In yesterday's Style section it was reported that evangelist Jimmy Swaggart appears on Channel 20 at 6 a.m. He appears on Channel 9.
What is it that takes you to the prayer closet? Is it Brother Jimmy Swaggart crackling over Channel 20 every morning at six o'clock from Baton Rouge with all that earnest, teary promise? "Neighbor," Brother Jimmy says, "you may THINK Jesus doesn't love you, but when you turn that corner you're gonna find the yard LITTERED with welcomes."
Or is it Pat Robertson, a different sort of video shepherd? Robertson, who has his law degree from Yale and his Phi Beta Kappa key from Washington and Lee, does his daily 10 a.m. TV show amid plants and sofas and coffee tables. He soft-sells the Lord with a Virginia gentleman's smile and a Merv-cum-Johnny mix of guests and topical talk. He's nobody's fool but the Lord's. Sooner or later the toll-free prayer line flashes up on "The 700 Club" screen, and then Rev. Pat might begin in that slightly stuttering, seductive, Tidewater, tenor voice:
"Jesus is really fun. I-I mean, he's really fun. He has a wonderful way of fixing you. Did you ever notice that just before something super good happens in your life He lets something excruciating happen to you? He's done that with me a time or two. You see, friends, Jesus wants us to enter by a narrow gate. Jesus wants us to have the new heart. Friends, if you have the new heart today, bow your head and pray with me, pray with me."
For four days this week several thousand religious broadcasters and assorted believers in the electronic message turned the Sheraton Washington Hotel into a gigantic prayer camp. The theme was "Reaching the Family." Possibly never have so many people in radio and television under one roof been greeted as Brother this or Sister that. It was hokey, and it was holy. It was sacred, and it was profane. There were soft churchy moments of amazing grace, and there were times when it all seemed like nothing but the world's strangest car and boat show, a Biblerama with everybody in attendance but the prince of darkness himself.
If you had a truck you couldn't get all the paper home. "WARNING! ARE YOU GUILTY OF ANY OF THESE SINS?" shrieks a pamphlet somebody sticks in your hand one morning before you can say no. There are approximately 100 sins on the sheet, from Red Atheistic Communism to Mannish Female to Truce Breaker to Any Kind of Sex Before Marriage. "Why don't you get blessed by God?" the paper asks on the flip side. "Write me today for any reason. There is an answer for YOU. Ambassador, Edwin C. Tiemann Jr., P.O. Box 133, Mt. Rainier, Md. 20712."
They expected 3,000 registrants and got something less than that. (There's no telling how many walk-ons and daily tickets the convention drew.) There were charismatic, gleaming black keynote speakers from Baptist churches in Watts who could rock you both soft and fierce with their sermon-songs. "You are a REDEEMED people, you are an EQUIPPED people, you are an ABLE people," said the Rev. E.V. Hill of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Watts. "We don't need NBC, CBS, or ABC. We got everything God needs right here tonight. If the world isn't better after this meeting tonight, it's OUR fault."
There were show biz folk from Hollywood with unabashed conversion stories. ("I went to psychiatrists and counselors and nothing helped me till I finally turned my heart over to Christ," singer Carol Lawrence said, then went into a Shaker hymn.) There were Bible Belt congressmen. There was an FCC commissioner. There were over 400 secular press and media. There were religious celebrities named Jerry Falwell and Jim Bakker and Rex Humbard. And there was a 65-year-old granny from Waco, Tex., convinced the Holy Spirit is a woman, or at least a feminine image. She had a vision in her bedroom one night at two o'clock.
Late Tuesday the convention got that old radio announcer himself, Dutch Reagan. It was one of the week's softer moments. The president was flying in from Des Moines and Indianapolis, where he had been spreading other words, and as the overflow crowd awaited him, Gospel tunes began to float. Maybe 3,500 people sat sedately. "He is coming/ He is coming," the whole crowd sang gentle as Jordan. They weren't referring to the president. Heads swayed in the fluorescent light. You could have sworn you had hit the sweet bye and bye. A hotel ballroom seemed suddenly holy; smelled holy.
And then the doors parted and there he was. "The most sublime person was George Washington on his knees at Valley Forge," Ronald Reagan told the conventioneers. At one point he seemed ready to choke. "It's time to realize we need God more than He needs us," he said. Amens and yessirs rippled through the house. The ovation at the end was a standing one, of course.
'Japan for Jesus'
Art Linkletter is holding up a Bible under a sign that says "Underground Evangelism." Unfortunately it's not the in-the-flesh Art Linkletter, just his telekinetic image on a color screen. "This Bible was printed underground on a makeshift press somewhere in Russia," Linkletter says. "I'm told there are almost 70 million Christians in Russia alone."
Nearby, at the Osmond Enterprises booth, a workman in a Levi's jacket brings in a chair. There is a patch on the young man's jacket: SEX HAS NO CALORIES.
"Is this Island J?" he mutters without waiting for an answer. He drops off the chair and departs. A clean-cut-looking young man from Orem, Utah, manning the booth, surveys this departing vision of eastern uncouth. He shakes his head sadly.
Up on the mezzanine WCTN Radio, Love on the Air, is doing live remotes. WCTN is headquartered in Potomac. The station has set up a studio in the aisleway. Conventioneers walk by and get mike-shy. You're ON THE AIR announces a red glowing light. Behind the knobs sit two committed deejays, a Harden and Weaver of the Gospel, Pastor Stan Telchin and Pastor Richard Kline. A floor director ushers in Brother Bill Sidebottom for a quick interview. Brother Bill represents America for Jesus, headquartered in Virginia Beach.
-- I understand America for Jesus has expanded to other countries, one of the hosts says.
-- Oh, yes, says Brother Bill. Already there's a Japan for Jesus, a Canada for Jesus, a Berlin for Jesus.
-- Hallelujah to that.
There were workshops of every imaginable topic at the 39th convention of the National Religious Broadcasters: A Family Walk Through the Bible; How to Start and Finance a Hispanic Religious Radio-TV Program; The Grooming and Cultivation of a Christian Announcer.
The convention drew over 1,000 exhibitors -- from Crossroad Books to the Moody Bible Institute to Fuji Photo Film, U.S.A., Inc. The exhibitors turned the hotel's cavernous exhibit halls into high-tech treasure domes of gospelnalia. There seemed something for everybody -- a cassette, a prayer card, a spiritual diary. The Terra Sancta Guild had a booth. (Lapel pins, door signs, key chains.) The Silverheels Evangelistic Ministries came. (Missions to American Indians.) Even KLM Royal Dutch Airlines had a spot. They were promoting Holy Week tours.
'Gossips the Gospels'
THE PARABLE OF THE NIGHT WATCHMAN. 4:50 p.m. Monday. Conferences drone on. From the back of a room a man hitches his pants and steps to a microphone. His name is Frank A. Nagle, and he is 70 years old. Nagle spreads the Gospel on two southern radio stations while the rest of the world sleeps. One station is in North Carolina, the other in Georgia. He shuttles back and forth between the two to do the Lord's work. Nagle calls himself the Night Watchman, the man who "gossips the Gospels."
Now he addresses a crowd:
"Friends, we tell people 'I love you' but how do they know it? I've got a little story. Two weeks ago last night I had a young man call me up during my show and curse me out right on the air. He cursed me out something terrible. I got home about 6 o'clock in the morning and ten minutes later the phone rings. All I get is heavy breathing. I hang up and ten minutes later the phone rings again. All I get is heavy breathing. It happens about six times and finally I decide I'm going to give this person the Gospel. I'm going to tell whoever is on the other end of that line that Jesus Christ is his personal savior. Well, he keeps hanging up and calling back and I keep giving him the risen Lord and then finally he speaks up and says, 'I'm the guy who cursed you out on the air. I just wanted to see if you really believe what you preach.' He was only a young man and he ended up telling a half dozen other of his young friends about what had happened, and do you know what: They've all accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. Friends, I'm 70 years old, well, I'll be 70 in May. When this whole thing was over, my wife said, 'You know, honey, this is about the most thrilling two weeks we've ever had.' "
In the Beginning
Religious broadcasting is nearly as old as the medium itself. But it is only in the last 10 or 15 years that the industry has seemed to explode, at least with publicity. The Rev. Jerry Falwell is down there on Liberty Mountain in Lynchburg, but known from Peoria to Penthouse. (Falwell was in scant attendance at the convention. He held a press conference on Tuesday.)
Billy Sunday was never a radio preacher so much as a camp revivalist. Billy Graham secured his legend with live crusades more than through the electric medium. Rex Humbard has been at the mike for half a century, and beams with soothing rigor (and his wife, Maude Aimee) from the Cathedral of Tomorrow in Akron, Ohio. But the big names these days are Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and, of course, Oral Roberts.
The first religious broadcast in history crackled out over KDKA, Pittsburgh, on Jan. 2, 1921. WJBT, Chicago, was a pioneer. (The call letters stood for Where Jesus Blesses Thousands.) In the '30s the Lutheran Hour, with Pastor Walter A. Maier, was said to ultimately reach 20 million listeners worldwide.
What has nearly always been in controversy, and never so much as at the moment, is just how many people religious broadcasting reaches in America. It seems to depend on who is quoting the statistics. The NRB likes to point to surveys, notably by Gallup, that indicate nearly 50 percent of American adults have been reached occasionally by religious programming. The Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co. did a survey that found a "core audience" of 37 million, and an additional audience of 67 million who tune in sporadically. Against those statistics are Arbitron and A.C. Nielsen ratings that indicate religious broadcasting may have already peaked and is now rapidly losing audience.
And yet 10 days ago a movie on ABC-TV called "Pray TV" flashed up on the screen a toll-free prayer number. The amazing result: 15,000 phone calls to the ABC switchboard. Maybe it was just a phenomenon. Or maybe people are desperate to believe in something. America seems a spiritually hungry place. Reality melts, hope comes nudging under the door.
The Feminine Touch
OUR MOTHER WHO ART IN HEAVEN. Her name is Lois Roden. She is 65 and a grandmother. She has hard, gnarled, working-woman hands and a blue blouse locked at the throat. She looks into you with a beaky, cheeky stare. Five years ago, at 2 a.m., while she was reading Revelations 18:1, she looked up and saw a vision passing her window. It was a silvery glistening angel. And from that moment on Lois Roden has never had a doubt: She knew the Holy Ghost is feminine, and she knows now she has an obligation to say it. The truth is not always popular.
What do her children think of her prophecy?
"They say, 'Mother, you have a great thing going.' "
Lois Roden delivers the word from the church her late husband, Pastor Benjamin Roden, founded. It's called the Living Waters Branch and the main Branch is on a farm outside Waco, Tex. She and the people with her subsist on vegetarian diets with prayer breaks a couple times of day. Otherwise they work on getting out their She-God literature. Waco itself is prophetic, she says. "It's fed by a river named Trinity."
Pat of TV
It ended last night with the 39th anniversary banquet. After four teeming days the Sheraton seemed less a convention site than a tired bright glaze of receding voices and paper and video hardware. The evangelists are driving and flying home today to their flocks. Meanwhile many liberal Christians continue to panic mildly at the thought of paid religious broadcasting on secular airways, while others take their joy and comfort from it, as they long have. What can never be underestimated, one suspects, is the degree of commitment of those who toil in the Wired Kingdom. They are doing the Lord's own work, they believe. They will not be denied.
Monday afternoon, a few hours before "The 700 Club" beamed a live telecast from the convention floor via satellite, host Pat Robertson sat in the hotel's Courtyard Cafe and mused on why he does what he does. He is the son of a former U.S. senator. He was once a Golden Gloves boxer. He was a Marine officer in Korea. After law school he worked as a troubleshooter for W.R. Grace and Co. And then in 1956 he received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, reaching, he has said in interviews, an ecstasy that ended in his "speaking in tongues." Committed, dead to the world, he and his wife, Dede, moved into a squalid parsonage in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. They lived on soybeans bought in two-bushel sacks. Eventually he bought "a broken-down, ex-hillbilly" UHF TV station in Portsmouth, Va. He had $70 in assets. But Saul of Tarsus was now Pat of television. He knew God would somehow provide.
On Monday, eminently successful, sipping lemon and water (the waiter had stumbled off dumbfounded), Pat Robertson wore a rich plaid coat and a Rooster tie. Everything about him said class. The soft-sell was rolling. You could call him the leader of the pack.
"I think 88 percent of my group at Yale was Phi Beta Kappa equivalent," Robertson said. "You see, I worked on Wall Street. I'd been to Europe, I'd tried all the museums. I'd had privilege -- and my heart was deeply aching for something deeper. I found it. And I'm not about to give Him up."
There was only a millisecond of delay, and then a born-again Yale man said, "But I want you to find Him, too."