Power, Glory --and Politics

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It was part political caucus, part camp meeting, part trade show--and all barn burner. As the crowds of 4,000 milled through the Sheraton Washington Hotel in the nation's capital last week, Gospel singers crooned, video- equipment salesmen hawked their wares, and media consultants prowled the meeting rooms for new talent. Dozens of Senators and Congressmen made it their business to turn out for the cameras and lights, cementing alliances and buffing up images. Jeane Kirkpatrick and Jesse Jackson were there. President Reagan, appropriately, sent a message on videotape.

The occasion was the convention of the National Religious Broadcasters. This is a group whose most resonant names--and recognizable faces--are the televangelists, the stars of the electronic church, the pastors of "Pray TV." And at one session after another, cheered on by such honored elders of the field as Billy Graham and Oral Roberts, these powerhouse preachers strutted their stuff. Jimmy Swaggart roared that the Supreme Court is "an institution damned by God Almighty" for allowing abortions. Jerry Falwell argued that "theologically, any Christian has to support Israel, simply because Jesus said to." Even White House Communications Director Patrick Buchanan drew audience cries of "Amen!" and "Praise the Lord!" when he exhorted Republicans to "tap into the spiritual revival that is going in the country."

If Buchanan sounded downright evangelical for a politician, one evangelist in particular sounded mighty like a politician. He was Marion Gordon ("Pat") Robertson, 55, head of the Christian Broadcasting Network and a fixture on CBN's four-times-a-day The 700 Club. Robertson, a Southern Baptist, has been transmitting signals that he might join the race for the Republican nomination to succeed Reagan. Political pros are uncertain how big a factor he could be in the primaries, let alone the convention, but they are convinced that he could energize the Christian right and siphon votes from other candidates. True believers are tingling at the prospect. As ROBERTSON IN 1988 buttons blossomed, the amiable Virginian took the N.R.B. platform to denounce the evils of abortion, homosexuality and school violence, all to be overcome by a flood tide of moral regeneration. "We are going to see a change in this nation," he promised his listeners, "and you are going to be a part of it."

Perhaps they are already. Preachers like Robertson command audiences that form, if not a true Moral Majority, at least several potent and readily mobilized minorities. Robertson's following provides much of CBN's $233 million annual income. In a year, viewers of The 700 Club log 4 million prayer calls to 4,500 volunteers manning telephone banks in 60 counseling centers. Such motivated constituencies can--and do--bestow blessings aplenty, in the form of money and votes, upon candidates who win their favor.

The fact that a Robertson is even a potential candidate confirms the extraordinary power and influence amassed in the past decade by the shrewd, colorful headliners of Gospel TV. While impressing some as shallow and vulgar popularizers, they bring real inspiration and solace to others. Their past struggles in low-paid Gospel circuits bespeak a deep commitment, whatever skepticism might be aroused by their present enjoyment of stardom's rewards. They have changed the face of television; they may be gradually altering the very nature of American Christianity.

The Rev. Ben Armstrong, a Presbyterian conservative who has run the N.R.B. during two decades of astounding growth, boasts that his colleagues have "done what Ted Turner tried to do and Rupert Murdoch wants to do--create an alternative fourth network." The video preachers are often bitter competitors behind their on-camera smiles, yet Armstrong contends they constitute a network nonetheless, one defined by a shared viewpoint. To the dismay of more liberal Protestants, not to mention Roman Catholic and Jewish leaders, the people who have seized spiritual control of the tube are unremittingly Evangelical or Fundamentalist. Four of the top stars are part of the Pentecostal movement, which emphasizes the emotive and miraculous aspects of faith. Sunbelt churchianity is ubiquitous, and whenever there is a political tilt to the broadcasts--which is often--it is virtually always to the right.

Broadcasting's Jesus network comprises 200 local TV stations that have religious formats (more than double the figure a year ago), 1,134 radio stations (up 91 from last year), freelance productions that purchase time on general stations, and burgeoning cable and satellite hookups that reach tens of millions of homes. The preachers' fund raising, the stuff of jokes and sometimes of scandal, is prodigious. According to a 1977 estimate by Television/ Radio Age, they spent $500 million to purchase TV and radio time a decade ago; today Armstrong figures the total is $1 billion, possibly $2 billion. That does not count other expenses and the ambitious ancillary enterprises that most have launched.

There is furious debate over just how big the evangelists' combined audience is, as well as where each ranks in the ratings individually. A 1984 University of Pennsylvania survey estimated that 13.3 million people, or 6.2% of the national TV audience, are regular viewers of the various shows. That nearly equals the membership of the United Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches combined. A Nielsen survey last year, designed to add cable data to the broadcast ratings, showed that 21% of the nation's TV households tune in to Christian TV for at least six minutes in a week, and 40% for at least six minutes in a month. This adds up to 61 million Americans with at least minimal exposure. The survey counted viewers of only the ten biggest among 62 nationally syndicated shows. By this measure, Robertson, whose CBN commissioned the survey, is at least briefly onscreen monthly in 16.3 million homes and reaches 27 million Americans.

Sociologist Jeffrey Hadden of the University of Virginia, who was skeptical of religious broadcasters' claims to big audiences in his 1981 book Prime Time Preachers, says the Nielsen report shows a "much larger" audience than he and other experts had thought. The preachers, he now asserts, "have greater unrestricted access to media than any other interest group in America." Powered by TV evangelism, he predicts, the Christian right "is destined to become the major social movement in America" during the late 20th century.

What accounts for the surprising impact of the televangelists? In part, showbiz flair: outsize personalities, sermons carefully shaped around themes that pull audience response, dramatic personal stories of life-changing events, and toe-tapping music. But broader cultural forces are surely at work. "Everybody thinks the TV preacher is doing a number on people," says Armstrong, "but it's the viewer with his hand on the dial who controls the system." People who hope TV Gospel will fade when today's stars are gone, says Armstrong, "do not understand that the real key is grass-roots people, dying for personal religion and traditional values."

There is little doubt that many Americans are yearning for meaning and moral anchorage, which evangelical religion has ardently and successfully provided. Critics add that people find it easier to acquire simple answers to complex personal and social ills via television than to commit themselves to solving real-life troubles.

Among Pray TV's top-rated figures:

Jimmy Swaggart, 50, is a brash, rafter-ringing Pentecostal preacher and Gospel singer (his albums have sold 13 million copies) who preserves the old tent revival style at his striking 7,000-seat Family Worship Center outside Baton Rouge, La. In his weekly one-hour broadcasts, he prowls the stage, sometimes breaking into excited jig steps, as he revs up perorations assailing Communism, Catholicism and "secular humanism," the last of which he blames for abortion, pornography, AIDS and assorted social ills. He takes in $140 million a year. The money pays for his weekly show (aired in 197 markets), his daily Bible study, and in 1984 enabled him to launch the Jimmy Swaggart Bible College, which drew 18,000 applications for 400 openings.

Robert Schuller, 59, a bland-looking but calculatedly theatrical performer, presides over the vast, glittery Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. Finished in 1980 at a cost of $18 million (paid largely by viewer donations), the structure serves as a dazzling stage set for Schuller's weekly Hour of Power. The show, seen in 169 cities, beats Swaggart in some audience listings. Schuller's TV budget is $37 million a year, and the 10,000-member cathedral spends an additional $5.7 million on non-TV operations. The author of several inspirational best sellers, Schuller shook 10,000 hands in a weeklong January tour promoting his latest volume, an upbeat rewrite of Jesus' Beatitudes titled The Be-Happy Attitudes. Schuller is affiliated with the mainline Reformed Church in America, as is his predecessor in hyperoptimism, Norman Vincent Peale.

Jim Bakker (pronounced baker), 46, is the boyish-faced Pentecostal proprietor of the PTL (for People That Love or Praise the Lord) Network in Charlotte, N.C. The network ranks second to Robertson's CBN in Christian cable (13 million households, 24 hours, all religion). The featured offering is the daily Jim and Tammy show, a variety-and-talk program with Bakker and his wife as hosts on an opulent, hacienda-style set with orchestra, singers and live audience. Bakker's receipts exceed $100 million a year. Much of the money is eaten up by his Heritage USA theme park, opened in 1978 near Fort Mill, S.C., and already the third-largest such attraction in the country, with nearly 5 million visitors a year. Unlike Walt Disney World and Disneyland, which rank ahead of it, Heritage USA charges no admission. The grandiose 2,300-acre project, which is years away from completion, includes Bakker's Assemblies of God church, a 500-room luxury hotel, a mock turn-of-the-century mall with 25 boutiques under an artificial sky, and an amphitheater for staging passion plays and living Nativity spectacles.

Jerry Falwell, 52, presides at the 21,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., whose Sunday worship is seen in 172 markets. A Fundamentalist of genial manner and granite opinions, he used his TV clout to launch Moral Majority, the influential conservative political lobby. That group was subsumed last month under the new Liberty Federation, signaling Falwell's increased involvement in foreign affairs. He also runs Liberty University (7,000 students) in Lynchburg. The 1985 receipts of Falwell's ventures: $100 million. Last year he started a Sunday-night call-in show on Ted Turner's superstation, WTBS. Last month he purchased a cable hookup (rebaptized the Liberty Broadcasting Network) that reaches 1.5 million homes. It will run a new daily Falwell talk show.

Oral Roberts, 68, of Tulsa, the century's most famed faith healer, has a TV flock that helped build the 4,600-student Oral Roberts University and the 294- bed City of Faith hospital and research center. The City of Faith is rumored to be in financial straits, but Roberts will divulge no details. The overall budget of his enterprises reportedly runs to $120 million. Roberts' Sunday half-hour still appears in 192 markets, but the "Prairie Tornado" is showing his age. The spotlight is shifting to a daily talk show inaugurated in 1984 to star Son and Heir Apparent Richard Roberts, 37. Due for partial opening next July is Oral's $14 million Healing Center, which will feature, among other attractions, a three-hour tour of animated films of Bible stories.

Dynamic and high-profile achievers, every one, yet none of these preachers can compare to Robertson as a TV entrepreneur. Robertson pioneered the first religious TV station, the first reli- gious network and the first Christian programming to use a talk-show format, as well as a number of now widely imitated viewer-response and fund-raising techniques. He was also the first Christian broadcaster to sign up commercial sponsors, a development that ; appears to be the trend of the 1980s. His 24-hour CBN network reaches 30 million subscribers, making it not only the largest Christian cable operation but the fifth largest of any kind (No. 1 is ESPN, with 36.9 million subscribers).

The CBN headquarters in Virginia Beach, Va., consists of three massive white pillared buildings where some 4,000 Roberston employees work amid strict security (for example: coded cards to unlock doors). The buildings house not only studios but CBN University, which enrolls 715 graduate students and is adding a law school acquired free from Oral Roberts University.

CBN's viewership has tripled since 1981, when Robertson switched from an all-religion schedule to a family entertainment approach, combining Christian shows with wholesome reruns (Flipper, Father Knows Best), westerns, old movies and game shows. Two weeks ago the network premiered CBN News Tonight, a regular evening newscast produced in Washington, with special emphasis on right-wing issues.

Robertson's spiritual hub is The 700 Club, which runs without ads on the CBN cable system and also pays $20 million a year to appear on broadcast outlets in 185 cities. Hosted in low-key style on a living-room set by Robertson and Ben Kinchlow, who is black, the program has featured interviews with such guests as Anwar Sadat, F. Lee Bailey, Mr. T and the last three U.S. Presidents, interspersed with inspirational film clips and reports in TV- magazine format. Robertson's political commentary is also a staple, whether on domestic issues like abortion ("We are offering up 1 1/2 million babies a year upon the altar of sensuality and selfishness") or international topics like the Nicaraguan contras. (The U.S. has "a moral obligation," Robertson maintains, to support "freedom fighters" who battle "satanic" Communism.)

During the programs, 800 numbers continually flash onscreen, encouraging viewers to phone in their requests, comments, prayers or pledges. (The show's name derives from an early crisis when, in order to stay on the air, it needed 700 donors to send $10 a month.) CBN just passed American Airlines as the nation's heaviest user of WATS telephone lines. On-camera operators take the messages, sometimes suggesting local help and often relaying news of miracle cures for Robertson and Kinchlow to pass along to the audience. Kinchlow, 49, has known a miracle or two himself. He was drifting and embittered until "Jesus changed me from the inside." Now he is a CBN vice president. One of Robertson's four children, Timothy, 31, is another.

Nowadays The 700 Club is increasingly left in Kinchlow's hands as Robertson crisscrosses the country in the company's BAC One-Eleven jet. With his enterprises--and his political prospects--building up momentum, Robertson has less time to spend with his wife Dede in a university-owned $420,000 mansion on the CBN campus. When he is home Robertson usually is awake at sunrise, studies the Bible for an hour, jogs two miles and perhaps takes a ride on one of his four horses before going to his studios. It is a country gentleman's life-style, which befits a blue-blooded Virginian who counts two Presidents, William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison, in the family tree.

The son of longtime U.S. Senator A. Willis Robertson, Pat grew up in Lexington, Va., and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from hometown Washington and Lee University. After a hitch as a Marine combat officer in Korea, he graduated from the Yale Law School, flunked the New York bar exam and was a partner in a small business. Then at age 26 he had a conversion experience ("At my desk in my office, I leaned back in my chair and burst out laughing . . . I had passed from death into life") and entered the Biblical Seminary in New York City.

Robertson's career took a dramatic turn in the late 1950s when he became an early convert to the Neopentecostal, or Charismatic, movement, which carried the beliefs of the older Pentecostal denominations into more sedate mainstream churches and independent congregations. These groups believe in baptism in the Holy Spirit as a necessary follow-up to personal commitment to Jesus Christ. Typically, this experience follows the laying on of hands by believers who already have been Spirit-filled, and results in speaking in tongues, a form of prayer language. Also emphasized are other Holy Spirit "gifts" mentioned in the New Testament, including faith healing.

In his new enthusiasm, Robertson felt God telling him to apply literally the exhortation of Luke 12: 33: "Sell your possessions, and give alms." While Wife Dede was in Ohio nursing a sick brother, Robertson sold virtually everything the couple owned and gave the money to the poor. According to Robertson's 1972 autobiography, Shout It from the Housetops, the marriage went through a tense period before Dede showed "willingness to submit herself to my spiritual headship."

After living as a church worker in a Brooklyn black ghetto, Robertson ( eventually landed in Virginia's Tidewater with $70 in cash, an aged De Soto, and a vision of "claiming" a defunct UHF station for Jesus. The price (divinely ordained, as Robertson saw it): $37,000. WYAH went on the air in 1961 with a weak signal, one camera, and a movie projector that frequently jammed. But America's first Christian TV station was afloat, to be followed by others in Atlanta, Dallas and Boston. After overcoming struggles that Robertson attributed to "satanic oppression," the operation developed money- raising telethons and friendly talk shows.

Even in CBN's flourishing state today, fund raising is pervasive, as it is on all Gospel TV. Sometimes the pitch is blatant, as with California Neopentecostalist Paul Crouch, 51, operator of the all-religion Trinity Broadcasting Network (nine stations, 6 million cable homes, $35 million budget). He tells viewers that a widow has donated her life savings of $7,000 and comments, "Do you realize what an awesome responsibility it is for me to stand here and encourage people to literally give all they have to God? I'm either the biggest fool and idiot and con man in the world or else I'm plugged into heaven."

Preachers who purchase airtime frequently offer books, calendars, lapel pins and whatnot to those who phone or write in. Viewers requesting "premiums" often send checks, but the preachers' real goal is to build a computerized name list for future direct-mail solicitation. One prominent evangelist, Oregon-based Hispanic Luis Palau, complains with some justification, "When you try to talk to somebody about Jesus Christ in America, they immediately think all you want is to get their name, address and ZIP code."

The mail volume at the warehouse-size depots maintained by top televangelists is monumental. For instance, Billy Graham is notably discreet in asking for money, but after his telecasts 40,000 or 50,000 letters a day come in to his Minneapolis headquarters. Graham remains the leader in prime- time evangelism, confining himself to infrequent specials. Among last year's productions was coverage of his pathbreaking preaching in Communist Hungary and Rumania. The 1985 cost for airtime and other TV expenses was $18,675,000, about a third of his overall budget.

The world of Gospel TV has been rocked repeatedly by scandals, rumors, shake-ups, and reports of high-living preachers, which obscure the fact that many in the field have only modest personal incomes. An inveterate financial secrecy exacerbates the air of suspicion. In a move designed to allay donor skepticism and head off possible Government intervention, leaders of nondenominational ministries in 1979 formed the Evangelical Council for Financial Responsibility. The council certifies that its associated fund seekers fulfill a simple code of ethics. But of the seven major TV ministers, only Graham and Bakker are members.

Like the old-time revivalists to whom they are the natural successors --George Whitefield, Charles Finney, Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday--today's televangelists tend to be mavericks, outside of denominational control and resourceful about using entertainment and new technology to find their audiences. When radio was born, the early networks wanted no part of troublesome evangelists. They encouraged stations to donate time for network shows produced in cooperation with the liberal Federal (later National) Council of Churches, as well as Catholic and Jewish agencies. In early TV, too, the networks continued to give traditional denominations free time, in effect confining the conservative evangelists to weak "dollar a holler" stations. As late as 1959 the evangelists accounted for only half the religious airtime. By 1980 they had achieved a virtual monopoly.

What caused the radical turnabout? Primarily, mainline religion violated the first commandment of TV: Thou shalt not bore. The shows avoided not only Gospel appeals but personalities, a necessity on an entertainment-oriented medium. The only galvanizing religious figure to emerge in weekly prime time, Catholic Bishop Fulton Sheen, was sponsored by the Admiral Corp., not by his church. Another factor: the Federal Communications Commission decided to give equal "public service" credit to paid religion and free-time shows. Stations were eager to sell time and increase profits, and the Evangelicals were ready. Their 40 years in the paid-time wilderness turned out to be a boon. Additional UHF and cable outlets became available to them. Videotaping facilitated cheap production and distribution. The computer brought magical mass fund raising.

Then there was the unmistakable dynamism of the preachers themselves. Graham caused such a sensation that his 1950 advent on ABC radio was foreordained. He made his TV debut the following year. Weekly shows, the basic unit of TV programming, did not begin until traveling Revivalist Rex Humbard happened by a crowd gazing into an Akron department-store window. Fashion < show? Puppets? No, a TV set. By 1953 Humbard was telecasting services weekly and in 1958 opened the splashy, 5,000-seat Cathedral of Tomorrow, the first church designed to be a TV studio. In 1955, at Humbard's urging, Oral Roberts began telecasting weekly films of himself placing healing hands upon lines of supplicants in sweat-drenched tent revivals. The nation was thrilled, or aghast, to watch hard-core Pentecostalism in the living room. Roberts, a Bible college dropout, was able to fold the tent and open his university off the proceeds.

Soon after Pat Robertson's station went on the air in 1961, he hired Jim and Tammy Bakker, who were working the revival circuit, to run a children's show. Bakker later devised and helped host what became The 700 Club. Eventually Bakker left Robertson and helped Paul Crouch launch the Trinity network, then moved to Charlotte in 1974 and became the head of the PTL network. Bakker thus had a hand in developing the three original Christian networks.

Tammy was no great singer, and Jim no penetrating interviewer, but their TV ascent was rapid. Says their avuncular announcer, Henry Harrison: "They were just a cute little couple that people felt good about watching." Soon Bakker was giddily expanding religious and charitable works at home and abroad, though shunning politics.

PTL finances have suffered continual ups and downs. In 1979, after the Charlotte Observer charged that money ostensibly raised for overseas work was diverted to expenses at home, the FCC held preliminary hearings on stripping Bakker's license to a TV station in Canton, Ohio, then let him sell it to Anti-Communist Crusader Billy James Hargis. Last month the Observer asserted that, during the FCC deliberations, former PTL executives had testified the Bakkers used donations to buy a sports car, a houseboat, a mink coat and other personal perks. Seething, Bakker produced documents to rebut the accusations and called them a plot to "destroy us." But he does live well, even as he pleads poverty on the air and lays off some 500 employees (as he did weeks ago). He tools around in a Mercedes, and he and Tammy have a $449,000 retreat in Palm Springs.

Four years before Bakker began building his network, Robert H. Schuller decided to start telecasts from California's first drive-in church, which he had founded in Garden Grove. His optimistic Christianity won a ready audience, and the church boomed. Emboldened by a nationwide fund base, Schuller opened the Crystal Cathedral in 1980. U.S. Christendom had never seen the like. Designed by Architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, it has a 128-ft.-high network of white steel trusses supporting more than 10,000 silvered panes of glass, which diffuse an effulgence of brilliant daylight. Sunday mornings at the cathedral have more the feel of sporting events or variety hours than worship services. Gold-jacketed attendants guide cars in the parking lot. Inside, caged canaries chirp and camera-toting tourists click away through worship. As the service begins, 90-ft. doors open to reveal twelve fountains, one for each apostle, and an 11-ft. by 15-ft. Jumbotron video screen, so the back pews can catch the preacher's every gesture. Schuller's sermons, taxing to neither spirit nor intellect, owe as much to psychology as to Scripture. They are peppered with greeting-card aphorisms for seekers of happiness and self-esteem. "Coping and hoping." "Turn your scars into stars." The cross is "a minus turned into a plus." Beyond that, his crystalline Gospel aims at a historic shift, purging Christendom of what Schuller sees as centuries of ensnarement in negative thinking. By preaching sin and judgment, he argues, the clergy "can be, quite accidentally and unintentionally, but nevertheless a destructive influence in the human personality and human life." Schuller gets no salary and lives off book and tape royalties and speaking fees; he lives in a restored farmhouse on 2.5 acres, complete with waterfall.

Jimmy Swaggart went on TV three years after Schuller and claimed his first No. 1 rating by 1982. Not that Swaggart was unknown in the South. He had long been a radio preacher and top country-Gospel singer (his cousin is Rocker Jerry Lee Lewis). The son of an Assemblies of God minister, Swaggart preached at his first street meeting at 19. "Son," said a policeman who was there, "you've got the fire." He has it still. Anyone who believes that TV has made the "hot" Gospel hell-raisers obsolete has not seen one of Swaggart's sweating, mike-toting, Bible-waving, Devil-thrashing performances. "Muhammad is dead but Jesus is alive," he intones. "He's alive. He's alive! GLORY!" He loves the sawdust trail and conducts a road-show crusade about once a month. "It has its own charm, spontaneity and electrifying power," he says. "There's really nothing in the world quite like it. It's like the Republican or the Democratic Convention every night."

Swaggart's self-contained studios bristle with top-of-the-line equipment, and his 15,000-sq.-ft. printing plant churns out 24 million items a year: books, pamphlets, posters, album covers. He has opened mission and charity offices in 53 countries and preaches regularly overseas. Swaggart and Wife Frances live next door to Son Donnie, 31, in Baton Rouge, La. The houses are worth at least $1 million; much of the materials and labor was contributed by followers. Swaggart insists that "we've never taken a dollar from people's donations." He pays himself a salary from book, tape and record royalties, and he admits, "The Lord has been good to me."

Time and again, the power and glory of video have dramatically shaped the careers of evangelical preachers. Jerry Falwell founded his little Lynchburg church in a rented soda-pop plant in 1956 with only 35 souls. But he bought radio time after the first week and TV time within the first year, and the people came. And came. Even then his fame might not have gone much beyond the county line had he not syndicated his program nationally after moving into a sleek octagonal sanctuary in 1970. When he made his big move into political activism in 1979, he was armed with a solid computer bank of backers, financial and ideological.

Every style seems to find a responsive audience. At one extreme are nondenominational Richard and Martin De Haan and Paul Van Gorder of Grand Rapids, who look and sound like local bankers but relieve their board-plain Bible lectures with tapes of singers lip-synching cheerily away at Florida's Cypress Gardens. Their Day of Discovery runs in 153 cities, and the operation, including radio and publishing, spent $16 million in 1985. D. James Kennedy, 55, of Fort Lauderdale has a 7,000-member church within a conservative Presbyterian group and spends half his $20 million budget on media. A television comer, he tries to "fill the gap" left by flashier preachers, offering formal worship and cerebral sermons.

At the other end of the spectrum, the weekly show of Akron's Ernest Angley, who bought out Humbard's church and studios in 1984 for $2 million, is a throwback to the faith-healing spectacle of the original Oral Roberts show. Another eccentric is bearded Gene Scott, 56, of Los Angeles, who puffs a cigar and peers from under such headgear as a cowboy hat or policeman's cap as he heaps scorn on other TV preachers. Of Pat Robertson he says, "The first name almost exhausts the subject."

Mainline religion nowadays is a minor force in TV. The three commercial networks still prepare free-time series for the National Council of Churches and other groups. Lloyd Ogilvie, a handsome Hollywood pastor-telecaster, is within the mainline orbit but gets no backing from his Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The Southern Baptist Convention, strongly evangelical, is the only denomination that runs a standard network, ACTS. Begun in 1984, it reaches 4 million homes, but is struggling because local church support has not offset the $25 million to $30 million cost to date.

The U.S. Catholic hierarchy has spent $5.2 million on a network used mainly for in-house telecommunications, though some shows get on local broadcast and cable. Without official imprimatur, Birmingham's amateurish but affable Mother Angelica, 61, a Franciscan nun, has become Catholicism's top producer. She got her start when Robertson decided to add a Catholic to CBN's lineup. In 1981 she branched out with her Eternal Word satellite hookup, which has 4 million homes on line and beams four hours nightly.

Curious, and even worried, about the impact of Gospel TV, evangelists and mainline critics joined in a rare cooperative gesture in 1984, commissioning an extensive study by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications and the Gallup organization. The three conclusions: surprisingly, although the evangelists raise their funds to reach the "lost," they mostly reinforce people already committed to evangelical religion. Contrary to understandable fears, Gospel TV does not undercut attendance and contributions at local churches. The competing church factions face a common, all-powerful enemy: secularized general TV.

The Rev. William F. Fore, communication secretary at the National Council of Churches, asserts that the televangelists "have been willing to buy enormous popularity, power and income at the expense of their own integrity." Measuring Christian teaching by the popular acclaim it wins, writes Australian Protestant Minister Peter Horsfield in Religious Television: The American Experience (1984), "has been rejected from the earliest beginnings of the Christian faith." Other critics say that TV subordinates the reflective aspects of Christianity to emotive material that affords instant gratification and entertainment. Political differences underlie some of the sniping, of course. Liberals are upset because their criticisms of U.S. policy and ( culture are far less popular than the Christian right's simplified affirmations of American success.

The power of positive TV thinking is especially evident in the "faith message" or "prosperity Gospel," a major Pentecostal variant in the 1980s. Its chief exponent is Kenneth Copeland, 49, platform maestro of the bustling Eagle Mountain Chapel outside Fort Worth. Urging viewers to give a tenth of their income to the Lord, Copeland asks himself rhetorically, "Well, Brother Copeland, are you tithing to get?" His answer: "Yes, yes, yes! A thousand times yes! I want to get healed, I want to get well, I want to get money, I want to get prosperous!" Other advocates include Frederick Price, 54, the black pastor of a huge Los Angeles church, and Robert Tilton, 39, of the Dallas-based Success-N-Life cable network.

The prosperity preachers build on the Pentecostal faith in here-and-now miracles, citing bits of Scripture to proclaim that God has already guaranteed not only spiritual comfort but material prosperity and physical healing. Believers who pronounce their wishes in true faith have already received them, the preachers maintain, even though it may take time for the miracle to be realized. The shorthand version: "Name it and claim it."

The movement deeply disturbs more traditional Evangelicals and Pentecostals (Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson, however, are among outsiders who are friendly). The Rev. Russell Spittler of California's Fuller Theological Seminary thinks such nice-sounding but strange messages show that his fellow Pentecostals are "theologically impoverished." Theologian Charles Farah Jr. of Oral Roberts University asserts that "there are hundreds of thousands of wounded Christians for whom it didn't work." The current best-selling Evangelical paperback The Seduction of Christianity, by Dave Hunt and T.A. McMahon, charges that this TV-borne movement is a slide into occultism and a sign of the End Times.

In the face of Gospel TV's theological simplifications and secular agendas, its sometimes overbearing personalities and unrelenting emphasis on money, should earnest Christians simply shun electronic religion altogether? To Hollywood's Ogilvie, that is not an option: "Otherwise we roll over and play dead." Jim Bakker sees video technology as the means to fulfill Jesus' 2,000- year-old injunction to reach out to the world and spread the Gospel. If Jesus were on earth today, Bakker asserts, "he'd have to be on TV. That would be the only way he could reach the people he loves."

The opposite view comes from Malcolm Muggeridge, a British author, TV personality and curmudgeonly Christian convert. In his 1977 book Christ and the Media, Muggeridge spins a fantasy in which Jesus, having survived the three temptations in the wilderness, is offered a fourth: a contract from Lucifer Inc. to go to Rome and anchor a First-Century network variety show. Jesus, "concerned with truth and reality" rather than "fantasy and images," refuses. As a direct result of that choice, across the centuries the greatest artists and architects, poets and philosophers, musicians and mystics celebrate "the brightest and most far-reaching hopes ever to be entertained by the human mind and the most sublime purposes ever to be undertaken by the human will." Now that, says Muggeridge, is communication.

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