4972 televangelism

required the commercial broadcast networks to
donate a portion of their airtime to public
interest use. A convenient way to do this was
for the stations to cooperate with large, main
stream religious bodies to produce a variety of
non confrontational, non sectarian programs
that could fit within this category. This ended
when the FCC in 1960 ruled that the stations
could count commercial programming toward
their public interest quotas. The effect was to
open a new market, wherein profit interests
could redefine the public interest within cate
gory limits. Hence, religious interest could be
met by allowing the religious interests with the
most money to have the available slots. This was
greatly enhanced as more broadcast frequencies
became more easily available. So was born the
parallel religious institution of the electronic
church, with its most successful exponents
eventually termed televangelists.
As a part of media coverage of the growth in
fundamentalist and evangelical churches in the
United States during the 1970s and 1980s, one
focus of attention became the concomitant
expansion in the activities of religious broad
casters, especially the televangelist stars of Sun
day morning. Eventual revelations of scandals
involving sexual misconduct and/or financial
misrepresentation by some of the best known
television preachers, such as Jim Bakker and
Jimmy Swaggart, served to fix popular gaze
firmly on the operations of religious broadcas
ters. Unnuanced and even derisive reporting
of these scandals also reinforced persistent
stereotypes concerning the rather diverse min
istries that jointly inhabit the airwaves. Chief
among these is the impression that all religious
broadcasters are money hungry opportunists,
accountable to no higher authority, who promise
miracles in order to lure huge numbers of the
desperate and the gullible and their financial
contributions away from the putatively soun
der fellowship of mainline congregations or
secular professional help.
A sociological account of televangelism is bet
ter constructed in aspects of the roles that
broadcast ministers perform and the economic
and organizational constraints within which
they work. The electronic church, like other
western institutions, is voluntaristic, diverse,
market oriented, entrepreneurial, technologi
cally advanced, and activated by vast amounts
of time and money. In the media market, there
simply is no ministry without money. In a dif
ferent sense than is normally intended, within
broadcasting time is money that is, time costs
money. Thus, the head of a broadcast ministry,
virtuous or not, must always preach with one
eye glued to the financial bottom line and one
foot planted a step ahead of his creditors. Hence
the seeming obsession during religious broad
casts with talk of raising and spending money.
Additionally, the very evangelistic nature of reli
gious commitment among conservative Chris
tians reinforces this entrepreneurial style. To
their way of thinking, a faith that is not actively
being passed on is a faith that is indolent and
moribund. Not only is there a Christian impera
tive to extend the faith, but also a conviction that
God has established a (hidden) time limit within
which this must be done and that those who do
not receive the Christian gospel are eternally
lost. The logical conclusion to this line of
thought is the incessant appeal for money to
retire debts, maintain operations, and advance
into the future.
The principal spokesperson for these appeals
is the televangelist himself. Because very few
current broadcast ministries are the projects of
denominations, it is almost always an individual
(most frequently the founder) who comes to
embody the spirit of a religious program. He
becomes the focal point for all that his ministry
is and does; for all practical purposes, he is his
organization. Televangelists are not above turn
ing this condition around, however, and using
it to cultivate loyalty among their followers. It
is, after all, harder for people to trust an insti
tution than a person, and even harder for them
to endorse the worth of an abstract idea. So
their gazes settle naturally on the profile of the
preacher at center stage; hence, for example,
viewers are much more likely to know who they
watch among the televangelists than they are
the actual name of his program.
Audience research shows that despite the
sometimes outlandish claims of broadcast
preachers themselves, the size of the regular
audience for religious television in the United
States is rather modest. It is dwarfed by the
average ratings for the most popular talk shows
and situation comedies on network television
and its cable counterparts. The audience for
religious television is also heavily concentrated