candidates in l980, but also because they galvanized strong support from a relatively small group of people who for the first time found a national public articulation of their views. In effect, electronic-church programs have been the embodiment of the conservative religious revival which has been an element in every previous Great Awakening.
Themes and Techniques
The electronic-church broadcasts certainly do not include all religious broadcasting. When we use the term here we are narrowing the field to only those TV programs which are usually a 30 to 90 ninety minutes in length, are nationally syndicated, primarily through the purchase of time, depend on a highly visible charismatic leader, exhibit high budget "slick" production qualities, consistently solicit money over the air, and make extensive use of telephone and computerized "personalized" letter contacts with viewers. There are about two dozen such programs, and they account for the lion`s share of programming time, audience viewership and audience income.
And what do these preachers preach? One of the most detailed studies of the electronic church ministries was undertaken by Jeffery Hadden, a sociologist, and Charles Swann, a mainline religious broadcaster, in their book, Primetime Preachers: The Rising Power of Televangelism. Hadden and Swann identify three themes of the TV evangelists. First, they alleviate guilt feelings in the audience by consistent reference to the Devil: "Jesus washes away all sins and the Devil is responsible for all backsliding." Second, they emphasize the power of positive thinking: "If you would just let God be in command of your life, everything would be super A-OK. Only the Devil can mess up God`s glorious plan for your life. But the Devil cannot win, if Christians would just stick together." Third, they preach that "it`s all right to look out for yourself." Human selfishness, properly viewed, is not a sin.12.
"The 700 Club," "The PTL Club," Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart and the rest of the televangelists represent the "traditionalist" religious response to the current challenge of cultural disorientation. Peter Horsfield, in his doctoral thesis on religious television, identified the themes of electronic-church programming as follows:
1. "They are authoritative at a time when authority appears to be in disarray. The program generally centers on an authoritative, charismatic host who provides clear instruction on moral and religious problems."
2. "They place stress on the individual as the foundational societal unit, with a stress on the need for the individual to take action in the form of being born again and supporting the program. This gives the individual who is overwhelmed by the trauma he encounters in society something to do within the direction of an answer."
3. They are "generally affirmative of the social values the average American holds; reward for effort, the equal opportunity of all for success, the inherent value of (and divine imprimatur on) the American free-enterprise system." Horsfield contrasts this view of the evangelists with the mainline network programs "which often [are] critical of the American system."
4. They reinforce the belief system of the viewers "with a continual presentation of attractive and socially recognized personalities who endorse them."
5. They emphasize competition: "a battle between God and the Devil."
6. "The concrete eschatology . . . is attractive to those who see no way out of a seemingly hopeless human situation. . . . on the one hand evangelical programs proclaim the transcience and imminent end of this world, yet feature guests whose sole credential lies in their success in this world."13.
The tactics of the electronic-church preachers in many ways are psychologically ingenious. However, in the long run many of their techniques are harmful to many viewers and listeners.
Consider, for example, a favorite electronic-church technique which might well be called the "successful people" syndrome. Almost every popular evangelical program includes interviews with persons who have made it -- a singer or a well-known businessman who describes how bad things were until God was brought into the picture, but how now all is wonderful, give God the glory. The message is simple: believe in God and all will be wonderful for you, too.
There is a serious problem with this tactic. When hopeful converts begin to realize that they are not becoming especially wealthy, are not getting all the money or things they want, what can they do? Their religion prevents them from blaming God, or the preacher who claims to represent God. They can only blame themselves, and this pushes them deeper into self-doubt and alienation then they were originally. The "successful people" approach is bad psychology as well as bad theology.
Another favorite technique is the "give-to-get ploy", used in one way or another by every major electronic-church evangelist. The message is: "If you give -- really give -- to God (which means to that evangelist), then God will return that gift to you and much more." The evangelists are not talking about spiritual gifts; they parade before the television screen those who have Made It Big, who asked for a car and got it, who wanted money for the down payment on a house and got it, who asked, and gave, and got.
Oral Roberts calls this the "Seed Faith" concept. It is fundamental to his spectacular financial success. According to Jerry Scholes, who at one time was employed on Oral Roberts` senior staff, all of Roberts` books advise "You give first, and then expect miracles in your life." 14. Says Scholes, "While Seed-Faith, as a concept, indicates that you can give time, talents, or money to anyone (not necessarily Oral Roberts), the subtleties of the copy point toward giving to Oral Roberts. . . . Oral`s closest associate once told me, `Seed-Faith put Oral`s ministry back on the map." Roberts, "The PTL Club," "The 700 Club," and the other programs parade people across the TV screen who gave and then got something really big in return. You say you haven`t gotten something back from God? Then you just haven`t given enough! And so this "heavenly lottery" attracts countless thousands who even borrow money to support their evangelist and thus increase the chance of hitting it big like the folk they see on TV. But, as in any other lottery, the losers outnumber the winners a thousand to one.
"The 700 Club" has been particularly diligent in using this technique. Dick Dabney described two episodes from a "700 Club" program in l979. Ben Kinchlow rushes up to the microphone and says to Pat Robertson:
"We have a report just in from Charlottesville, Virginia," Ben said. "A lady with an ingrown toenail sent in $100 along with her Seven Lifetime Prayer Requests. Within a week -- get this -three of those lifetime prayer requests have been answered!"
"Praise God!" Pat said. "And that`s not all," said Ben. "The toenail was miraculously healed the very next day!"
"Praise God! Robertson said. "You know, you can`t outgive God."
Some time later in the program, Ben once again comes on screen:
"Pat, here is a report from a woman in California," Kinchlow said, dashing up with a message just taken by one of the phone counselors. "She`s on a limited income, and with all sorts of health problems, too. She decided to trust in God and to step out in faith on the Kingdom Principles. She was already giving half her disability money to the 700 Club to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. But just last week, she decided to go all the way, and to give God the money she spends for cancer medicine -- $120 a month. And three days later -- get this! -- from an entirely unexpected source, she got a check for three thousand dollars!"
"Praise God! Robertson said. "Let`s give God a hand!"15.
And permeating it all is the Madison Avenue sell. Watching Jerry Falwell`s service from the Hampton Road Baptist Church one Sunday morning, I lost count after 12 sales pitches from the pulpit, for everything from lapel pins to a trip to Israel.
John Kenneth Galbraith has said that the basic purpose of advertising is to get people to buy something they don`t need. Apparently, the purveyors of the electronic church think the values of the gospel are so obscure that only the hard sell can move them off the shelf. Slogans, pop songs, glad names, bad names, stacking the cards, the bandwagon -- every technique basic to advertising is part of the stock-in-trade of the electronic church, which is, indeed, selling something people don`t need -- a superficial, magical God.
The electronic-church preachers, taken as a whole, represent the call for a return to "traditional" values, a call that has occurred in the early stages of each Great Awakening in America. The "traditional" values this time are a mixture of a strong and militant Americanism, a rugged individualism, anticommunism, antiintellectualism, and a return to Puritan fundamentalism.
The electronic church messages often contain three of the classic heresies which have dogged the Christian tradition almost from its beginning. One is Manichaeism, which in the third century proposed a dualism that separates everything into light and darkness, spirit and matter, good and evil. The electronic-church preachers tend to pose every issue this way: either you are good or bad; America is God`s while Russia is the devil`s; accept Jesus and be saved or expect the hellfires of the damned on judgment day. Manichaeism was rejected by Augustine as intellectually and morally inadequate, but it has persisted in many forms throughout Christian history, and is rampant today on TV religion.
Another heresy of the electronic evangelists is their Palagian distortion that promises considerable earthly rewards for the faithful. Palagianiaism denies original sin, affirms that "If I ought, I can," and hold that everyone has the power within themselves to not sin but to do whatever they truly desire, so long as they have faith. Plagianism is a particularly popular American distortion of historic Christianity. It was popularized in the l950s by Norman Vincent Peale, and more recently, by his spiritual descendant, Robert Schuller, though it is evident in all of the electronic-church evangelists.
A third heresy that often appears in the electronic-church message is nominalism ("Speak the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved") which fits nicely into the electronic church`s emphasis that the individual need merely "name the name" or "accept the Lord Jesus Christ" to be saved.
One of the great appeals of the electronic church gospel is that it gives religious sanction to the American tradition of utilitarian self-interest. Robert Bellah has shown that American culture from its early beginnings has held two views in tension: on the one hand, the biblical understanding of community based on the notion of charity for all members, a community supported by public and private virtue; and, on the other hand, the utilitarian understanding that community is a neutral state which allows individuals to pursue the maximization of their self-interest.16. The electronic church actually harmonizes these conflicting traditions by corrupting the biblical tradition so that religion itself becomes the key to maximizing self-interest, and there is no effective linkage to virtue, charity, or community. This corruption of the fundamental biblical concept of conscience into self-interest is one of the most serious of all the electronic church`s distortions.
It is here that the insidious and pernicious effects of the technological era and The Technique become clear. The Technique takes as its key value what works. Applied to the electronic church -- whose basic objective is to "win people to Christ" -- then whatever technology, whatever selling techniques, whatever psychological ploys and gambits are "effective" in getting more income and more stations and more audience are good, simply because they work.
Also, whatever maximizes self interest works. And the programs do both. This explains why the electronic church is phenomenally successful in fund raising and growth, because it is technologically sophisticated in the ways of this world, and because its messsage is finally one of self-interest. It also explains why it fails to meet the minimum requirements of biblical Christianity, because ultimately it places technique above substance, means above ends, things above people, and people against people.
Finances and Power
Fund-raising is a central activity, if not the central activity, of the electronic church. A number of ethical issues center around the methods employed in fund-raising, the lack of accountability in the use of the money, and the high costs of promotion and administration in relation to the amounts actually going for the projects and causes for which the funds were raised.
The amounts of money are not small. Income for CBN in l983 totaled $230 million; for Jerry Falwell`s "Gospel Hour," Liberty University, and Thomas Road Baptist Church, donations were $53 million in l985; Jim and Tammy Bakker`s PTL took in $72.1 million in l985 from contributions, real estate sales, lodging, food, and retail sales, and the sale of time on his cable network.17.
In general, appeals for money dominate the programs of electronic evangelism. Robert Abelman, professor of communications at Cleveland State University, in a study of the content of 40 leading religious shows in l983, discovered that during an average hour, a televangelist asks each viewer to donate $328. The person who watches two hours a week is subjected to direct appeals for a total of $31,500 a year. "Most often, the reason cited for the request for money is survival," Abelman reported. "It`s not to preach the Gospel or for mission work. It`s to stay on the air."17.
CBN in many ways is the most active and sophisticated of the big operators. Callers to CBN`s telephone prayer counseling centers are asked, first, whether they know Jesus Christ and, second, whether they would like to be a member of The 700 Club. There are several levels of membership. CBN supporters can join The 1000 Club by paying $1000 a year, or The 2500 Club at $2500 a year, and those who contribute $5000 or more a year become members of The Founders` Club. Robertson claimed in l985 that the overall operations of CBN took in $230 million, "give or take $30 million." The Internal Revenue Service records show revenue in l983 for CBN -- excluding the for-profit TV- cable network and other enterprises -- was $101 million, of which $89 million came as donations. That same year CBN gave a total of $6.9 million in gifts to CBN University and other mission ministries, or less than 8% of total income.18.
Following a storm of criticism about the lack of financial accountability on the part of many of the TV evangelists, the groups in the l970s established the Evangelical Council for Financial Acountability to develop financial accounting and reporting principles to which all members must adhere -- a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. CBN is not a member of the Council, and it does not meet the Council of Better Business Bureaus standards for organizations that solicit charitable contributions.
In l978 Massachusetts sued CBN for failing to disclose its finances in accordance with state law. CBN reorganized, created a for-profit arm called CBN Continental Broadcasting Inc., and the suit was dropped. But Kevin Suffern, an assistant attorney general for Massachusetts, said, "If you are dealing with millions and millions of dollars and you set up a system of corporations and subcorporations and for-profit and not-for-profit arms, and you do not have an overall requirement of financial disclosure, you are never going to be able to trace all that money."19.
The Falwell organization also does not subscribe to the Evangelical Council for Financial Responsibility, and it does not comply with the Better Business Bureau standards for charitable organizations that solicit funds. In l979, income raised by Falwell`s television program was $35 million, while its operating costs for direct-mail appeals, promotion, and administration -- including maintaining Falwell`s 12-room house and his private Westwind II jet - amounted to $26 million. And there have been some disquieting differences between what Falwell said was happening and what was actually going on. For instance, in l980 Falwell refused to pay $67,000 in taxes on land which was not tax-exempt. One of the officers of "The Old Time Gospel Hour" told reporters at the time that the church owned no property not "involved in the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ," when in fact it was leasing space to a supermarket, a gift shop, and a restaurant-bar in the shopping plaza which contained its offices.20.
Jim Bakker of The PTL Club has consistently spent more than he has taken in. For example, income for l985 was $72.1 million, with $42 million of that coming from direct contributions and the rest earned from a new $30 million Victorian-style hotel, a motel, restaurant, and other activities associated with his Biblical-theme amusement park, the 2500 acre Heritage USA. PTL`s expenses that same year were $89.7 million. The ministry showed a deficit of $17.5 million.21.
Also, Bakker has been accused a number of times of diverting money collected for mission projects to pay ongoing expenses. In the late l970s Bakker made several tearful on-air pleas for money, saying that he and his wife Tammy had given "every penny of our life savings to PTL." A month later, Bakker made a $6000 down payment on a houseboat. In addition to his waterfront parsonage near Charlotte, North Carolina, Bakker owns a second house in Palm Desert, California, a Rolls Royce and a Mercedes-Benz.22.
In l979, the Federal Communications Commission investigated charges that PTL diverted funds raised on the air for overseas mission projects. Instead of ruling on the purported misuse of funds, however, the FCC approved PTL`s immediate sale of its television station in Canton, Ohio, which ended the Commission`s official jurisdiction over PTL. Three of the seven FCC commissioners voted against the action, saying they dissented "from its stench." Commissioners Joseph R. Fogarty and Henry M. Rivera wrote that PTL was "under a cloud of serious misconduct, including substantial and material questions of fraudulent duty, false testimony."23.
The reported income for Jimmy Swaggart in l982 was about $45 million. Swaggart was on 223 TV stations in the United States and claimed to have about one million persons on his mailing list. Two- thirds of those who contributed to Swaggart sent in less than $10 per month; the average giving was about $45 per person a year.24.
A l983 study in central Ohio, showed that about two-thirds of all households there contributed to local churches, while about 15% contribute to electronic preachers. Swaggart was the highest-rated evangelist in central Ohio, even though he reached only about 2% of all the households.
Swaggart says that about 95% of his support comes from churchgoers. Of his $45 million income in l982, he spent about $38 million -- more than 80% -- just keeping his program on the air, that is, on production and distribution. For every two dollars he spent on production he spent another dollar buying television time. However, thanks to his TV income, Swaggart says he is able to feed 20,000 children a day in poor parts of the world and to build churches in those areas. He regularly appears on 200 stations outside the United States.25.
Most of the major televangelists` income and expenses fit this general pattern. Frances FitzGerald, in an extensive New Yorker article in l982, showed that Jerry Falwell spent $5 in fund raising for every $7 he raised -- a high ratio indeed (71.4%).26. By way of contrast, the Rev. Norman Dewire, the chief program coordinating executive for the United Methodist Church, pointed out that "the national United Methodist Church runs on five cents of each $1, supports 750 missionaries, 900 short-term missionaries, curriculum and worship materials, the largest network of private colleges in the United States, one hundred retirement homes, and the recruitment and training of ministers plus all communication materials."27.
The prodigious cost of promotion versus results among the electronic church ministries is even greater than average in the case of The PTL Club. In his study on the televangelists, Peter Horsfield did some interesting arithmetic with Jim Bakker`s claim that, due to the PTL program, 28,143 people received Christ as Savior in 1979, and that "these new converts would represent a new church of over 500 people every week started by PTL."28. But 80% of those respondents are already either associated with a church or soon drop out, leaving 20% at most who might join a church. This works out to a possible new church of 500 created once a month rather than once a week. Given an annual expenditure of $50 million, the cost of establishing these 12 new churches a year would average $7.9 million per church, or $9,345 per convert!29.
There is nothing unusual about making money in America. But it certainly has been unusual for religious evangelists, until now. Jonathan Edwards, the great 18th-century revivalist, lived all his life on a pastor`s salary. Charles G. Finney, the spectacular revivalist of the mid-l800s, received a modest salary as evangelist and later as a college president. Dwight L. Moody lived completely on faith and took no salary after he became an evangelist in the late l800s. Before this generation, only Billy Sunday`s crusades made substantial sums, and Sunday himself was worth only $50,000 when he died. Even Billy Graham has always taken a modest salary from the Billy Graham Evangelist Association and made certain that he did not control the use of the association`s funds single handedly.
For today`s electronic evangelists the situation is quite different. Most of them have truly enormous organizations working for them -- often hundreds of men and women whose livelihoods depend upon one man. They have built large institutions -- Oral Roberts University, the City of Faith, the Crystal Cathedral, the CBN University, Liberty College. And while their salaries are usually in the range of middle managers in the business world, they also command formidable goods and services: jet airplanes for their personal use, automobiles, homes and vacation retreats, a staff devoted strictly to their travel and comfort needs, bodyguards, public relations offices, unlimited expense accounts -- the kind of perquisites only top leaders in business or government can command. In addition, they receive huge amounts of donations which are entirely undesignated -- which, in effect, can be used by them for whatever they wish. Their organizations are incorporated, of course, but usually the Board of Directors is a closely knit family affair, with the evangelist, his wife, their sons or daughters as the members. The fact is that each televangelist possesses truly enormous economic power.
With the economic power comes social and political power. It is no accident that Oral Roberts is on the board of several of the largest banks in Tulsa; after all, the university and 60-story- hospital are big business. But even Oral Roberts` political dreams have been paltry in comparison with two of his fellow televangelists: Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
Historically, most fundamentalists have preached withdrawal from the world as the only way to remain untainted by sin. The power plays and compromises of politics were something clearly for Christians to avoid. As late as l976 Jerry Falwell said in an interview in Playboy that his criticisms of Jimmy Carter were "those of a pastor speaking on a moral issue" and were not intended to be political.
But in the late l970s Paul Weyrich, a founder of the Moral Majority, realized the new movement had to have a prominent and telegenic minister to lead the movement, and he chose Jerry Falwell. Falwell immediately was catapulted from being pastor of one of the country`s fastest-growing churches (the 20,000 member Thomas Road Baptist Church) to being the national spear-carrier for the extreme political right. Since then, many other evangelists, notably Rex Humbard, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and James Robison, have joined in politicizing their religion on the airwaves.
Falwell energetically used the press and the popular media to spread his political gospel. He told his television audience to fight against pornography, abortion, homosexuality, secular humanism, and promiscuity. He urged them to stand up for morality, patriotism, school prayer, and a strong national defense. His rhetoric is purposefully flamboyant. He called the National Organization of Women the "National Order of Witches." When a reporter questioned him about his calling for the killing of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, he replied, with a smile, "I`m a Baptist, not a Quaker." He called Nobel peace prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa "a phony."30.
Polsters regularly report that most people view Falwell unfavorably. But his followers support him with an enthusiasm bordering on fanaticism. They see his unpopularity as the result of his outspoken leadership, plus the bias and distortion of the mass media.
While the Republican party refused to credit Falwell`s Moral Majority with a decisive role in the l980 election, Falwell and his followers have made a difference in a few very close elections, such as the l984 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina between then Governor Jim Hunt, a Democrat, and incumbent Republican Jesse Helms; Helms won with 51.3% of the vote. On the other hand, many Virginia and national Democrats believe that the controversy surrounding Falwell cancels any help he brings. Since Falwell began supporting Republicans in Virginia, Democrats have won the state`s top offices twice and recaptured the congressional district that includes Lynchburg, Falwell`s home town, when that district formerly had been Republican for three decades.
As to the inconsistent political stance of Falwell in l980, Frances FitzGerald points out that Falwell represents a bridging of southern pietistic withdrawal from society with the economic success story of the New South. "While Thomas Road people want separation, authority, and certainty, they also want career advancement, some worldly goods, and a little power in the society. The conflicing aims go a long way toward explaining the confusion of fundamentalists` politics in the l980 election."
On one hand, Falwell was saying that "the [local] church should be a disciplined charging army. . . . Christians, like slaves and soldiers, ask no questions." But when he went forth to do battle with the world outside Lynchburg, Virginia, he discovered that the old rhetoric would not work. The reporters demanded consistency. The Republican leadership was "asking him to look like a tolerant, conservative sort of fellow." Thus Falwell had to develop a different public from the one he was used to, and this public did not go away when Falwell jetted back to the Thomas Road Baptist Church, as he did almost every Sunday, to preach in his old tone of voice to his old audience.31.
But if Jerry Falwell is an advance guard of political conservatism, Pat Robertson is its master strategist. Robertson lets Falwell act as his lightning rod. If the sparks fly when Falwell takes a position, Robertson backs off; if the going is relatively smooth, then Robertson says the same thing Falwell says -- but six months later. Robertson, the son of a former U.S. senator, has far more money than Falwell, a much larger TV audience, and considerably more political savvy.
Robertson has always done things in a big way. By his own account, he started with a bank balance of $3 and built a $230 million empire that supports a university, a library, and social work and mission organizations. He also takes credit publicly for turning Hurricane Gloria away from Virginia Beach in October l985. Says Robertson, "When you pray to command a hurricane to go out into the Atlantic Ocean, it isn`t like saying, `The Lord bless you.`"32.
Robertson appears to have presidential aspirations. Any other job, he said to an interviewer, would be a lateral move. During a press conference in l986 following a $2500 per couple fund-raising dinner in Washington, Robertson told reporters, "It`s electric. There are tens of thousands of people who are on their feet cheering. They are saying, `Go for it. We want you` . . . And I`m listening."33. Whether or not he is successful in reaching the White House in l988, Robertson by then will be only 58, and there will always be l992. . . and l996. "We have enough votes to run the country," he was quoted as saying at the "Washington for Jesus" rally in l980. "And when the people say, `We`ve had enough,` we are going to take over." 34.
Thus far we have been discussing the electronic church from the point of view of the evengelists themselves, the tradition out of which they have come, their use of radio and television technology, their message and techniques.
But what about the listeners and viewers? Who are they, why do they tune in, and what effect is the electronic church having on them?
1. "Stars of the Cathode Church," Time magazine, 4 February, l980, pp. 64-5.
2. William F. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pg. 10.
3. Ibid., pp. 12-13.
4. Anthony F. C. Wallace, "Revitalization Movements," American Anthropology, 58 (l956), pp. 264-281.
5. William F. Fore, "Religious Broadcasting," International Encyclopedia of Communication (New York: Oxford University Press, l987).
6. Congressional Record, 73rd Congress, 2nd Session, vol. 78 (l934), Part 7, 7509.
7. Federal Communications Commission, Communications Act of l934 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, l960), p. 40.
8. Federal Communications Commission, Report of The F.C.C. to Congress Pursuant to Section 307(c) of the Communications Act of l934, submitted from E. O. Sykes, Chairman to the President of the United States Senate, 22 January, l935, pp. 5-6.
9. Fore, "Religious Broadcasting,"
10. Greensboro News and Record (Greensboro, N.C.), 1 June 1986, p. A12.
11. A. C. Nielsen, "Report on Devotional Programs, February l986," Nielsen Station Index, (New York: A.C. Nielsen, 1986).
12. Jeffrey K. Haddon, and Charles Swann, Prime Time Preachers: The Rising Power of Televangelism (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, l981), pp. 101-102.
13. Peter G. Horsfield, ????? Coming late January.
14. Jerry Scholes, Give Me That Prime-Time Religion: An Insider`s Report on the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association (New York: Hawthorn, 1979), pp. 25-29.
15. Dick Dabney, "God`s Own Network," Harpers, May 1980, p. 46.
16. Robert Bellah, Varieties of Civil Religion (New York: Harper, l980), p. 107.
17. From a series of articles entitled "Heavenly Hosts" by staff writers Gerry Broome, Jack Chamberlain, Steve Haner, Sue Robinson, Cecile Holmes White, and Nan Wintersteller, in Greensboro News and Record (Greensboro, N.C.), June 1-4 l986.
18. Greensboro News and Record, 1 June l986, p. A13.
20. Greensboro News and Record, 2 June l986, p. A6.
21. Greensboro News and Record, 3 June 1986, p. A6.
24. From a series of articles entitled "God Among Us," by religion writer Carrie LaBriola and staff writer Vince McKelvey, in Dayton Journal Herald (Dayton, OH), November 19-26, l981; 19 November, l981, p. 4.
26. Frances FitzGerald, "A Disciplined, Charging Army," The New Yorker, 18 May 1981, pp. 53-141.
27. Dayton Journal Herald, 17 November 1981, p. A6.
28. "PTL Counselling," leaflet published by the PTL Network, undated, cited in Peter G. Horsfield, Religious Television: The American Experience (New York: Longman, l984), p. 57.
29. Peter G. Horsfield, ???? (to come late January).
30. Greensboro News and Record, 2 June 1986, p. A6.
31. FitzGerald, "A Disciplined, Charging Army," pp. 135-138.
32. Greensboro News and Record, 1 June 1986, p. A12.
33. Robbie Gordon, "How They Tune Out the Press," Washington Journalism Review, April 1986, p. 43.