Last December the Federal Communications Commission issued new rules governing noncommercial educational television stations. In the future, the agency said, worship services and other forms of "religious exhortation" would not be considered educational programming.
The regulation might seem like common sense to most Americans. Preaching, after all, is quite a bit different from the educational programming most viewers would expect on educational TV. But to the nation's powerful religious broadcasting lobby, the FCC action was a red flag.
The National Religious Broadcasters and their influential members and allies quickly declared war. James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and other religious broadcasters castigated the FCC and called on their followers to bombard the agency with protests. Sympathetic representatives in Congress denounced the new rule, and 70 House members cosponsored legislation to reverse it.
In a matter of weeks, the FCC backed down. By a 4-1 vote Jan. 28, the commissioners decided to drop the new language. "Regrettably," said a statement, "it has become clear that our actions have created less certainty rather than more, contrary to our intent."
The religious broadcasters were jubilant. "This is a total victory," exulted NRB President Brandt Gustavson. "Today's decision is a beautiful demonstration of democracy in action."
Other observers saw it differently. Dissenting FCC member Gloria Tristani called the retreat a "sad and shameful day for the FCC." She particularly blasted charges that the FCC is anti-religion as "reminiscent of a witch hunt."
"In a religiously diverse society," Tristani said, "sectarian religious programming, by its very nature, does not serve the 'entire community' and is not 'educational' to non-adherents."
However you look at it, the episode shows the remarkable political power of the religious broadcasting industry, a segment of the communications world that continues to grow in wealth and influence.
While the nation's news media has focused sporadic attention on Religious Right groups such as the Christian Coalition, little notice has been given to the multi-million dollar fundamentalist Christian ministries that dominate the nation's airwaves and serve as the foundation of the sectarian political lobbies. Although many of these tax-exempt ministries preach a controversial and often partisan gospel, their activities remain virtually unknown to the general public.
To shed some light on this aspect of our national life, Church & State sent a representative to the National Religious Broadcasters 57th Annual Convention in Anaheim, Calif. The Feb. 5-8 event drew an estimated 5,000 attendees to dinners, workshops and briefings. Some 250 business and advocacy booths occupied the 155,000-square foot exhibit hall at the Anaheim Convention Center.
Authors hawked their latest books. Christian radio talk shows broadcast from onsite. Hucksters ranged from high-tech communications firms and direct mail fund-raising outfits to colorful smaller operations. (Cowboy Stuff Ministries was right down the way from Jumbo Jack's Cookbooks.) Promise Keepers tried to sell Coach Bill McCartney's new radio spot to station owners.
Political operatives ranged from the merely right-wing to the lunatic fringe. Powerful Dobson spin-off group the Family Research Council was a few steps away from the Rev. Lou Sheldon's family-run Traditional Values Coalition. Sophisticated anti-evolution strategist Phillip Johnson touted his books and held a workshop, while across the hall, Hearthstone Books hawked conspiracy author Dennis Cuddy's NEA Grab for Power. A promotional flier for the forthcoming book says the National Education Association "has copied the model of Russian and Chinese communist educational systems" and is brainwashing children to "accept a universal dictatorial government."
The clash of symbols was sometimes jarring. Red-and-white "Jews for Jesus" shopping bags were carried by many conventioneers as they wandered the exhibit hall floor. But most also carried the official conference tote, a bag with the NRB 2000 logo on one side and an "Israel: The Official Destination of the Millenium" slogan on the other. The Israel Ministry of Tourism runs one of the largest exhibits at the convention, where staffers encourage evangelical pilgrimages to the Holy Land. (Those who couldn't go to the Middle East in person could always stop at the "Virtual Holyland" booth, which touted an Internet site with live views of the Western Wall and the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.)
All in all, the exhibit hall was a veritable Christian amusement park and business extravaganza that rivaled Disneyland, the television-spawned entertainment mecca just across the street from the NRB event.
Representing some 1,250 religious broadcasters and their associates, the NRB's big tent encompasses some of the best known names in the field. Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, Marlin Maddoux, Dobson and Falwell all hold memberships. Adrian Rogers, Charles Stanley, Paul Pressler, Richard Land and other leaders of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, also gather there. Hundreds of less well known radio and television personalities round out the list.
As the recent FCC flap shows, the NRB serves as a potent lobbying force in Washington, D.C. And it's no wonder. Religious broadcasters control extraordinary wealth. According to figures announced in the convention issue of the NRB magazine, Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) took in $203 million in the most recent year for which figures were available. Dobson's Focus on the Family (FOF) netted $109 million, while Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries received $41 million. Paul and Jan Crouch's Trinity Broadcasting Network which is unveiling a new "Church Channel" collected $98 million, Oral Roberts Ministries pocketed $68 million and Stanley's In Touch Ministries totaled $33 million.
In addition to these tax-exempt mega-ministries, the number of Christian radio and TV stations, some of them tax-exempt as well, also continues to grow. According to the NRB, 1,731 stations dotted the national landscape in 1999, up from 1,616 in 1998. One survey claims 80 million Americans tune in to Christian radio weekly.
Although America is a remarkably diverse country with a wide range of denominations and faith groups, religious broadcasting is heavily dominated by fundamentalist preachers. The message on most religious programs seen across the country emphasizes conversion to their kind of Christianity with a frequent side message of right-wing politics.
When most religious broadcasters talk about Christianity, they mean only their fundamentalist variety. Other religious viewpoints are often disparaged. On the first day of the NRB convention, TV evangelist John Ankerberg signed copies of his Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, a tome that details the biblical shortcomings of groups ranging from Buddhists, Bahais and Christian Scientists to Mormons, Masons and even Unitarians. Later that afternoon, radio preacher Ron Rhodes was on the schedule to autograph his Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics, a guide to "sharing the Gospel with your Catholic friends." One of the few breaks from conservative Christianity came when Dr. Laura Schlessinger radio's bombastic "Dr. Laura" was given the NRB Chairman's Award for "serving the Christian community in an exemplary manner." Schlessinger, who is Jewish, apparently made the cut because of her abrasively moralistic posturing.
Although not all religious broadcasters get involved with politics, it is a major theme with the NRB's heavy hitters. Scholar John Stackhouse told one convention workshop that the big evangelical ministries spent about $160 million on politics, a small percentage of their overall budgets, but not an insignificant sum.
It's certainly no coincidence that all the most influential Religious Right groups are affiliated in some way with religious broadcasting. These airwaves ministries provide access to millions of Americans who can be recruited as grassroots activists and tapped for donations, the lifeblood of political movements.
Examples are plentiful. Robertson's CBN has helped nurture both the Christian Coalition, which does partisan politicking, and the American Center for Law and Justice, which does ultraconservative legal work. Dobson's FOF does some political work on its own. Its ally, the Family Research Council, lobbies regularly in Washington, while FOF-aligned groups work in over half the states. The NRB itself has spawned the Alliance Defense Fund, a funding pool that finances Religious Right legal work against church-state separation, abortion rights and legal protections for gay people.
The goal of these ministries and their allied advocacy groups is simple: an America where most Americans are fundamentalist Christians and where that outlook pervades both the government and the culture.
Robertson's top lawyer, Jay Sekulow, sounded a militant note at the NRB convention. Speaking to the public policy breakfast Feb. 7, the American Center for Law and Justice counsel said Christians are compelled by Scripture to get involved with politics.
Quoting Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper, Sekulow said, "There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not say, 'This is mine; this belongs to me.' We have a cultural mandate."
Continued Sekulow, "Jesus demands every aspect of our creation, every aspect of our culture. None of it is without his control and authority."
Sekulow's call to action was countered at the breakfast by conservative columnist Cal Thomas. In a rare NRB acknowledgment of dissent among Christians about the relationship between politics and faith, Thomas was allowed to defend his view that overemphasis on political activity by evangelicals has hurt the spread of the Gospel. Thomas and Michigan pastor Ed Dobson (no relation to James Dobson) last year wrote a controversial book, Blinded by Might, that made the same point.
"When the church aligns itself with a political party," Thomas told the NRB, "it isn't the state that's corrupted, it's the church."
Charging that conservative churches have become "an appendage of the Republican Party," Thomas warned, "Too many of us give lip service to the Gospel while spending most of our energies on politics."
The columnist said voting Republican is no assurance of conservative policies or morality, noting that Earl Warren and other liberal Supreme Court justices were appointed by GOP presidents. He reminded the crowd that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich "kept the Contract with America, but sadly violated contracts with two wives and now consorts openly with a woman to whom he is not married."
Thomas even challenged the widely held Religious Right view that America was founded as a Christian nation. "What does history really say about our roots?" he asked. "Were our founders mostly saved men who were followers of Jesus Christ? A few were. But many were deists, free thinkers and quite a few, including George Washington, were Masons. Only 10 percent of the populace attended church at the time of the American Revolution."
Concluded Thomas, "Let's not be under any illusion that anything short of the regeneration of Americans will produce a change in America."
Thomas' passionate remarks received a surprisingly warm reaction from the crowd, although Sekulow drew strong applause as well. In the long run, however, Thomas is a voice crying in the NRB wilderness. There is little chance that the power players in the NRB will drop their partisan politicking.
Thomas was originally scheduled to debate Robertson himself, but the Virginia Beach faith healer was ill with the flu and unable to attend. Robertson has roundly rejected Thomas' call for less politics. During the recent presidential primary, Robertson dropped all pretense of nonpartisanship and unleashed some of his most heavy-handed politicking on behalf of favored GOP candidate George Bush and against rival John McCain.
Now Robertson has vowed to wage war on likely Democratic candidate Al Gore. On CNN's "Late Edition" March 12, Robertson said the Christian Coalition will work "enthusiastically" for Bush in the fall. "The first thing is the party's got to understand that we're not supposed to be fighting each other," he said. "Our common enemy, if I may use that term, is the Democrat."
Other NRB heavy hitters such as Dobson and Kennedy also have rejected the Thomas entreaty and insisted that politics remains a top priority.
Evangelist Bill Bright, an NRB board member, even used the occasion of the public policy breakfast to throw support to a Republican candidate for Congress. Bright introduced William Federer, who is running against U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt for a U.S. House seat from Missouri, and asked him to stand. Bright noted that Federer, author of a Christian nation book called America's God and Country, shares their views on social issues.
Federer, Bright asserted, is "up against a candidate who denies everything that you and I stand for. He promotes abortion and homosexuality and everything that is contrary to what we stand for. And William Federer, by God's grace, can take his place."
Where does all of this leave the NRB? The group has come a long way from the heady days of the 1980s when then-President Ronald Reagan made regular appearances at the group's star-studded conventions, then always held in Washington, D.C. Reagan remains personally popular with the broadcasters but his administration proved to be a disappointment. Many NRB activists had hoped control of the White House (and its Supreme Court appointments) would lead to official religious worship in public schools, a ban on abortion, tax aid to religious schools, repudiation of gay rights and other steps on the road to a more Christian America as they define it.
That disappointment was followed by the TV preacher scandals of the mid '80s when Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and others made religious broadcasting something of a national laughing stock. (Bakker, who served time in prison for financial shenanigans at his PTL Network, is apparently trying for a comeback, prowling the NRB exhibit hall this year with his new wife Lori he and Tammy Faye Bakker divorced long ago.)
The potential for abuse of assets remains a concern. At a "God, Mammon and Evangelicals" workshop at this year's NRB, one presenter talked about ministry financial scandal and asked if anyone in the room suspects that improprieties are going on that aren't being talked about. After an uncomfortable silence, one participant replied, "Probably 100 percent of us."
The NRB reached perhaps its lowest point of self-confidence in 1992 when pro-choice, pro-gay Bill Clinton was elected to the White House. Although Clinton is a church-going Baptist, his stands on social issues made him anathema with the NRB even before the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal broke.
In 1994 NRB executive committee members took the unprecedented step of voting not to invite Clinton to address their Washington gathering. "[W]e cannot give a platform," they said, "to a leader who so aggressively supports and puts forth policies and positions which are blatantly contrary to scriptural views."
The NRB then went into a sort of self-imposed exile, moving its conventions from Washington to various cities around the country. Although individual members remain extremely influential with Congress and the FCC, the group itself has been relatively low profile these days.
However, Robertson and other politically minded NRB leaders are plotting their return to the halls of power. They seem to think their best shot is the election of George W. Bush. Although the Religious Right's relationship with Bush's father was sometimes chilly, the Texas governor's ardent profession of Christian faith and his embrace of Religious Right leaders have made him the pragmatic choice of most in the movement. The big question remains whether American voters, evangelical and otherwise, will go along.
One thing is certain: NRB leaders have big long-term goals. As TV preacher Kennedy told NRB's magazine in December, "In 15 or 20 years, Americans will wake up to a startling revelation: Christians in America will be in the majority and our nation will begin to be governed by the righteous once more."