The phenomenal growth of religious broadcasting is one of the wonders of radio. It's easy to see why, for the programs often vibrate with novel and astonishing revelations, one of the latest being a hitherto uncovered biblical preview of World War III and its dramatic outcome.
The war, apparently scheduled to start in the Middle East, and involving a final showdown between the United States and Russia, is reported to be imminent. For proof turn to Ezekiel 38 and 39, interpreted of course by Chaplain Ray and his pastor, the revered Dr. W.S.McBernie.
Chaplain Ray, director of the International Prison Ministry of Dallas, is a familiar figure on the religious airwaves. Those eager to know more about the details of World War III and how it all ended are invited to write the chaplain for a free Ray-McBernie booklet on Ezekiel's martial prophecies.
This column, however, is on another subject, namely, current American religious trends, of which the rise of religious broadcasting and the association of National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) are remarkable features.
When the NRB recently held its annual convention in Washington, D.C., over 200 stations had joined the network, with more being added at the rate of one a week. An audience of 150 million radio listeners, plus 14 million television viewers, is claimed for the broadcasts, many of which promote evangelical fundamentalism, with a flavoring of patriotic chauvinism.
The major networks, nonetheless, are still holding out against selling time to religious groups, but the NRB has not given up. It intends to keep the pressure on for access to the networks while simultaneously calling for "a concerted attack on TV sex and violence." Oct. 1 is to be a "national day of prayer for greater morality in media."
There is talk of "saturating the nation with the Gospel through secular TV." Consider, says one brochure, "the impact of a Jesus spot at the end of the Super Bowl. Millions of fans whooping it up and all of a sudden, whammo, the Lord appears."
The National Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, though, oppose the purchase of radio and television time for religious broadcasts. They interpret the Communications Act of 1934 to mean that religious groups are entitled to free time.
A spokesman for the NRB thinks that "there is a conservative trend in the country, and in the religious field it seems people are getting back to the age-old standards . . . back to Christ-centered religion."
Whatever the reason, pollster George Gallup finds that the United States "may be in an early stage of a profound religious revival," with the evangelicals "energizing" the whole movement.
Gallup said theologians would describe evangelicals as persons who "emphasize salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual." He finds there is a "sizable proportion of evangelicals among Roman Catholics," an also "high proportions" not only among Baptists, but Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians.
Paul H. Sherry, editor of the Journal of Current Social Issues, in reporting on an increase in church attendance, says the fact that President Carter "is a devoted Christian probably contributes significantly to the new mood."
Long before Carter, however, Washington had become the prayer-breakfast capital of the United States. There are weekly breakfasts for senators, for representatives, for their wives, for Capitol Hill waitresses, Indians, blacks and military men. The No. 1 event, of course, is the annual National Prayer Breakfast, which, since Eisenhower, has been conspicuously attended by every president.
On one occasion, at the height of the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson was accompanied by the Rev. Billy Graham, who informed the prayerful guests that Jesus was a hawk who would have supported the war. Later, as Watergate was hitting the headlines in 1973, Richard Nixon also had the company of Graham at the breakfast.
It is irnoic, observes Francine du Plessix Gray, that the United States, supposedly so materialistic, "remains the most profoundly religious society in the Western World." In what other country, she asks, could polls attest that "96 percent of our population profess a faith in the Almighty, that 75 percent of us would not vote for an atheist, and that over 50 percent regularly attend church, compated to a mere 10 percent in a church state called Great Britain?"
Since the Enlightenment, she further asks, "what nation has been prey to a more widespread hunger for religious ecstasy, more cycles of revivalism, of exotic cults, little and great awakenings?"