by Michael H. Burchett
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Televangelism: An American Phenomenon
The growth of mass media in the postwar era produced a number of bizarre and controversial phenomena, not the least of which is the television evangelist. Strictly defined, televangelists are ministers of the Christian gospel who regularly conduct services or other programming on television. Through deft manipulation of their medium, claims of moral and spiritual authority, and skill at accumulating money and power, televangelists have made an undeniable impact upon both the popular and political culture of modern America.
Televangelism was a wedding of the old evangelical tradition so prominent in American Christianity with the communications technology of the twentieth century. Evangelical Christians were among the first groups to recognize and utilize the power of mass media, beginning with the early days of commercial radio in the 1920s. But regulatory policies, most notably FCC regulations that included religious programming in their definition of "public service" broadcasts, favored non-controversial, ecumenical religious programming over the fire-and-brimstone messages of the fundamentalist evangelists that constituted the largest and most persistent religious group seeking access to the new medium. Evangelists thus had to pay for their own airtime in order to acquire and retain media access, which required them to solicit private donations -- the primary source of which was their audiences. This environment shaped the development of televised evangelist ministries in the 1950s as Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, and other early televangelists worked to create their own organizations for syndication and distribution of programming.
In its early years, the programming of TV evangelists followed a traditional format of services and sermons, typically recorded either before a live audience or in a studio and broadcast on Sunday mornings. These programs operated on small budgets and appeared on a limited number of stations. Televangelism grew along with its medium, however, as the steady growth of the television industry in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in more local stations upon which televangelists could broadcast. Videotape, which became available in the early 1960s, provided televangelists with a relatively inexpensive means of recording and distributing programming, allowing them to reach wider audiences and broadcast at various times of the day and week. Televangelists were poised to exploit the emerging medium of cable television in the 1970s, which provided them with still more outlets and time flexibility and opened the door for the creation of channels devoted exclusively to religious broadcasting.
Scholars and observers have suggested that televangelism became successful because the fundamentalist approach to religion and traditionalist view of society that televangelists emphasize appeals to the anti-modernist strain of populism that has always been present in American society, but that became especially active in the twentieth century as their country and the world began to change more rapidly. Yet televangelists held a strange position in the battle between modernists and fundamentalists, dependent as they were upon modern technology to impart the old-time religion upon which their ministries were based. Indeed, many evangelists and their followers seemed from the beginning to regard the broadcast media as a mystical force, so great was their power to spread "the word" of fundamentalist Christianity to ever-broader audiences. Many twentieth-century gospel songs praised the power of the airwaves, the most popular of which was "Turn Your Radio On," written by Alfred E. Brumley in 1938 and recorded and performed by numerous artists before becoming a hit for Ray Stevens in 1972. Evangelical Christian broadcasters thus harbored no qualms about co-opting an institution that many within their ranks viewed as a purveyor of filth and godlessness; indeed, most seemed to view themselves as soldiers in a cultural war being waged within broadcast media.
In the early 1980s, televangelists were at the height of their power and influence. By then, television evangelism had become a multimillion-dollar industry with a worldwide audience of over 20 million viewers supporting a vast network of worldwide ministries that often competed with themselves as much as they battled Satan. But the tide began to turn in the late 1980s. In January 1987 Oral Roberts, one of the first and most successful televangelists, told his audience that he needed to raise $4.5 million in three months or "God will call me home." He did not meet this goal; yet he lived on, becoming a national laughingstock. Then in March of that year, the Charlotte Observer reported that Rev. Jim Bakker of PTL ("Praise the Lord") Ministries had paid over $100,000 in hush money to a former church secretary with whom he had had a sexual encounter. In the competitive climate of 1980s televangelism, this revelation was the equivalent of fresh blood in a shark tank. Bakker's fellow minister piled on, accusing him of homosexuality, sex with prostitutes, and misappropriating funds. It was the last charge that appeared most credible: Bakker and his wife Tammy Faye lived an overtly lavish lifestyle, and in a May appearance on ABC's Nightline made no effort to conceal their amusement as they told a national audience that they had no idea how much money they were making. In true 80s fashion, rival televangelist Jerry Falwell then seized their ministry in a hostile takeover and began dismantling it The Bakkers were evicted from their opulent mansion, but soon found other accommodations -- Jim as a guest of the federal government after his conviction on fraud charges, Tammy with a new husband.
Then in early 1988, allegations surfaced that Jimmy Swaggart, the televangelist cousin of recording artists Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley, had solicited sex from prostitutes. Swaggart had initiated the investigation of Bakker's sexual misconduct, and had also exposed the sexual indiscretion of another evangelist, Martin Gorman. In turn, Gorman exposed Swaggart's encounter with a Mississippi prostitute who alleged that Swaggart paid her to assume lewd poses while he masturbated. In a sobbing confession from the pulpit, Swaggart admitted his transgressions and temporarily stepped down from his ministry. Many of his followers accepted his tearful apology; but few were so forgiving when he made a second one months later following additional allegations. His ministry continued, albeit in a greatly diminished capacity.
The final blow to 80s televangelism came in late 1988 with the failed
presidential campaign of Pat Robertson, whose Christian Broadcasting Network
had catapulted him to the forefront of the Christian right movement. The
1990s saw a decline in the popularity of
televangelists, prompting many Christian broadcasters to turn to
family-oriented secular programming to boost their audiences. Nevertheless,
the core of televangelism with its emphasis on sermons, salvation, and
solicitation of funds, remained.
Slansky, Paul. The Clothes Have No Emperor: A Chronicle of the American '80s (New York: Fireside books, 1989).
Schultze, Quentin J. Televangelism and American Culture: The Business of Popular Religion (Grand rapids, MI: Baker, 1991).
Copyright © 2004 Michael H. Burchett. All rights reserved.