There's a local television show in Chicago called "Bible Baffle," a game show similar to "The Price Is Right" -- except that the subject matter is the Scriptures and the prizes are religious books or vacations at religious spas, rather than dishwashers or trips to Hawaii. The show, like the "Christian" imitations of "Captain Kangaroo" or "As the World Turns," is but one example of the rise of electronic evengelism that uses the tried and true techniques of television to seduce millions of viewers into a new, sometimes strange and potentially worrisome brand of worship.
The scope, history, content and power of "televangelism" are thoughtfully and soberly detailed in "Prime Time Preachers," written by two Virginians, Jeffrey K. Hadden and Charles E. Swann. Both have the credentials to examine the phenomenon -- Hadden is a professor of sociology and the former president of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, and Swann is an ordained Presbyterian minister who manages the public radio station in Richmond.
The first questions people usually have about these evangelists of the air waves -- with their hair-sprayed pompadours and theatrical phraseology -- are: Are they charlatans? And, are they anti-Semitic or racist? Or, more specifically, are they fascists? Hadden and Swann are wise enough to know that there are no simple answers to these questions, and acknowledge that the final assessment on this phenomenon is yet to come.
Perhaps the major attribute of the book is that authors have the right attitude toward their subject. They are neither fawning nor excessively outraged, as has been the tendency all too often among mass-media writers and liberal spokesmen to whom the fundamentalists seem so exotic that they become nothing but bogeymen.
The authors convincingly argue that the viewership of the prime-time preachers is nowhere near as large as they have claimed, and that their much vaunted political power had not been proved. Yet the writers do not dismiss the impact of the Rex Humbards, Oral Robertses and Jerry Falwells, nothing that they have the power to "mobilize masses of everyday Christians," and that "they represent a nascent social movement that has the potential to reshape American culture." While these statements smack of the hype required by booksellers to promote the product by increasing the significance of the subject, there is no question that even the conservative estimate of 20.5 million combined viewers is an indication of something big.
"How did Jerry Falwell get a viewing audience of 50 million?" the authors ask. "The same way he got 25 million: by proclamation." According to Arbitron rating figures, Falwell's audience is more like 1.5 million, and he is sixth among the top 10 religious television shows. More surprising is the news that despite the enormous visibility of the prime-time preachers during the past few years, as they have been discovered by the mass media, overall viewership declined by 2 million between 1978 and 1980.
The budgets, of course, have not. Several church organizations that have released budget data show annual increases of between 20 to 25 percent for the past several years, and the sophistication of the fund-raising techniques employed by the different preachers, who are masters of mass mailing, urgent and emotional pleas and product-shilling, has produced big bucks, although Hadden and Swann do not estimate how much.
"Rex [Humbard] never quite says you'll go to hell without his prayers," they write. "The [fund-raising] letter just goes on to tell how prayers are answered, homes put back together, bodies healded, and failures overcome. All these good things can come to you, and the Devil be defeated, if you get your name back in the Good Book so that Rex can stand up for you the way he wants to do. A few dollars in the envelope isn't much to pay for all that . . . "
They date the emergence of Christians as a political force to the 1980 Washington for Jesus rally. I was disappointed that they failed to take note of the senatorial bid of Conoly Phillips in their own state in 1978, when Phillips in their own state in 1978, when Phillips, a car dealer, announced that God had tole him to run for the Senate, and, in a campaign managed by televangelist Pat Robertson, got enough supporters at mass meetings to assure him a dominant role at the state nominating convention. There were other "Christian" candidates around the country that year as well, and it is one of the book's weaknesses that the authors fail to examine these attempts or the intense lobbying by fibures like Falwell at the Statehouse level well before the founding of the Moral Majority.
They properly distinguish betweena the New Right and the New Christian Right, two movements that have been confused as identical when they are really allies. And they question the claims of the Moral Majority that they were responsible for the margin of victory in the 1980 presidential race, claims supported by pollster Louis Harris. Harris, they say, based his poll questions on such a broad definition of "moral majority" that the credit to Falwell's political organization is suspect.
One particularly useful section describes the theological underpinnings for some of the political views fundamentalists hold. For example, most of the TV preachers are "pre-millenialists," who believe that Jesus will come before (some say seven years before) the 1,000-year "period of events surrounding the Second Coming of Jesus" and will gather the "saved" up into heaven. This is called "the rapture," described by one believer thus:
"Millions of people will suddenly disappear from the face of the earth, including infant children. From all walks of life there will be people missing. The freeways, the subways, airports and streets will be a shambles as many engineers, pilots, bus drivers, and a multitude of private car owners shall suddenly be caught up out of this world."
This, the authors note, evidently gave rise to the bumper sticker: "Warning! In case of the rapture, the driver will disappear."
Israel is supposed to be converted after the rapture, and Jesus is supposed to defeat the Antichrist's attack on Israel. All this relates to the fundamentalists' support of Israel, and their intense opposition to the Soviet Union, which they regard as not only as Godless but anti-Israel. t
The authors take note of anti-Semitic remarks various preachers have made without labeling them as such (Jan Crauch, wife of TV preacher Paul Crouch, announced that her husband had purchased a TV station in Miami by saying, "God has given us 24-hour-a-day Christian television to reach the little Jewish people!") But the authors seem to be optimistic that the type of pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic statements made on the air in the 1930s by Father Charles F. Coughlin are not likely to be repeated. There are too many preachers on television, they argue, and the social and economic conditions that give rise to "national despair" are not likely to be paralleled.
The movement of evangelism into the mass media, and from there into the political arena, will prove to be one of the more fascinating phenomena of our cultural history. It has reached the point where almost everyone knows or is related to at least someone who has been "born again" or "saved." Hadden and Swann have made a valuable contribution to the growing body of literature on the subject, a book that strives neither to condemn nor to praise but to describe.