Future of Evangelicalism
The Revolution May Not be Televised... but 'Redemption' Just Might
Contemporary televangelism is largely a story about the rise of evangelical and charismatic religious broadcasting. Its history begins with the official launch of religious television on Easter Sunday, 1940, in New York City. While evangelical Protestantism experienced unprecedented growth during the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Scopes trial of the 1920s, the expansion of American modernism, along with the influx of Catholic immigrants, forced evangelicalism to the fringes of American culture. During this time, the Federal Council of Churches dominated religious airwaves under the sustaining-time programming format, in which local stations met the cost of producing and broadcasting the program. Its alternative, paid-time programming, required that "the broadcaster himself meet all the costs of producing and broadcasting the program, mainly by raising money from viewers" (see Peter Horsfield's Religious Television: The American Experience, p. 40).
Feeling shut out of broadcasting efforts, a group of evangelicals organized the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1942 and the National Religious Broadcasters Association (NRB) in 1944. Distinguishing itself from what it considered the liberal teachings of mainline Protestantism, the NRB was charged with investigating the possibilities for evangelical broadcasting. Along with the NAE, it encouraged evangelicals to purchase airtime in furtherance of the gospel and as a means of asserting its version of biblical truth on the airwaves. In 1960, the FCC decided to end the distinction between sustaining‑time and paid‑time religious broadcasting, arguing that "there is no public interest basis" for such a distinction. Stations could both meet the public interest and earn a profit. "By 1977, 92 percent of all programming was paid-time" (Dennis N. Voskuil, "The Power of the Air," in American Evangelicals and the Mass Media, p. 90).
The advent of paid time religious programming as the mainstay in religious broadcasting secured the place of Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Word of Faith teachers on television because their messages offered at least one of three things. They met felt needs, carried a "flare for the dramatic," and/or offered conservative, Bible-centered lessons of redemption . . . all for a fee. And followers were willing to pay. Books, tapes, videos, conferences, appeals for seed-faith donations, all went to support the newly fashioned business of religion.
Over the years, this type of twenty-four-hour Christian programming, with its stunning array of religious producers, has multiplied in airtime, and its viewership has skyrocketed globally. (See Quentin Schultze's Televangelism and American Culture: The Business of Popular Religion, pp. 55-56.) These satellite-distributed messages are transforming how people in various locales think about faith and its relationship to their everyday lives.
Often, instead of finding spaces for revolutionary structural change, many people are finding personalized forms of redemption in the self-help narratives of contemporary evangelists. The wild success of Jake's sermon series, along with the success of other televangelists' messages of financial prosperity and individual health and well-being, demonstrate that in religious broadcasting, American ideals about social and economic uplift travel as quickly over the airwaves as do theologies like the Trinity. The future of religious broadcasting may very well be one wherein we trace the ways in which such transnational messages complement as well as disrupt local and national understandings of race, class, gender, and economic mobility.
Marla Frederick is Professor of the Study of Religion and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She is the author of Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith (Univ. of California Press, 2003) and co-author of Local Democracy Under Siege: Activism, Public Interests and Private Politics (NYU Press, 2007), which won the 2008 Best Book Award for the Society for the Anthropology of North America. She is currently completing a book manuscript on the rise of African American religious broadcasters and their influence in the U.S. and Jamaica.