Initially an American phenomenon, televangelism refers to the use of television for Christian missionary outreach, of an evangelical fundamentalist type, usually incarnated in a single leadership figure, which became particularly prominent in the 1970s as a result of shifts in broadcasting policies regulated by the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1960. Prior to that time, the FCC required the commercial broadcast networks to donate a portion of their airtime to ”public interest” use. A convenient way to do this was for the stations to cooperate with large, main stream religious bodies to produce a variety of non confrontational, non sectarian programs that could fit within this category. This ended when the FCC in 1960 ruled that the stations could count commercial programming toward their public interest quotas. The effect was to open a new market, wherein profit interests could redefine the public interest within category limits. Hence, ”religious interest” could be met by allowing the religious interests with the most money to have the available slots. This was greatly enhanced as more broadcast frequencies became more easily available. So was born the parallel religious institution of the ”electronic church,” with its most successful exponents eventually termed ”televangelists.”
As a part of media coverage of the growth in fundamentalist and evangelical churches in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, one focus of attention became the concomitant expansion in the activities of religious broad casters, especially the televangelist stars of Sun day morning. Eventual revelations of scandals involving sexual misconduct and/or financial misrepresentation by some of the best known television preachers, such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, served to fix popular gaze firmly on the operations of religious broadcasters. Unnuanced and even derisive reporting of these scandals also reinforced persistent stereotypes concerning the rather diverse ministries that jointly inhabit the airwaves. Chief among these is the impression that all religious broadcasters are money hungry opportunists, accountable to no higher authority, who promise miracles in order to lure huge numbers of the desperate and the gullible – and their financial contributions – away from the putatively sounder fellowship of mainline congregations or secular professional help.
A sociological account of televangelism is better constructed in aspects of the roles that broadcast ministers perform and the economic and organizational constraints within which they work. The electronic church, like other western institutions, is voluntaristic, diverse, market oriented, entrepreneurial, technologically advanced, and activated by vast amounts of time and money. In the media market, there simply is no ministry without money. In a different sense than is normally intended, within broadcasting time is money – that is, time costs money. Thus, the head of a broadcast ministry, virtuous or not, must always preach with one eye glued to the financial bottom line and one foot planted a step ahead of his creditors. Hence the seeming obsession during religious broad casts with talk of raising and spending money. Additionally, the very evangelistic nature of religious commitment among conservative Christians reinforces this entrepreneurial style. To their way of thinking, a faith that is not actively being passed on is a faith that is indolent and moribund. Not only is there a Christian imperative to extend the faith, but also a conviction that God has established a (hidden) time limit within which this must be done and that those who do not receive the Christian gospel are eternally lost. The logical conclusion to this line of thought is the incessant appeal for money to retire debts, maintain operations, and advance into the future.
The principal spokesperson for these appeals is the televangelist himself. Because very few current broadcast ministries are the projects of denominations, it is almost always an individual (most frequently the founder) who comes to embody the spirit of a religious program. He becomes the focal point for all that his ministry is and does; for all practical purposes, he is his organization. Televangelists are not above turning this condition around, however, and using it to cultivate loyalty among their followers. It is, after all, harder for people to trust an institution than a person, and even harder for them to endorse the worth of an abstract idea. So their gazes settle naturally on the profile of the preacher at center stage; hence, for example, viewers are much more likely to know who they watch among the televangelists than they are the actual name of his program.
Audience research shows that despite the sometimes outlandish claims of broadcast preachers themselves, the size of the regular audience for religious television in the United States is rather modest. It is dwarfed by the average ratings for the most popular talk shows and situation comedies on network television and its cable counterparts. The audience for religious television is also heavily concentrated in Southern states, where religious convictions as a whole have greater salience then they do in the rest of the country; hence religious broad casting may simply intensify already existing convictions rather than change alternative worldviews. Across the entire audience, furthermore, viewers are not ordinary unchurched, but are comparatively religious in the first place. Hence, there is little basis for a concern that religious television is substituting for worship ping with a congregation; the majority of viewers who are not otherwise religiously active are among the elderly, the immobile, and the chronically infirm, who would not swell the participatory ranks of congregants if televangelism were to cease.
- Alexander, B. (1994) Televangelism Reconsidered: Ritual in the Search for Human Community. Scholars Press, Atlanta.
- Armstrong, B. (1979) The Electric Church. Nelson, Nashville.
- Hadden, J. & Shupe, A. (1988) Televangelism: Power and Politics on God’s Frontier. Holt, New York.
- Hoover, S. (1988) Mass Media Religion: The Sources of the Electronic Church. Sage, Newbury Park, CA.
- Schultze, Q (1991) Televangelism and American Culture. Baker, Grand Rapids, MI.
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