Religion and the Media

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Religious freedom is as integral a part of American cultural heritage as is freedom of speech. It is, therefore, not surprising that religious content can be traced to the onset of every form of mass communication technology and has evolved as American media has evolved. As popular media became distinctly evangelistic in their business practices, hoping to convert consumers to their respective medium to maximize ratings or increase reader-ship, religious content turned entrepreneurial. As entertainment formats proved increasingly effective in capturing audiences, religious expression mimicked the methods of secular media, becoming increasingly high profile and, in turn, controversial.

Since the birth of mass communication, religious institutions have believed in the power of modern technology and in technology's ability to communicate the importance of faith. One of the first printed texts produced upon the introduction of movable type to the Western world in the 1400s was the Gutenberg Bible. Today, religious book publishing is a billion-dollar business, producing more than 175 million texts a year. Consumer magazines such as the Christian Herald and newspapers such as the Boston Recorder helped shape the developing American press in the 1800s. Today there are approximately 111,000 periodicals around the world, one-tenth of which are published in the United States, and one-tenth of those published in the United States—including Christianity Today —are religious in nature. With the advent of radio, religious expression found a voice of unparalleled reach. Religious broadcasting became even more powerful with the popularization of television and development of cable.

The Electronic Church

Religious broadcasting began as an experiment. On Christmas Eve 1909, voice transmission pioneer Reginald Fessenden demonstrated the practical utility of radiotelegraphy by reading passages of the Bible to ships at sea. The first radio church service was broadcast just two months after KDKA in Pittsburgh became the nation's first licensed radio station in 1921. Of the six hundred stations in operation by 1925, more than sixty were licensed to religious organizations. Many religious groups regarded radio as a means of promoting and enhancing local ministries; others debated the suitability of electronic media for religious expression. However, according to religious media scholar Quentin Schultze (1990, p. 25), the evangelical church was interested in radio as the best means to "catechize its youth, evangelize the unsaved, defend the faith, and organize religious institutions." The evangelicals—an umbrella term for Protestants who stress a conservative doctrine and literal interpretation of the Bible—regarded technology as God's gift for their work in spreading the gospel.

Finding it necessary to take control over an increasingly chaotic radio industry, the government issued the Radio Act of 1927 and assigned frequencies and licenses "as public convenience, interest, and necessity requires." According to policy, religious stations did not serve the public interest as well as their commercial counterparts, so, by 1928, many religious stations were reassigned low-powered frequencies or they had ceased operation. It is interesting to note that the airing of religious programming on commercial stations met public interest requirements for broadcast licenses. Thus, while fewer than thirty religious stations remained on the air by 1933, more than 8 percent of all programming was still religious in nature thanks to the free, or sustaining, airtime offered to mainstream Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic organizations and to the airtime sold to evangelical groups and others.

The result was an odd blend of religious fare. In order to appease the commercial stations and their networks, local houses of worship accepted free airtime in exchange for poor time slots and a lack of creative freedom. Programmers for paid time, however, experimented with various fundraising strategies to pay for airtime and a variety of programming formats to attract audiences. By the early 1940s, several innovative paid-time programs became nationwide successes. Charles E. Fuller's Old Fashioned Revival Hour, for example, was carried on 456 stations, 60 percent of all the licensed stations in the country. Walter Maier's The Lutheran Hour was regularly heard by approximately twelve million people.


As with radio, the television networks agreed to give free airtime to the three major faiths through centralized organizations and to allow others to purchase airtime. Long-running and award-winning programs such as Lamp Unto My Feet (CBS) began production in the early 1950s. However, in 1960, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that stations did not have to give away airtime to meet public interest requirements. This declaration was followed by a precipitous drop in the proportion of religious programming that was sustaining time, from 47 percent in 1959 to only 8 percent in 1977.

Many mainstream religious organizations chose not to pay for airtime that was once free, resulting in a corresponding growth in the number of evangelical programs. As a means to facilitate more cost-effective program distribution, some evangelical ministries created their own networks by acquiring failing and relatively inexpensive UHF television stations. Others hooked up with cable, which offered increased market opportunities and better quality reception for their programs. The first religious cable network was the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) which, in the early 1980s, reached thirty million cable subscribers, making it not only the largest Christian cable operation at that time but the fifth largest cable operation of any kind. The structural changes in and sudden growth of religious broadcasting had a profound effect on the nature of religious fare in many ways.

Prime Time Preachers

The power of personality-driven religious programming was best demonstrated by Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. His Life is Worth Living (Dumont) and Mission to the World (ABC) programs in the early-and mid-1950s were among the few religious shows ever aired during prime time. The success of these programs, along with the entrepreneurial individualism embraced by evangelicalism, led to the development of large media organizations headed by identifiable, charismatic individuals. By the early 1970s, the perceived truth of the gospels of media ministries was often associated with the personality and achievements of the individual ministry leader. According to religious television scholars Jeffrey Hadden and Charles Swann (1981, p. 19), evangelicals realized full well that they were not only in hot competition with secular and a few mainline religious programs, but with each other as well: "[T]hey realized that the sophistication and slickness of their production—in effect, their Hollywood quotient—can determine their success or failure." This led some critics, such as Janice Peck (1993) and Mark Pinsky (1989), to question whether the power of the message was overshadowed or undermined by the personality of the messenger.

The Electronic Church and State

As the prevalence and popularity of religious television programs increased in the 1980s, so too did the debate regarding the exercise of social and political power by nationally televised preachers and the new "religious right" they embraced. On September 15, 1980, televangelist Jerry Falwell and his organization, the Moral Majority, were the subject of the cover story in Newsweek and "Preachers and Politics" was the feature story in U.S. News & World Report. "The idea that religion and politics don't mix," asserted Falwell (as cited in Lear, 1988, p. ix), "was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country."

According to scholar Peter Horsfield (1984), the growth of evangelical broadcasting represented a massive takeover by the political and moral right and, for some observers, a plot to establish a religious republic with evangelical and fundamentalist broadcasters as the major spokespersons. Evangelicals accounted for roughly 20 percent of the votes received by Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election, and this percentage was obtained largely through his close affiliation with religious broadcasters. Research by Robert Abelman and Gary Pettey (1988) examining viewers of religious television programming reported that Pat Robertson's national exposure as a televangelist on CBN and the politically peppered telecasts of his The 700 Club program launched and fueled his campaign for the Republican nomination in the 1988 presidential election.

Prosperity Gospel

Fund-raising became a critical task for religious broadcasters in order to pay for airtime, purchase radio and television stations, or maintain their presence on cable. In the early 1980s, the top-rated televangelists typically spent between 15 to 40 percent of their airtime on fundraising, which according to Razelle Frankl (1987) exposed the average viewer to approximately $31,000 in explicit requests per year. It appeared as if the business of religious broadcasting evolved into a "fiscal Catch 22" situation: the logic of the evangelical success formula demanded reaching as many people as possible, but in order to pay for the increased production and airtime costs of reaching larger audiences, one needed an even larger audience. This made it hard to tell whether televangelists were raising money to stay on television or whether they were staying on television to raise money.

Some critics have accused religious broadcasters of selling salvation. Joe Barnhart (1990), for example, suggested that fundraising has led to the transformation of the Gospel of Luke 6:38 ("Give, and it will be given to you")—which suggests the spiritual rewards of stewardship—into the Gospel of Prosperity, where spiritual gain is subordinated by material blessings and financial success. Similarly, Theologian Carl F. H. Henry (1988) found that these programs were transforming a motivation for giving into a motivation of getting.

Money and Sex Scandals

At their peak of popularity in the mid-1980s, the top four religious television programs received more than one-quarter of a billion dollars through on-air solicitations. The quest for financial gain led to controversial practices by some ministries. In March 1987, Oral Roberts, renowned tent show revivalist and head of Oral Roberts University, announced on the 165 television stations carrying Oral Roberts and You that God would claim his life if he could not raise $4.5 million by the end of the month. Although Roberts met his goal, many contributors became highly skeptical of televangelism as a result. Skepticism turned to dismay when viewers learned through the popular press that Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, co-hosts of the religious talk show PTL Club and heads of the Praise The Lord ministry, had misappropriated PTL funds by amassing vast real estate holdings, an expensive home, and $1.9 million in combined salaries and bonuses.

That same month, Jim Bakker announced his resignation as head of his $129 million-a-year PTL empire because of a sexual encounter with a ministry secretary. Shortly thereafter, Jimmy Swaggart, a fiery preacher from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with a syndicated television ministry on 222 stations, admitted to numerous encounters with prostitutes and a long-standing obsession with pornography. According to Robert Abelman and Stewart Hoover (1990), Swaggart reported a $1.5-1.8 million-per-month decline in contributions. Other televange-lists were found guilty by association, and their revenue also diminished. Robert Schuller, whose Hour of Power was carried by 172 stations at that time, showed a 3 percent dip in donations. In a seven-month period, CBN revenues fell 32.5 percent. Collectively, these scandals rocked the very foundation of personality-driven televangelism, contributing to Pat Robertson's inability to obtain the Republican nomination and marking the end of the era of religious television programming's unprecedented popularity and prevalence.

Several electronic ministries survived the scandals. The Eternal Word Television Network and the Inspirational Network still had 41 million and 11.6 million subscribers, respectively, by the mid-1990s. Despite criticism of its own fundraising efforts, the Trinity Broadcasting Network could still be seen in 35 million homes through more than eight thousand broadcast and cable affiliates. It is interesting that in the aftermath of the scandals, many viewers turned to a most unlikely source for religious programming—the commercial television networks.

Faith-Friendly Secular Content

Network news has long been identified as slighting or ignoring religious issues. A recent study by the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog, revealed that only 14 percent of all nightly news stories broadcast by ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, and PBS throughout the 1990s concerned religion, and most of the ones that did merely reported the activities of religious leaders rather than matters of faith or spirituality (Gahr,1997). Similarly, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan research organization, reported that the majority of network news stories related to religion between 1969 and 1998 provided accounts of church politics and wrongdoings by prominent religious figures (Lichter, Lichter, and Anderson, 2000).

The depiction of people of faith on prime-time entertainment programming has been even more distorted. Michael Suman (1997) notes that commercial television has traditionally underrepresented people for whom religion is a strong force in their lives and tended to marginalize and often denigrate religious expression. According to social observer Steven Stark (1997), commercial television is ruthlessly secular and orthodox religion is antithetical to television's very notion of itself— that is, unless it can generate a sizable audience.

With the new millennium approaching and baby boomers beginning to confront their mortality, CBS was in search of light entertainment programming to reach this audience. In 1994, the network offered a drama, Touched by an Angel, in which an angel is dispatched from on high to inspire change. The program quickly reached the Top-10 in the Nielsen ratings. In response to this success, a significant body of prime-time programming surfaced that had religious or spiritual themes and featured angels or ministers (e.g., Second Noah (ABC), Promised Land (CBS), 7th Heaven (WB), The Visitor (Fox)). In fact, the Parents Television Council, the entertainment-monitoring arm of the Media Research Center, reported an increase in the number of religious depictions on secular television, from 287 in 1995 to 436 in 1996 and a fourfold increase since 1993 (Rice,1997). In addition, the majority of clergy and people of faith depicted in prime-time programming during the mid-to late-1990s were increasingly portrayed in a positive light.


Although televangelism is no longer the prominent method of religious expression it was in the 1970s and 1980s, the spirituality on broadcast television and conservative Christianity on cable are still flourishing. With 61 percent of television viewers in a 1997 TV Guide poll wanting "references to God, churchgoing, and other religious observances in prime-time" (Gahr, 1997, p. 58), religion in media will likely have a continuing presence on television.

See also:Federal Communications Commission; Cable Television, Programming of; Radio Broadcasting, Station Programming and; Television Broadcasting, Programming of.


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Abelman, Robert, and Pettey, Gary. (1988). "How Political is Religious Television Programming?" Journalism Quarterly 65(2):313-318.

Barnhart, Joe E. (1990). "Prosperity Gospel: A New Folk Theology." In Religious Television: Controversy and Conclusions, eds. Robert Abelman and Stewart M. Hoover. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

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Peck, Janice. (1993). The Gods of Televangelism: The Crisis of Meaning and the Appeal of Religious Television. Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Pinsky, Mark, I. (1989). "Crouch: Theologians Critical of Prayer." Los Angeles Times, February 16, pp. 1, 10.

Rice, Lynette. (1997). "Religion is on Rise in Prime Time," Broadcasting & Cable 127(13):35.

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Stark, Steven. (1997). Glued to the Set. New York: Free Press.

Suman, Michael. (1997). Religion and Prime Time Television. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Robert Abelman

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Religion and the Media

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Religion and the Media