Prime Time Preachers
issue 155 | January 1986
issue 155 | January 1986
Prime time preachers
BOSTON, Massachusetts, where Puritanism flourished and religion is generally a sober, restrained affair, might seem like less than fertile ground for evangelical fervour. Yet every Sunday morning, Boston residents, like their fellow citizens across the US, can watch a full schedule of TV evangelists beamed into their living rooms. At 11am, while many are in church, others are watching Reverend W V Grant, a faith healer who slides occasionally into talking in tongues, as he broadcasts from his church in Dallas, Texas.
Here's a typical scene. A small, frail older black woman in a wheelchair is brought up the aisle to where Rev Grant stands.
'Do you believe Dr Jesus can cure you?' Grant booms. He appears to divine the name of the woman's doctor and the specifics of her illness.
'You have not talked to anyone or sent a note up here to anybody. Is that right?' he asks. 'Your doctor told you that you have crippling arthritis and will never walk. Is that right? Well, Dr Jesus is healing you right now. Get up out of that wheelchair and walk.'
She does and Grant climbs into the wheelchair. 'Now show me how fast you can push. In the name of Jesus,' he calls as he rolls down the aisle, 'let's all give the Lord a big hand.'
As the end of the well-orchestrated half-hour approaches, Brother Grant makes his pitch: 'Write me today, I'll anoint your letter, I'll pray for you and write back, even if you do not send an offering. But if you do send a tax-deductible offering of $20 or more (remember we have to raise seven million dollars a year to keep broadcasting God's word to you) I'll send you copies of my books How to be Healed in Three minutes and How to Keep your Healing.'
WV Grant is one of dozens of American TV evangelists. And though his pitch is typical, in the expanding world of religious broadcasting, he is a bit player. There are over 65 evangelical television programs syndicated regularly across the United States. There are three different Christian television networks. Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, which boasted an annual budget of $68 million in 1981; the PTL ('Praise the Lord' and 'People that Love') Broadcasting Network, which beams its shows from a multimillion dollar state-of-the-art TV studio in North Carolina; and the smaller, California-based Trinity Broadcasting Network. The most well-known and popular evangelist broadcasters (the 'supersavers' as they are often called) make Reverend Grant's operation look like an amateur show.
Oral Roberts, who began in the 1940s as an itinerant preacher holding worship services in outdoor tents, now oversees a $50 million-a-year empire that includes his television show, a hospital and a university. Rex Humbard, who mixes his homilies with a heavy dose of upbeat contemporary gospel music, broadcasts to over 200 TV stations. Jimmy Swaggart, cousin of rock-n-roller Jerry Lee Lewis, has used piano-pounding gospel music as his ticket to the top of the religious broadcasting ratings. And Jerry Falwell has watched his Lynchburg, Virginia, church grow from 35 members meeting in an abandoned soft-drink bottling plant to a 17,000-member superchurch, second largest in the nation. In the late 1970s, Falwell catapulted into the political arena when he founded the conservative lobbying organization, Moral Majority. Today, one is as likely to see Rev Falwell being interviewed on network news shows as holding forth on his weekly Old Time Gospel Hour.
How many people tune in to the TV evangelists? During the Republican National Convention in 1980, an associate of Jerry FaIwell claimed that 50 million viewers, or one in every five Americans watched FaIwell's show at one time or another. In fact the television pollsters estimate the total audience of the 'electronic church' at about 20 million.
The TV preachers' audience is disproportionately female and disproportionately over 50 years of age. That's not changed dramatically in recent years, but the nature of TV evangelism certainly has. Television preachers have become much more adept at reaching their audience - through computerized direct mail solicitations and other strategies. And they've refined their methods of mobilizing support for both the culture of Christian fundamentalism and the politics of the New Christian Right.
Author Carol Flake has written of the evolution of a 'Christian-industrial complex', a Christian variant of mass culture that is encouraged by the TV preachers but of which they are only one part. In her recent book Redemptorama, Flake writes that there are now 'Christian self-help books, Christian sex manuals, Christian money guides, Christian quiz shows, Christian athletes, Christian rock stars and Christian T-shirts.'
This culture links an anti-secular, anti-humanist Christian faith with an unabashed enthusiasm for American entrepreneurialism: the 'gospel of wealth' equates the religious doctrine of faith with the secular doctrine of free enterprise and material accumulation. As if acting out a script written by the classic sociologist Max Weber, Christian capitalism is evolving from and contributing to a new ideological and cultural cohesion among fundamentalist Americans.
Hand-in-hand with this cultural unity has emerged a growing political activism. Pollster George Gallup dubbed 1976, the year born-again Baptist Jimmy Carter was elected President, the 'Year of the Evangelical.' And by 1980, when a tide of conservatism swept Ronald Reagan into office and a host of liberal Senators out, the political importance of the nation's estimated 30 to 50 million evangelical Christians had become apparent to all observers of American politics.
The Reagan administration has tried to keep the New Christian Right at arm's length. But this has not weakened the resolve of fundamentalists, led by their TV preachers, to push for federal legislation on controversial moral issues such as abortion, homosexuality and prayer in the schools.
If anything, the political activism of the evangelical movement has become even more vigorous in the past few years. According to sociologist Jeffrey Hadden, 'They have become more politicized as a group. The most recent National Religious Broadcasters meeting was extremely politicized, like a political convention.' They are more forthright about their political activism as well. 'In 1980, Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network was indignant that people charged him with being political. Today, he is being talked about as a potential Presidential candidate - and he is not discouraging that talk.'
The growing sophistication of the electronic church has already begun to change the cultural and political landscape of the United States. According to evangelist preacher Dave Breese, 'Evangelical Christianity has become the greatest show on earth. Twenty to 40 years ago, it was on the edge of things. Now it has moved to the center.' The evolution is as clear as the difference between a faith healer like W V Grant and a Jerry Falwell who debates Jesse Jackson on TV about the morality of economic sanctions against South Africa.
Evangelism has indeed moved into the center. The arena for religious action has broadened significantly. As Jeffrey Hadden and colleague Charles Swaim explain, 'No longer are they satisfied with Sister Lou or Brother Jim finding the Lord and being born again. For although salvation is still their goal, the sinner is not you or me any more, it's America.'
These Christian soldiers have set a new task for themselves: to meet the challenge of saving America, they can be expected in the coming years to try to raise more money, recruit new loyalists and reach for more secular power. In this most religious of nations, conservative evangelicals are trying to become, in the words of Jerry Falwell, a 'disciplined, charging army.' How they fare will have great bearing on American political and social life in the next decade.