Religious Television: The American Experience
by Peter Horsfield


The modern evangelical movement in America burst onto the public stage in the national election year of 1976. Though evangelicalism had always been an element in American religious life and had been growing in strength for several previous decades, it was the candidacy and election of a self- proclaimed "born-again" Southern evangelical as American president which brought the phenomenon to widespread public attention.

This awakening interest in the evangelical movement led to an immediate interest in its most visible manifestation: evangelical television. The public was generally surprised at the advanced technological competence of the evangelical broadcasters, the extent of their large organizations, and the size of their budgets. Newsweek in 1976 reflected a common feeling when it called the evangelical movement "the most significant and overlooked religious phenomenon of the 1970s."

The fact that the growth of evangelical broadcasting had occurred largely unnoticed led many to believe that the broadcasters had in fact been operating in secret and were intent on some kind of social or political duplicity. For many, this suspicion appeared to be confirmed in the following election year, when some of the broadcasters formed active coalitions with the "new right" politicians and political groups with a view to countering some of the liberals' moral and political advances of the 1960s. For some fearful observers, the growth of evangelical broadcasting represented a massive takeover by the political and moral right and a plot to establish a religious republic with the evangelical and fundamentalist broadcasters as the major spokespersons. More moderately, some journalists observed that the television preachers, by unifying and motivating otherwise inactive voters, could hold the key to the election.

The election itself removed much of the ambiguity in which this kind of speculation flourished. Since that time the widespread interest in religious broadcasting has largely faded. The media's handling of the phenomenon of religious television can now be seen to have been both polarized and exaggerated, lacking historical and empirical perspective and shaped to a large extent by the media's preference for sensation and confrontation in the pre-election atmosphere. Several of the major commercial religious broadcasters can be seen also to have craftily used this media bias to advance their own particular causes.

The preoccupation with the political aspects of religious television, though, has tended to ignore and obscure other important dimensions of the phenomenon. The recent trends in religious television raise questions and issues which are of importance not only for political observers, but also for religious communicators, sociologists, and those concerned with understanding how television functions in American society. One of the principal issues is the social power of television itself, for a study of religious television in American society provides a case study of what happens when a strongly ideological social group such as a religious organization confronts the established and also strongly ideological American television industry.

What can be seen from a study of religious uses of television in America is that over the past several years there has developed a marked imbalance in the presentation of American religious faith and culture. While there are several factors contributing to this imbalance, the dominant factor is the economic and functional interests of the commercial television industry. These interests have found it advantageous to their own cause to promote a minority religious expression on television because this particular expression reinforces television's own economic and mythological intentions. Further, television has permitted this viewpoint to replace other religious viewpoints, even though these others are more representative of more popular American religious traditions. Television's managers have exercised a powerful censoring effect on the expression of religious faith in America, giving them consequentially an exaggerated influence over the development of American religious culture and institutions and possibly over the nature of American and even global religious life.

The evangelical and fundamentalist traditions of Christianity, which have benefitted most from this situation, justify their in-equable communicative power in terms which, in the light of this analysis, can be seen to be false and self-deluding. When considered against impartial research data their strategy in relation to television appears largely to have failed. This failure, in combination with other religious approaches to television, suggests that none of the major strategies employed by the major American religious traditions have been effective in overcoming the awesome power of the television industry itself. The message of these religious traditions has been reduced to blend with television's own intention to function as the adequate religion of contemporary society.

These theses are examined and supported through this study. Part I provides a historical overview of the development of religious television in America and an analysis of the factors which have contributed to its particular structure and the issues raised by it. Part II provides a survey of empirical research relevant to the various issues in religious television and through this survey clarifies many of the questions which have been raised in relation to the religious use of television. Part III provides a projection of the future of current trends in religious television in America and elements of a strategy for a realistic use of television in the total mission of the church.

This book represents the culmination of six years of doctoral work and research in theology and mass communication at Boston University Graduate School. I want to acknowledge the help in that program given by many, but particularly by J. Robert Nelson, Professor of Systematic Theology, and F. Earle Barcus, Professor of Communication Research. The Boston University School of Theology Library was most helpful in obtaining many idiosyncratic titles and microfilms on which this research strongly depends. There were some broadcasters and program agencies of different churches who gave me access to their files and made otherwise private research available to me for use in the study. Mention should be made particularly of Bill Fore of the National Council of Churches Communication Commission and the Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia. The secrecy and suspicion of so many other broadcasters is regrettable and can only be detrimental to the overall cause of Christ and his kingdom. I wish to acknowledge also the personal help and support given by the two churches of which I was pastor during the period of study and writing: The Arlington Heights United Methodist Church in Massachusetts and The Gap Uniting Church in Brisbane, Australia. The experience within these churches has provided a necessary perspective from which to view the phenomenon of religious television. My editor, Robert White of the Centre for the Study of Communication and Culture in London, has provided many pages of comments, criticisms, and suggestions which could well be published themselves as a commentary on the whole subject of religious broadcasting and its impact on culture. The book is dedicated to my wife, Marilyn, whose theological and psychological insights and comments have added significantly to the level of analysis in the book.

Finally, I would be pleased to bequeath to the first comer the constant flow of direct mail I have received from broadcasters as a consequence of my having established contact with them. I fear that I shall be loved, inspired, prayed for, thought specially of, possibility-powered, and some-thing-specialled to an early death.

Peter G. Horsfield