This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.
Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).
How Protestants Tried and Failed to Influence Television
By Stephanie Garber
Television has been part of American culture since the mid 1940s. It quickly replaced radio and became a staple in homes across the country. Families would sit around the tube and watch programs together. The shows that were on back then promoted values that lined up with what Protestants believed. They saw television as an opportunity to get faith into homes quickly and efficiently. Despite their best efforts, Protestants had little to no effect on the development of American television.
Growing up, I remember watching VeggieTales on Saturday mornings and thinking it was the greatest show of all time. Vegetables singing about Jesus and hairbrushes, what could be better? Every episode ended with, “God made you special, and he loves you very much!” I was raised on shows like this and I didn’t understand the religious aspect at the time because I was so little. There were plenty of other blatantly Christian shows on TV and since my childhood they have become more and more rare.
Shows that were not openly religious also portrayed Protestant ideals. Every night at nine o’clock my family and I would watch an episode of I Love Lucy before bed. One night I asked my mom why the main characters, Lucy and Rickey, slept in two twin beds instead of one big one, she said, “Back in the 50s when this was on TV they didn’t like to show couples going to sleep in the same bed.” This was true because back then American values were still Protestant values and that meant not promoting sex on television.
Since then Americans have gotten farther away from these values and so have TV shows. Protestants tried in the beginning to keep TV clean and “wholesome” but scandal and competition eventually lead to the downfall of Christian TV. Some people these days would go as far as to say that most TV now is antireligious.
In the mid 1940s the television set because commercially available and Protestants saw an opportunity to put Christian shows on the air. They thought they could air shows focusing on God and good morals and it would reinvigorate people’s faith and get them to go to church again. This worked at first and shows like Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, Bonanza, The Wonderful World of Disney, and many others came about in the 50s. A lot of them were very successful and lasted into the 80s.
All of these shows portrayed wholesome family lifestyles and had strong Protestant values like work ethic, strong family ties, abstinence and so on, but television quickly became a way to spread material that was not Jesus friendly across America. Elvis’s gyrating hips had everyone in an uproar, as did shows that question protestant morals rather than reinforce them. Programs that highlight comedy and musical acts became very popular and the Protestant community saw that they needed to step it up a notch.
After failing to keep television a clean space to spread the good word, Protestants decided they could still use TV to at least get the word out through televangelism. TV evangelists were very popular. Big names like Jimmy Swaggart were extremely successful. A People Magazine article on Swaggart form 1988 said he had tree houses and owned a private Jet. Televangelists helped to organize American Christianity by building audiences composed of many different ethnic, regional and religious backgrounds. A person does not have to be literate to watch TV. These evangelists could reach a lot more people than they could through Christian pamphlets and newsletters or once a week sermons.
Televangelism worked in the beginning but it brought about the problem of mainline versus evangelical Protestants’ battle for airtime. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) made television stations give time to things that would help better the communities called “sustaining time.” One way they could do this was to give time to religious programming. The stations gave preference to the mainline Protestants in the Federal Council of Churches and made everyone else (Jews, Catholics and Evangelicals) pay for it.
Evangelical Protestants were upset because they had to spend money to get their programs on TV. At one point NBC refused to sell airtime to religious programming other than the Federal Council of Churches. The National Association of Evangelicals formed in 1942 and tried to counter the influence of the Federal Council exercised on religious broadcasting.
When that did not work televangelist Pat Robertson bought a bankrupt station and devoted more than 50 percent of his time to religious programming. This station was the first of its kind. This is where shows like The 700 Club started.
Eventually, in 1960, the FCC made a decision that commercials could be used as free time not just religious programming so TV stations started making everyone pay, not just the Evangelicals, Catholic and Jews. This really made mainline Protestants mad because they were use to getting their airtime for free. Evangelicals, however, did not care because they were use to paying for it.
After the FCC opened up sustaining time to everyone in 1960 all religious groups that wanted to have airtime were able to get it.
These days there are still some Christian stations but they are not very prominent. Trinity Broadcasting Network is the biggest one and it mostly plays The 700 Club and live sermons.
All in all televangelism ends up dying out because some major scandals take place.
One of the biggest and most well known televangelist scandals happened in 1988. Jimmy Swaggart was one of the most prominent TV preachers. He had around 8 million people tuning in to hear him preach until word got out that he had committed transgressions that were not accepted in the Protestant church. He had been preaching on living a moral life and preaching against adultery when his followers found out that he had cheated on his wife of 35 years with a New Orleans prostitute. This was not the only scandal televangelism had to deal with. Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, and Bob Larson also all had moral failures. Listening to these people preach on TV and then hearing about their indiscretions made a good majority of their audiences tune out.
Some of these men have been forgiven by their listeners and followers and are back on TV, but these days televangelism is not what it used to be. Shut-ins and elderly people are the main audience for it today. It was not bringing anyone to church or to Christ. The magazine Christianity Today states that the numbers of viewers and contributors have dropped by almost three-fourths compared to its peak in the 80s.
Most people had a major problem with the hypocrisy of the TV ministers. They spoke on purity and abstinence and then went against everything they had said. One 47-year-old woman member of Swaggart’s Assemblies of God Church said in the 1988 article in People Magazine, “How could he stand up there in the pulpit and preach against adultery and promiscuity when he was doing that kind of thing all this time? I think he ought to stay out of the pulpit.”
Hypocrisy is still an issue in TV today. The book Small Screen, Big Picture brings out some interesting arguments of how television today can be viewed as antireligious. Some people say that CSI is portrays religion in a negative light because the lead character, Grissom, was once a Christian but doesn’t hold to it anymore because of the hypocrisy that comes along with it. He did not just talk about Christianity though. One episode centered on Monks and another around Buddhists.
CSI is not the only major show that addresses religion. The hit televisions series House centered on an angry man who was an open atheist. In multiple episodes he would comment on how there was no God and that anyone who believed opposite was an idiot. In one particular episode House and a comparative religion major go head to head because he tells her that the only reason she believes in religion is so that she can feel good about herself at the end of the day.
House, CSI, Law and Order being antireligious along with shows like Family Guy and South Park openly making fun of religion is why the Protestants lost a lot of their weight in television. Most secular shows that bring up religion make fun of it of portray it in a negative light. TV these days really contradicts older shows like I Love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver in this way.
In 2014 Protestants have little to no say what goes on television. All of the Protestant values they fought so hard to preserve have fallen to the wayside and the “troublesome material” they were trying to keep off the air shows up on most shows. In fact TV is almost antireligious. TV shows portray religion in a negative light. Shows like Family Guy and South Park openly make fun of religion and frequently have Jesus as a character on their shows.