"Televangelism" refers to the specific style of religious broadcasting identified with conservative Protestantism and the Religious Right. Its roots are in the fundamentalist radio ministries of the 1930s through the 1950s, but televangelists took advantage of changing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations, the increasing availability of cable television, and a changing cultural climate to build vast media empires, most significantly in the 1980s.
Evangelism, revivalist preaching, and simple Bible-based Christianity have long dominated the American religious landscape. While claiming to be "old-time religion," evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, perhaps paradoxically, have often been on the cutting edge of technological development and the utilization of that technology to further their antimodernist ends. Such is the case with televangelism. Though televangelists are much criticized for their huckster, "Elmer Gantry"-type characteristics, their obsession with fund-raising appeals is a result of both pressure created by mainline religion in the early history of broadcasting and the techniques that enabled televangelism to grow at the pace at which it did.
Scholars trace the roots of televangelism to the revivalist preachers of the nineteenth century, especially Charles Finney, Dwight Moody, and Billy Sunday, who developed and perfected evangelical religious programming. By 1960 the fight for broadcast time had expanded to include television time as well as radio. It was in this year that the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) convinced the FCC to change its policy regarding public service broadcasting; from this point forward, the FCC determined that programming considered "in the public interest" was in the public interest whether or not the network was paid for airing it. Mainline religious broadcasters found it hard to compete with the fundamentalists, who were, by this time, skilled at raising money for paid airtime. Furthermore, the income-generating fundamentalists had funds to spend on the purchase and development of the latest technologies.
From Baptist Jerry Falwell and Presbyterian D. James Kennedy to nondenominational African American Fred Price, important television ministries have included representatives of the entire spectrum of Protestant traditions that make up evangelicalism and fundamentalism. But the most colorful, controversial, and prevalent are (or have been) the pentecostal ministries of Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Bakker, Oral Roberts, and Pat Robertson.
While the television ministries of Falwell, Kennedy, Price, Swaggart, and Roberts have kept fairly traditional formats—broadcasting the church services of their respective congregations with their own sermons as the central focus of the program—it has been the pentecostal ministries of Jim and Tammy Bakker (Praise The Lord [PTL] Club) and Pat Robertson (700 Club) that have emphasized revivalist methods designed to evoke specific responses by their audiences. Rhetorical styles, the use of music, and even the orchestration of the physical environment were all carefully examined, planned, and controlled to bring about the desired response: fear, repentance, conversion, and dedication to the ongoing support of the ministry so that others might experience the same. When broadcast technology became available, the religious traditions grounded in revivalism had skills that readily lent themselves to the new media.
Early regulation of radio by the FCC required stations to provide free public service programming. The most popular forms were religious in nature, produced by mainline denominations, provided free to networks, and aired by the networks at no charge to the religious institutions. Finke and Stark (1992) argue that the Federal Council of Churches (through which the mainline churches had access to the media) worked to freeze out the fundamentalists by requiring radio networks that wished to use the council's programming to air only council programming during free time and not to sell airtime to other religious programming. Networks typically prohibited the solicitation of funds during free "public service" airtime. The exception to this "cartel" (as Finke and Stark call it) was the Mutual Broadcasting System, which sold commercial airtime to fundamentalist broadcasters who were willing to pay and who used part of their airtime to solicit funds to pay for it.
In 1944 the NRB was formed, in part to work toward securing access to broadcast media for innovation and responding to market demands. The Bakkers' and Robertson's ministries have used state-of-the-art technology, a strong emphasis on sophisticated production values, and a news or talk show format to develop unique niches in the religious broadcasting market. They have also diversified well beyond their interests in television evangelism. Robertson has founded the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and a university (formerly CBN University, now Regent University). The Bakkers, at the height of their influence, built a Christian theme park: Heritage USA.
It was also the Pentecostal ministries—Swaggart, the Bakkers, and Roberts—that were racked with sex and financial scandals in the 1980s. The Bakkers were criticized for their lavish lifestyle, paid for by their viewers, and then it was made public that Jim had had an extramarital affair that had been covered up with hush money from PTL funds. Swaggart's ministry faced similar controversy when it was made public that he had been a frequent visitor to prostitutes. Roberts's financial scandal reached its peak when he announced that if supporters did not contribute a specified amount of money within a specified time to his ministry, "the Lord will take me home" (i.e., he would die). These scandals ultimately brought down the Bakkers' ministry, as Jim landed in jail, Jim and Tammy divorced, and Tammy remarried. Swaggart was defrocked by the Assemblies of God. He made a televised emotional plea to God, his followers, and his family for forgiveness and refused to give up his ministry—although it has not recovered from the debacle and subsequent accusations of continued wrongdoing. Likewise, Roberts's ministry continued, but it never fully recovered from the scandal. The scandals affected all of televangelism for a time during the 1980s, but the ministry that came through the storm intact was Pat Robertson's 700 Club and CBN.
Cable access has also made regional and local ministries an important force. With few exceptions, the major televangelist ministries have been Anglo-Protestant, but local and regional evangelists who use broadcast media are much more representative of the racial and ethnic diversity in evangelicalism and fundamentalism.
Televangelism and American Culture
The first of the televangelists to attract widespread attention from the national media, scholars, and the nonevangelical public was Jerry Falwell. In 1979 Falwell founded the Moral Majority. Having previously preached that religious leaders should not become involved in politics, Falwell did a quick turnabout in which he became the national spokesman for the early New Christian Right (NCR), and the name of his organization became synonymous with that movement. In the initial flurry of activity surrounding the NCR and the 1980 elections, the size of the Moral Majority was significantly overestimated. It did, however, carry significant weight through the early 1980s. By mid-decade, however, it had developed insurmountable negatives in public opinion polls, and Falwell disbanded it.
Although Falwell replaced the Moral Majority with a new organization (Liberty Federation), it was Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition that grew rapidly and took the place of the Moral Majority as the flagship organization of the Christian Right. In part it was able to do so because of its role in Robertson's failed bid for the Republican nomination for president in 1988; the Christian Coalition was built as a grassroots movement, precinct by precinct. When Robertson's presidential bid failed, the organization remained in place and became involved in elections and legislative politics at every level, from local to national.
There has been much scholarly debate as to the actual size of the audience for televangelism as well as over the impact of such programming on religious viewers and on potential converts. There is scholarly consensus that the number of televangelism viewers is not as high as the religious broadcasters claim. According to Hoover (1988), reasonable audience figures range from ten million to twenty million, although there is still significant debate on this point, largely due to vastly different forms of audience measurement. There is also a scholarly consensus that the televangelists do little in terms of their goals of evangelization, as viewers tend to be already connected with the evangelical/fundamentalist subculture.
While the impact of televangelism outside the evangelical/fundamentalist subculture may be minimal, its impact within the subculture itself has been much more significant. As Wuthnow (1988) has argued, religious broadcasting has served to foster the development of intradenominational, parachurch ministries, which have, in turn, contributed to the decreasing influence and "restructuring" of American denominationalism. As a nationwide phenomenon, televangelism has also undermined the regional distinctiveness of the various forms of conservative American Protestantism and has been a force for national uniformity and identity.
Finally, televangelism has undermined scholarly theoretical assumptions about religion. Widespread popularity of religious broadcasting has been part of the critique of secularization theory, and the televangelist's emphasis on the use and development of cutting-edge technology has belied the argument that fundamentalism is essentially an antimodern phenomenon.
See alsoBelonging, Religious; Christian Coalition; Evangelical Christianity; Falwell, Jerry; Fundamentalist Christianity; Mainline Protestantism; Moral Majority; Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity;
Finke, Roger, and Rodney Stark. The ChurchingofAmerica. 1992.
Hadden, Jeff, and Anson Shupe. Televangelism. 1988.
Hoover, Stewart. Mass Media Religion. 1988.
Wuthnow, Robert. The Restructuring of AmericanReligion. 1988.
Julie J. Ingersoll
TELEVANGELISM. As television became a staple of American culture in the second half of the twentieth century, a growing number of Protestant preachers embraced the new mass medium to deliver their messages. Catholics, too, took to the airwaves, most famously in the person of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who utilized the new medium of television to demonstrate the compatibility of American culture and Catholic faith. Televangelism emerged after World War II as an outgrowth of evangelicalism, a type of Protestant religion based on the idea that people needed to open their hearts and redirect their wills toward Christ, not only to secure an eternal place in heaven, but also to better their lives on earth. While evangelicals point to the New Testament story of Jesus commissioning disciples as the origin of their movement, modern evangelicalism emerged in eighteenth-century Britain and North America in the context of a burgeoning market economy. Preachers skilled at awakening religious feelings in their audiences used open-air stages to promote their beliefs and to enact the emotional process of repentance for sin and heartfelt commitment to God.
The foremost evangelical predecessor of televangelists was the Anglican preacher George Whitefield, an actor before his conversion, whose combination of religious fervor, theatrical flair, and marketing genius made him the most celebrated figure in America in the decades preceding the American Revolution. One of the first entrepreneurs to cultivate publicity for his performances through the fast-growing newspaper medium, Whitefield drew large audiences to his sermons, which included tearful reenactments of the lives of biblical characters. These gatherings, where rich and poor, slave and free, men and
women rubbed shoulders, exerted a democratizing force, although Whitefield himself never condemned the institution of slavery and was a latecomer to the cause of American independence.
As evangelicalism developed in America, African Americans contributed elements of African religious tradition, such as spirit possession, call and response, and the five-tone musical scale, to the repertoire of evangelical performance. In nineteenth century America evangelicalism was often associated with social reform, especially antislavery, education, and temperance. In the early twentieth century, however, evangelicalism became increasingly tied to conservative politics, fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, and hostility to liberal forms of Protestant theology and social reform. When Billy Graham began to make use of television in the 1950s, evangelicalism was almost as closely identified with anticommunism as it was with personal salvation.
The most famous televangelist of the twentieth century, Graham turned from radio to television to broadcast his message. Combining fervent preaching, heart-melting music, and personal testimonies from successful people, Graham's crusades traveled around the country and eventually around the world, carrying the evangelical mix of religious outreach, theatrical entertainment, and creative entrepreneurship to new levels of sophistication. Graham's evident personal integrity and continual prayers for the spiritual guidance of political leaders led to his visibility as a respected public figure and to his role as counselor to several American presidents.
Televangelism boomed in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) changed its policy of mandating free time for religious broadcasts to allow stations to accept money for religious programs. This regulatory change inspired more than a few preachers to use television as a means of funding their ministries. Oral Roberts sought funds for the development of the City of Faith Medical and Research Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by introducing the concept of "seed faith," a means by which viewers might reap miracles from God in their own lives by donating to Roberts's ministry. In The Hour of Power, broadcast from the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, Robert Schuller preached about the power of positive thinking, offering viewers the chance to purchase membership in his Possibility Thinkers Club along with a mustard seed cross as a sign of their faith. Pat Robertson's success in introducing a talk-show format to showcase interviews with people testifying to the power of faith led to the purchase of his own network, the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), which funded his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.
Televangelists' power to generate money contributed to the formation of conservative political constituencies, like Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition led by Robertson and Ralph Reed, which influenced public policy and political rhetoric in the United States. At the same time the money in televangelism stimulated various forms of corruption and scandal, leading to deepening distrust of televangelists on one hand and to more rigorous forms of accounting on the other.
In the 1990s and the early years of the twenty-first century televangelism grew along with communications technology and the increasing pluralism of American religious life. Satellite, cable, and Internet technologies offered new opportunities for evangelical outreach and made increasingly sophisticated forms of presentation readily available. This technological expansion fostered the development of niche programming—shows devoted to biblical prophecy, for example—as well as the extension of televangelism's mix of entertainment, self-promotion, and missionary outreach to other groups—for example, Catholics advocating devotion to Mary through dramatic reenactments of their own piety. As televangelism diversified, the distinctively Protestant character of its message blurred. Televangelism's success compromised Protestant evangelicalism's exclusive claim to salvation.
Alexander, Bobby C. Televangelism Reconsidered: Ritual in the Search for Human Community. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1994.
Schmidt, Rosemarie, and Joseph F. Kess. Television Advertising and Televangelism: Discourse Analysis of Persuasive Language. Philadelphia: J. Benjamins Publishing, 1986.
Schultze, Quentin J. Televangelism and American Culture: The Business of Popular Religion. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1991.
Since the beginnings of commercial radio, evangelical Christians have recognized the effectiveness of the broadcast media as a vehicle for disseminating their faith. By enabling them to reach new audiences as well as committed believers, broadcasting has provided evangelists with a means of building large and widespread followings. As a result, religious broadcasters have continually taken advantage of new broadcast technologies, from local radio programs in the early 1920s to 24-hour cable television networks by the late 1970s. The use of television by evangelists as a medium for expressing their views proved to be an especially influential development during the last quarter of the twentieth century, as conflicts between religious conservatives and mainstream popular culture grew. In this context, the term "televangelism" became widely adopted to describe the use of broadcasting to promote not only evangelical Christian beliefs, but also a wide range of social and political views espoused by Christian fundamentalists.
The roots of contemporary televangelism can be traced to the 1950s, when evangelists such as Billy Graham, Rex Humbard, and Oral Roberts started to use television programs to spread their conservative Protestant beliefs. Most early examples of televangelism adopted a traditional format, concentrating on sermons, church services, and revival meetings, and operated on fairly small budgets. Early televangelist programming was also generally restricted to Sunday mornings, and was usually broadcast over a small number of stations covering a limited geographical area. Over time, however, technological changes and increasing resources allowed televangelists to reach much larger audiences. The advent of videotape, for example, provided an inexpensive and flexible means of distributing programs, so that they did not have to be broadcast live or recorded on expensive motion picture film. And the proliferation of television stations during the 1950s and 1960s provided a broader variety of outlets for televangelism, as did the subsequent expansion of cable television.
As a result of these innovations, televangelism underwent a major period of growth during the 1970s. Organizations like Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and Jim Bakker's Praise The Lord (PTL) Satellite Network were able to use local cable television systems, linked by satellite transmissions, to bring their programming to virtually all parts of the country, and throughout the week, not just on Sundays. To take advantage of this increase in exposure, televangelists also adopted new programming formats, such the talk show and the news magazine, which had become staples of commercial television. The rapid growth in their operations also brought greater political influence to televangelists during the late 1970s and 1980s. With the conservative turn in American politics at this time, and the rise of the Christian right as a political force, prominent televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson found that broadcasting provided them with a powerful tool for publicizing their views and shaping the nation's political agenda.
Towards the end of the 1980s, however, televangelism went into a period of decline, primarily as a result of separate financial and sexual scandals involving Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, two leading religious broadcasters. Their sexual misconduct and Bakker's misappropriation of funds donated to the PTL Network exposed televangelism to increasing public criticism and suspicion. The core audience of the television evangelists did not turn away from them, but their broader influence within American society dropped, as did their television ratings. The failure of Pat Robertson to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 also marked a downturn in the political influence of the conservative televangelists. Christian broadcasters responded to these trends by trying to broaden the appeal of their programming, experimenting with new formats and offering an increasing number of family-oriented programs without an explicit religious or political message.
Through their successful use of broadcasting technology, televangelists have established a notable presence in American popular culture over the past several decades. Considerable disagreement exists over the size of their audiences, even before the scandals of the 1980s, and a number of studies have suggested that televangelists have had more success in reinforcing the faith of existing believers than in reaching new converts. Nonetheless, televangelism has become a persistent feature of the American broadcast media, and as such has contributed substantially to the diversity of views that constitute American popular culture.
—Roger W. Stump
Armstrong, Ben. The Electric Church. Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1979.
Bruce, Steve. Pray TV: Televanglism in America. London, Routledge, 1990.
Hadden, Jeffrey K., and Charles E. Swann. Primetime Preachers: The Rising Power of Televangelism. Reading, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley, 1981.
Schultze, Quentin J. Televangelism and American Culture: The Business of Popular Religion. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House, 1991.
tel·e·van·ge·list / ˌteləˈvanjəlist/ • n. an evangelical preacher who appears regularly on television to preach and appeal for funds. DERIVATIVES: tel·e·van·gel·i·cal / ˌteləˌvanˈjelikəl/ adj. tel·e·van·ge·lism / -ˌlizəm/ n.