Tag Archives: media

“American Jesus” – The Movie

I watched last night a documentary by Aram Garriga, who I believe is Catalan. The title (ripped off from a book by Stephen Prothero) was American Jesus. Here’s how Garriga describes the film:

The film focuses on a nation-widespread variety of Christian organizations, controversial and relevant figures of the Evangelical community, Christian Pop Culture & Music specialists, secular analysts, Apocalyptic Preachers and the End Times, Prosperity Pastors, Christian Bikers & Cage-fighters, Mega-churches, Snake Handlers, the Creation Museum, Atheists, Christian Surfers and Cowboys, to name just a few. Their personal testimonies and perspectives will draw a map with all of the ideological and social positions covered and properly represented.

The main goal of the film will be triggering the debate and the questioning, from a non-judgmental perspective, on what’s the current state of American Faith and what are its real social and political implications.

“Non-judgmental”–ha ha. That’s a good one.

american-jesus-posterThis film was both intriguing and disappointing. Intriguing because of its whirlwind tour of proliferating American evangelical identities, especially in relation to forms of popular culture: Christian rodeo, Christian bikers, Christian cage-fighters, Christian stand-up, Christian alternative music, Christian outsider art. Although the film didn’t overtly call attention to this, I was particularly intrigued by how many of these forms of evangelical practice were trying to make evangelicalism compatible with some conventional image of masculinity. That is, these are often contemporary iterations of “muscular Christianity.” Judging from this film, American evangelicals are struggling to get men into the pews but take for granted the commitment of women–although why evangelicalism appeals to them, this film has little to offer by way of explanation.

Which is one of the things that’s disappointing about the film. Additional disappointments–thinking especially about this film as a potential resource for teaching–are as follows:

1. The film lands so briefly on the different groups it showcases that there’s not much material to work with for the ethnographic purpose of understanding these adherents’ worldviews from the inside out. That’s because…

2. The film is basically an American evangelical freakshow. The film isn’t really trying to help viewers understand why these evangelicals organize their lives the way they do. The film shows you just enough to give you grounds to think, “Oh my God, these people are crazy!” before hustling you along to the next freak in the line-up. Leading to…

3. The film is ultimately a rant against the New Christian Right. Frank Schaeffer is featured at length–here’s a interview subject on whom the film finally settles down to linger–explaining how evangelicals have become the “fifth column of insanity” in American politics. All those crazy people we saw earlier in the film vote! They’re driving the policies of the Republican Party! They’re gleefully promoting apocalypse in the Middle East! I’m a European filmmaker who had no idea! I must warn the world!

But “from a non-judgmental perspective,” of course.

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Joan of Ox(ford)

The student paper at my campus ran this editorial cartoon in yesterday’s issue. (Click the image for a larger version.) I’m intrigued by how dense the cartoon is with Catholic imagery. Are most students here able to “read” that imagery? Note especially where the Virgin Mary is saying, “I didn’t exist. You do…” To “get” that comment would require a pretty substantial level of iconographic literacy.

(I think that’s supposed to be the Virgin Mary, anyway. She’s riding a dragon reminiscent of the Beast from Revelation–the one the Whore rides–which is confusing–unless a rather obscure comment is being made about the juxtaposition of the Virgin and the Whore as images of femininity–or unless there’s an iconographic reference I’m missing out on because the imagery is that dense.)


By Chris Curme

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How Protestants Tried and Failed to Influence Television

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.

vg392842Growing 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.

fkb079183In 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.

sw128605One 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.”

csi552984Hypocrisy 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.

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Protestants in Hollywood

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).

Protestants in Hollywood
By Angela Thompson

The rise of mass consumerism in the early 20th century helped fuel the success of the film industry and its influence on culture. This rise of consumerism directly challenged the ever-decreasing Protestant influence that had been around since the birth of the United States. Along with the decrease in Protestant unity, Catholics and Jewish people flooded into cities creating a more pluralistic society. Immigrants also highly enjoyed films, especially silent ones because they transcended the language barrier. At this time, Protestants still believed that the church should be the moral authority for Americans.

Film reflected this ever-changing culture. People saw it as a means of escaping from traditional Victorian high-culture. Also, films were a form of escapism that took people away from the dreariness of everyday life. During this time people started spending more money on entertainment and less on church. [6]

Since the beginning of film, Protestants have been present either in the protest, reform, or acceptance of different movies.


The rise in film history parallels with the fall of Protestant influence on American culture. Until the 1930s most film censorship was done locally. Hollywood during that time was allowed to explore whatever it wanted to in film, and it did. [6]

Protestants during this time became concerned about the content popular movies showed. By 1920, many Protestant agencies had formed protests against certain movies and favored state control of censorship. On the other side, some feared that a united Protestant Hollywood would result in a massive censorship than any before. Protestants felt misrepresented in Hollywood and felt that Jewish and Catholic people had those inside the industry to take care of them. [6]

In the early 1920s, various Protestant groups started creating legislature to censor films. Only four states had legislated censorship- Pennsylvania, Kansas, Maryland, and Ohio. In 1921, the Federal Council of Churches (an association of Protestant denominations) asked Dutch Reform Church member Lee F. Hanmer to research whether government action or voluntary public education was the best route to take in promoting films. He concluded that audience demand was the cause for immoral movies. [6]

In May 1921, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church issued a statement that some in Hollywood were not intending on making clean movies and called for a nationwide campaign for local censorship. Films for Sunday school began being produced. Churches tried to arrange deals with film distributors in the New York area to show films. Clergy had hoped for sold out sanctuaries but found that church-oriented films weren’t very popular. [6]


William Hays

William Hays

In 1919, Williams Hays was brought on as head of the film industry’s public relations. He had been formal Postmaster General in the Harding administration and was a Presbyterian elder. During this time Presbyterians were claiming that Hollywood was anti-prohibition, made fun of marriage, made light a woman’s virtue and didn’t respect the Sabbath. Protestants had hoped that they would be able to use Hays to get power in Hollywood. After he became president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), Hay’s first order of business was setting up a public relations committee. The Committee on Public Relations became a means of discussion between producers and religious organizations.

With Hays in office, he first tried pressuring filmmakers to obey a production code that, at the time, was used more as a guideline. This voluntary code, Hollywood thought, would be the answer in preventing government censorship. Though there is a common misconception that all old films are clean cut and moral, many films before the enactment of the Hollywood Production Code addressed issues such as sexuality, drugs, adultery, child abuse, etc. [3]In 1934, after a release of what many considered morally questionable films, the code was put into effect and for the next thirty years, films had to be approved with the code in order to be distributed. [5]

1940s & 1950s

In 1945 many of the largest denominations and interdenominational agencies came together to form the Protestant Film Commission to be the “voice of Protestantism in Motion Pictures.” The commission’s first executive was Paul Heard. He had previously overseen the production of U.S. Navy films in Hollywood. They decided that they wanted to eventually produce films. However, the plan ended up being only moderately successful.

Protestants wanted as strong of an influence on Hollywood as Catholics did at that time. The PFC did not want to be a “protesting agency,” instead they wanted to be used for consulting and offering reviews. In 1947 it was announced that the PFC would open a West Coast Office (WCO) in order to represent Protestants in Hollywood. The PFC stated that it was against censorship, but instead wanted to work with the producers. The Hollywood Reporter claimed that this was the Protestant version of the Legion of Decency (a Catholic organization fighting against objectionable content in Hollywood). It was quickly realized that the WCO had little ability to thoroughly review scripts and that producers by no means had to follow their recommendations. As the number of scripts the WCO received declined, their subject matter became more and more controversial.

This changing script material came from a massive change that was happening in all Hollywood during that time, which was the end of the studio system. This change led to many more independent and foreign films being easily available to the public. At the end of the 1950s around sixty-five percent of movies distributed by the studios were independently produced. The rise in TV also helped fuel this change in that families were content to stay at home and watch shows instead. [6]

1960s & 1970s

In 1960 a report came out from the National Council claiming that the media’s assumption of the purpose of life was to attain “material advantage, power and pleasure” through rivalry and the manipulation of others. They felt that the Protestant church had a role in fighting these assumptions. First, was to build a relationship with like-minded people in Hollywood to help address the issues. Second, to pursue a program in media education for churchgoers to become more knowledgeable about how to encourage the making of better movies.

In 1962, The Catholic bishops’ Episcopal Committee for Motion Pictures, Radio, and Television released a statement saying their desire for a voluntary age-classification within the movie industry. To many in the industry this was considered shocking. Protestants were very reluctant about this idea and saw it as further Catholic influence on Hollywood. The president of the WCO at that time, George Heimrich, answered the question of “who’s going to do the classifications,” but do it on behalf of Protestants. This was due to many fears that by only having Catholics in charge of age-classifications, they could avoid discriminating film reviews.

Jack Valenti

Jack Valenti

In 1966, Jack Valenti, former assistant to President Lyndon Johnson became the third president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA, formally known as the MPPDA). At that time, many felt that certain production code associations were becoming too strict and ridiculous about which movies they had been banning. Valenti felt that a major policy change needed to occur within the MPAA. In 1966 he got rid of, as he put it, “the foolish constructions of the Hays Code.” He felt that the code was simply a form of censorship and wanted no part of it. Valenti, still warned the film industry to still make an effort of self restraint, similar to the feelings of his predecessor, William Hays, had stated many years before. [1]

Another major issue during this time that came back into view was the prospects of having a film classification system. In 1968, film industry leaders held a private meeting for final approval of a new rating system. The MPAA brought about four ratings and copyrighted three less restraining ones: General, Mature, and Restricted. The film rating ‘X’ was not trademarked and could be used by those not in the MPAA as a way to designate films not suitable for those less than sixteen years old.

Soon, other organizations stated their support for these new ratings and recognized, though artists still have freedom of expression in film making, parents and society could protect the growth of their children into responsible adults. Though the initial ratings system had its flaws and concerns from others, Valenti encouraged Catholics, Protestants, and Jews to attend appeals boards, but wouldn’t allow them to vote on major issues. [1]

1980s-Present Day

In 1981, Warner Bros. used an evangelical marketing firm to help promote the studio’s new movie Chariots of Fire. Many saw, that though it was a non-Christian film, it still had a powerful Christian message and ended up winning the Oscar for Best Picture.

Universal announced a new film by Martin Scorsese (a Catholic), called Last Temptation. Many Protestants were disturbed by the film’s message and story. In 1988, right before the movie’s release evangelicals across the country organized a protest at Universal Studios that had upwards of 25,000 people. They felt that anti-Christian stereotypes needed to come to an end. Jerry Falwell, a popular televangelist at the time felt the film would cause “a wave of anti- Semitism.” [6] Many felt that the movie portrayed Jesus as “just another Jewish troublemaker.” [1]

Today, there are many Christian ministries that work in Hollywood. Larry Poland, an evangelist, is the leader of Mastermedia, an organization that builds relationships with those in Hollywood and teaches them the Gospel. Poland claims that he has even led the vice-president of a major network to Christ. [2]

Though they realize that Christian films are still not in the majority, these companies and individuals encourage Christians to pray and use wisdom in the case of any protests that come up. One Christian interdenominational blog, Institute for Christian Renewal, states that many Christian-produced movies are amateur and a turn-off for young viewers and claim that only watching those won’t work in changing the culture.

The recognition of violence, sex, and immortality within pop culture has “pushed” many Protestants into the corner of that culture and many feel they are finally stepping out as an active voice against secularism. For many Protestants, radical changes in the past inspire hope that soon a new revival will occur within the film industry and that family friendly, Christian based films will one become the norm.[4]

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Protestant Influence on Television Censorship Regulation

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).

Protestant Influence on Television Censorship Regulation
By Mary Jane Leveline

“There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.”
~Mark Twain

mjl001No matter how much we try to deny it, the lure of the forbidden fruit, regardless of what it is, causes controversy, if not within ourselves, within some sanction of society. This is especially true in the United States where Protestant values are permeated throughout the fabric of our origins as a nation. Scripture governed morality warns of the fall of man if given over to unbridled desires. Prowling like a lion in search of fresh prey is sin after man. These beliefs have led to a governing society with arms that reach into the entertainment industry through censorship and regulation.

Censorship Defined

mjl002Let’s begin by defining censorship so that we can see the relationship that Protestant values lend. Censorship, as defined by the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU), “is the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.”

Censorship Committees and Support

The Federal Communications Committee (FCC) was established to regulate the airwaves. In the 1950’s television came under scrutiny of the FCC as appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt in the attempt to limit socially harmful conduct caused by people’s exposure to sexually explicit or violent material, and to prevent children’s exposure to a variety of material that may harm them. This came about during a time in our nation’s history where Protestant values were the moral norm. This new medium began pushing the boundaries of moral acceptability. The mainstream Protestant groups used their influence to shape the regulations regarding what was allowable to be viewed over the airwaves and enter the American home.

The Voice Behind Censorship

mjl003As Heather Hendershot puts it well “the difference between censorship and regulation is tightly bound up in the ideological process of constructing nationalism and patriotism”. Nielson ratings became a measuring stick for family television that consisted of white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant families.   As the fabric of the United States changed spurred by the 1960’s, so did Americans’ views on where they stood in light of their religious views and affiliations. Gone were the days of Protestant dominance as new ideas about religion and ideologies began to gain ground.

The Beavis and Butt-head Experience

mjl004Religious organizations have supported the FCC in its efforts to keep the airwaves clean. Focus on the Family’s Dr. James Dobson, a prominent Protestant vocalist, has been a strong advocate for quality censorship. Dobson’s fears are that television violence will shape the behavior of American children. The show that created this alarm was the animated program “Beavis and Butthead”; a show that targeted adolescent youth. If you have not seen it, I am sure you have at least heard of it. The adolescences depicted are sarcastic rebellious teens that show no initiative to participate in anything that isn’t self-gratifying. They are lazy, disrespectful, and engage in self-deprecating and dangerous stunts. From the Protestant perspective, their antics go against everything that defines a morally upstanding, socially conscious American. By continuing to push back against the growing liberal influence in media, groups associated with the Religious Right work to keep America as the ‘city on a hill’.

Pushing the Envelope

mjl005Before Focus on the Family and other conservatives brought Beavis and, his faithful counterpart, Butthead, to the forefront, television has been regulated for offenses that are now considered mainstream acceptance. Examples of this start with Sylvester and Tweety in the Saturday morning cartoons in the 1942 episode “The Tale of Two Kitties”. Tweety is considered to be ‘too naked’ as he was originally drawn without feathers. The creator, Bob Clampett, counters the criticism by writing in to the script sarcastic comments against the Hays office of the censorship bureau.

Religious Consults

The timeline continues on with shows like “I Love Lucy” when the word “pregnant” can’t be used on air in 1952. After talking to religious authorities from the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths it was agreed upon that the word ‘pregnancy’ could be used in a sit com. The Judeo-Christian leadership consults show the powerful impact that religious moral views still held in American culture.


“A Really Great Show” Gets “All Shook Up”

mjl008“The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956 quickly focuses in on a close up of Elvis’ face when the infamous pelvic gyrations begin to go into full swing; all in hopes of not over stimulating the American viewers watching. By 1966 the censors are still doing their jobs of caring for the moral high ground of the viewer as belly buttons are covered in daily serials like “Gilligan’s Island”, “I Dream of Jeannie”, “Star Trek”, and others.

Pushing Back Against the Protestant Views of Morality

The Civil Rights Movement and the Sexual Revolution start breaking down the Protestant influence in the United States. Television is not immune. The ideology of individualism and the growing cultural influences take a stronger foothold. Lines become crossed with lessened resistance by the mainline churches who held the political power to push back. The evangelical churches were too weak to have the influence needed during this tumultuous time of change in our country’s history. This is the time when the slopes becomes very slippery for the Protestant foothold in many aspects of the American culture.

Reining It In

In efforts to accommodate a growing medium, regulators worked with networks to create schedules that would take into account the viewing audience. Still recognizing the pressure from Protestant values that are engrained in the society, Family viewing hours were developed to promote viewing that contained values that a family could sit down and watch together in 1975. Prime time was considered 8:00 p.m. hour. Shows that had more adult content were viewed in a later time slot after the children had been put to bed.   Saturday morning viewing became time for young children to watch television safely with cartoons, puppets, and animals adventures scheduled in those viewing slots. These efforts continue to reinforce family values and moral codes on America’s airwaves. Depending on the time of the viewing gave parents the sense of what was considered allowable viewing for their children. This policy was overturned in 1977 and the family hour ended though many networks still honor the prime time slot as family viewing and hold to the practice. The fact that family viewing hours were established shows the Protestant’s lessening influence on the medium as a whole.

What’s All the Fuss?

mjl009In today’s world the ideas of seeing a bared naval, hearing a toilet flush, even viewing the inside of a bathroom, or watching lovers roll in the sheets on television doesn’t seem a reason to pause. Alfred Schneider, a thirty year veteran of TV censorship, chronicles the battles between networks and the censorship bureau as to what can be viewed, how it can be viewed, and when it can be viewed. In days past you never heard a toilet flush, or even saw the inside of a bathroom. The Dick Van Dyke Show is still the iconic show used to depict the non-sexual relationship of spouses by creating separate bedrooms for each. We now view commercials that are more explicit than what would ever be considered from the 1940’s through the 1970’s where Victoria’s Secret would still be kept.


mjl010Some would wonder after researching censorship since television’s migration if there is still a need for regulation and censorship from the FCC? Times continue to change! With the onslaught of cable channels, public television, and other non-regulated venues, the regulations for the broadcasting companies under the FCC rule has loosened considerably. Today it is common to view increasing sex and violence on television. Research continues to study the effects of television violence and promiscuity on society. Results are dependent on the group originating the study as to societal impact. In an effort to regulate and inform concerned viewers of content a Television Ratings Guide.

Repercussions and Relevance

mjl011What happens when the content violates the laws? Fines! Large ones! Remember the 2004 “wardrobe malfunction” during Super Bowl XXXVIII? That blunder cost the network a fortune. The FCC fines were $550,000. It didn’t stop there. The NFL had to reimburse $10 million in sponsor refunds. The network was also out the time it took to deal with over 500,000 viewer complaints. These numbers reflect the relevance that the FCC still holds in protecting American values. This view is not to be an advocate of the FCC or be its opponent. It is to merely show the relevance that the organization holds in the American culture based on the Protestant values during the founding of the United States. This is reflective in the ideology that America considers herself a leader in policing morality.

That’s a Wrap

mjl012Television has gone from censoring animated naked birds (Tweety), pregnant stars of leading serials (Lucille Ball), married couples sleeping arrangements (The Dick Van Dyke Show), belly buttons (I Dream of Jeannie), terminology from ‘water closet’s’ (Jack Par) to the ‘seven dirty words’ (George Carlin), conservative Americans have exercised their Protestant values in trying to protect morality on television. The evolution of television has created great strains on both sides of the fence. The conservatives have had to release some of the tight reigns with the liberal push for freedom of speech and expression, the development of cable and public television stations that are under different regulatory laws, and the loss of dominant political power that they once held. As the conservative Protestant power continues to be challenged by the growing liberal world view the evolution of television has gradually pushed the envelope where censorship is concerned. The law of diminishing returns leads to the conclusion that censorship and regulation will never be able to restrict to the level of the early FCC. As long as there are liberals and conservatives, there will be a need for a regulatory source that will continue to evolve to try to accommodate that balance between demand and democracy.

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Televangelists and the Persuasive Tactics They Use to Recover from Scandals

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).

Televangelists and the Persuasive Tactics They Use to Recover from Scandals
By Cheyenne Woodall

Many people wonder what exactly makes Televangelism successful over other religious programs. The answer is simple; they use specific persuasive tactics to attract their audience and keep their interest by appealing to their wants and needs. But some may ask, what happens when there are scandals involving televangelists? Does this affect their audience base? How must they (televangelists) handle the repercussions of their actions? The televangelists must handle their situations very carefully in order to please their audience and to not push them away to the point where they lose viewers. Two televangelists that have been in a scandal or two, throughout their careers are Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. Both of these men handled their situation in similar ways but there were still some differences. The commonality between all televangelists, including Swaggart and Bakker, is their goal to spread the word of God to all people. For the purpose of this essay, only the element of persuasive tactics Swaggart and Bakker use to influence their audience will be analyzed. Overall, it is apparent that in order to come back from a “scandal”, televangelists must be very effective at using persuasive tactics to retain their viewer’s trust and to continue being successful.

Basics of Televangelism

A basic understanding of what televangelism is and how it is differs from tactics used by different churches is essential to understand. Televangelism is a form of television religious advertising that differs from mainline denominations in a couple ways but all groups do have some similarities. Both mainline and televangelists see the purpose of religious broadcasting to be to recruit converts but they are different in the ways in which they recruit these followers. According to Schmidt and Kess, televangelists differ from the mainline in the belief that they see media as “God’s provision of the means by which to carry out His Will.” (36) They also believe that every person should be able to hear the gospel, which makes television a very helpful tool in spreading this message. Another way Schmidt and Kess found that broadcasting televangelism and mainline churches differ is in the fact that televangelists must pay for their broadcasting time, while “television stations have traditionally donated the time used by these other denominations.” Since televangelists do not receive outside support and depend mainly on their viewers, it is very important to handle scandals appropriately so viewers are not lost.

Televangelist broadcasting has certain characteristics that make it different from other shows that are commonly watched. The shows have commonly been described as being generally fast-paced and highly entertaining. Schmidt and Kess characterize the broadcasts to be divided into a series of short segments, which include “songs, a variety of speakers, interviews, film clips, and in most cases, also a sermon.” Having fast-paced and entertaining aspects to the television broadcast are important because if the show cannot keep the attention of their audience, they will not be successful in getting support (funding) from their viewers. Kennedy captured the necessity of donations by the audience when he reported that, “A half-hour of television on cable network can cost more than $11,000, which is more than the Christian education budget for an entire year for many American churches.”

Persuasive Tactics

Throughout much research, there has been three common persuasive tactics that can be found in many sermons of televangelists. Those three tactics are manipulative persuasion, names as mini-advertisements, and saying things indirectly. Each of these tactics has helped televangelists be successful in receiving funding from their audience as well as sharing their message with the world.

Schmidt and Kess summarize the definition of manipulative persuasion as a frequent repetition of a name or product in order to get the audience to remember what the speaker is trying to get across. From analyzing telecasts, Schmidt and Kess found that most of the manipulative persuasion took place in sermons in order to get the audience to remember the names of who is being spoken about or the preacher themselves. By repeating the televangelists name multiple times, it will help the audience recognize the name within society and may influence their choice by unconsciously reflecting on what the preacher had said before. This is also a way to “brand” the televangelist and their broadcast.

Televangelists often use names as mini-advertisements in order to help spread the names of their greatest financial contributors. This tactic not only keeps the contributors happy but also gives them the opportunity to gain more customers from the televangelists spreading awareness of their company. As they gain more customers, they will be willing to donate more towards the televangelist.

The last tactic that will be analyzed is saying things indirectly. Schmidt and Kess describe this tactic as “conveying information that must be interpreted through processes of convention or conversational implicate.” An example of this could be when a televangelist uses specific word choice that could have multiple meanings and the audience is forced to decipher the meaning, which may influence their choices in the outside world. This tactic also helps the televangelist to be persuasive without coming right out to the public and saying it straightforward on topics that may be viewed as controversial by some.

Jim Bakker

Jim_BakkerThe first televangelist who will be analyzed is Jim Bakker. Bakker is the founder of the first Christian talk show “The 700 Club”. He then founded the Trinity Broadcasting Network, which according to the jimbakkershowwebsite, “still beams around the world with 24-hour a day Christian programming.” After this accomplishment Jim Bakkerhelped create The PTL Club, The Inspirational Network, and Heritage USA.

In 1987 Bakker resigned as President of The PTL Club because of a scandal that was brought to light by the public. The scandal consisted of an affair with a woman in which Bakker attempted to pay the woman $265,000 to conceal the actions. The funding for this cover-up was said to come from “lifetime resort partnerships, “ and of course these funds were not supposed to be used for those purposes. As a result, Bakker was sentenced to 45 years in prison. Bakker only served five years of the sentenced years because his case was overturned and dismissed.

In order to handle the backlash of the situation, Bakker issued a public apology towards the mistress and his viewers. In his apology he stated that “It was a terrible mistake and I believe Christ has forgiven me.” When acknowledging the monies from the funds had been paid to the woman, Bakker said that he was not aware that any money had been set aside and he learned about it after his loved ones did what they could to protect the ministries name and Bakker himself.

While Bakker was in prison he wrote multiple books, which consist of “I Was Wrong”, “The Refuge”, “Prosperity and The coming Apocalypse” and “Time Has Come.”The overall theme of these books is one of “grace and total restoration.” Bakker is not afraid to speak of his past and try to help others going through similar struggles that he may have. Bakker promotes the idea of the “redemptive power of love” and believes if God is able to restore Bakker and his wife’s lives then God can do the same for anyone.

Bakker is currently preaching on The Jim Bakker Show, which is a daily broadcast that reaches audiences in the United States and Canada through Direct TV, Dish Network and other satellite providers. The fact that Bakker is still able to have an audience to broadcast to after his scandal shows that his public apologies and books had effective persuasive skills that kept parts of his audience still interested in his message. Kennedy reported that even though “the scandals took their toll on the televangelist audience and donor support, there has been a gradual recovery.” This gradual recovery is portrayed with Bakker’s current broadcast.

When reflecting on the previous persuasive tactics mentioned before, it is clear that two are embraced by Jim Bakker since his current telecast is named after himself; The Jim Bakker Show. The two tacticsused are names as mini-advertisements and manipulative persuasion. The example is a mixture of the two strategies because he uses his name as a recognizable characteristic that could catch his audience’s attention within society and it is repeated multiple times, which makes it a form of manipulative persuasion as well.

Jimmy Swaggart

jimmy_swaggart2Jimmy Swaggart is another televangelist who has had a scandal and found a way to recover from the situation so he would not loose all of his followers. In the prime of his broadcasting days, Swaggart’s programming was “transmitted to over 3,000 stations and innumerable cable systems each week.” His telecasts were also seen by 500 million people worldwide, which made it the most widespread preaching of the Gospel.

Swaggart’s scandal is similar to Bakker’s in that it involves sexual scandal and a public apology. The difference between the two televangelist’s situations is how Swaggart addressed his apology. As a result of his infidelity to his wife, the Assemblies of God directed him to stop preaching for a year but he defied this order and returned to the airwaves for his apology. Instead of aiming his apology towards the audience as Bakker did, Swaggart made his directly towards his wife. He was “tearfully begging forgiveness from his wife,” reported Kennedy.

Instead of dwelling on his past mistakes, Swaggart sings of God’s mercy on his weekly telecast. This telecast is seen “nationwide and abroad on over 78 channels in 104 countries and live over the internet.” Swaggart’s apology contained specific persuasive skills that were very effective in order to retain most of his audience during his scandal.

When Swaggart appeared on the air, crying and begging for his wife’s forgiveness, this is an example of the persuasive tactic of “saying things indirectly.” Swaggarts actions are an example of this tactic because he is trying to convince the audience that he is truly sorry without publicly addressing just the audience about his actions. If Swaggart wanted to only address his wife and apologize to her only, he could have apologized in private with just his wife and no one else observing. His actions show that he acknowledged that this scandal could be detrimental to his number of viewers so he took action in order to try to keep their views.

American Society and Televangelism

From analyzing the actions taken by Swaggart and Bakker to appeal to their audiences after their indiscretions, it is clear that these televangelists understand the wants and needs of their viewers. Since both of these men were able to come back after such scandals and still have a following base to continue production, it is clear that the protestant ideals of forgiveness are very strong. The importance of the protestant belief in forgiveness is found within Martin Marty’s creencias. The creencias are deeply held protestant beliefs thatinfluenced the way Protestants shaped and continue to shape America. Both Swaggart and Bakker knew that in order to keep their funding from their audience, they had to publicly apologize for their actions, even though they did not directly affect the viewers. If their following base did not have these strong protestant ideals of forgiveness, then these televangelists may not have been able to come back and continue broadcasting. With the help of manipulative persuasion, names as mini-advertisements, and saying things indirectly, Swaggart and Bakker were able to continue receivingfunding from their audience, which led to a recovery with minimal amount of damage to their audience base.

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JFK assassination anniversary: What the…?

So the anniversary of JFK’s assassination has finally passed—I presume it’s passed, anyway. Surely not even the 24-hour cable news networks can milk anything more out of this, can they?

I found this anniversary a puzzling exercise in civil religion. I heard on the radio that the President declared it an “official day of remembrance,” meaning that flags were supposed to be at half mast. Um… why? Of all the tragic events that have happened over the course of American history, why did this one rise to the level of needing to be officially remembered a half century after it happened? What interests are served by the memorializing of this particular tragedy?

Is this a baby boomer thing—people in my parents’ generation reliving their “Where you when you heard…” moments? Will my generation similarly want to commemorate, let’s say, the Challenger disaster a couple decades from now?

Does this anniversary reveal the intensity of charisma that Americans invest into the presidency: is that the reason a presidential assassination rises to the level of requiring a 50-year anniversary commemoration? If that’s the case, though—was Lincoln’s assassination so memorialized? What about Garfield’s? Or McKinley’s?

Is JFK the Democrats’ Ronald Reagan? That is: Did our current Democratic president want the country to commemorate JFK’s assassination in order to ensure a past Democratic president’s high standing in the American pantheon, much as Republicans do when they name things after Reagan?

To what extent was this act of civil religion driven by the news media’s fascination with the JFK assassination—which in turn was driven to a considerable degree, I’ll maintain, by both sensationalism and convenience? The networks had plenty of footage of the tragedy to work with, so it was a broadcast-friendly story; there were conspiracy theories to be discussed, magnifying public interest; and contemporary figures like Lee Harvey Oswald’s widow are still around to try to hit up for interviews. So: Did the JFK assassination become an event that seemed to call for some kind of solemn remembrance because media outlets had decided to give a lot of airtime to it for less solemn reasons?

Is the JFK commemoration part of a larger trend right now toward finding things in American history to commemorate? We just finished commemorating the Gettysburg address. Before that, the “I Have a Dream” speech. Are these commemorations being driven by a kind of cultural malaise—anxiety about how polarized the country is right now, a groping for things that can bring us all together?

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God in America: Of God and Caesar

v07739acrasLast spring, I began posting reviews of the 6-episode Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America. I realized recently that I never reviewed episode 6, “Of God and Caesar.” So let’s do it:

Summary: Unlike most other episodes, this one doesn’t divide neatly into “acts.” But the general storyline is this: In the wake of the 1960s, conservative evangelicals become politically mobilized: Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, George W. Bush. At the same time, though, the religious landscape is becoming more diverse: Hindus, Muslims, Latinos–both Catholic and evangelical. More Americans are religiously unaffiliated or “spiritual, not religious.” A new generation of evangelicals is paying more attention to the environment, AIDS, and poverty. There’s disillusion in the evangelical right–did we sell our souls for political gain? Meanwhile, Democrats are discovering God and reaching out to values voters, which brings us up to Obama.

Over a hopeful soundtrack, the documentary wraps everything up with Stephen Prothero saying that Americans continue to value the notion that they’re a special people with a special connection to God, but what that means and who’s included are still subjects of ongoing debate.

Likes: This episode covers topics that I include in the final, post-1960s, unit of my introductory American religious history survey: Hindus and Buddhists, Muslims, Latinos, and the culture wars. Since my life is contemporary with the emergence and development of the religious right, I suspect that I assume students know more about that movement and its history than they do; this episode gives a reasonably nuanced overview. The documentary-makers had plenty of footage to work with, of course, including clips of Francis Schaeffer’s films, which I’ve read about but never seen–that was interesting. Players in the religious right appear as talking heads: Pat Robertson, Ed Dobson, Frank Schaeffer, Richard Cizik.

Dislikes: Apart from a nod to Catholics as the originators of American anti-abortion activism and the final presentation of Obama as reaching out to some nebulous group called “values voters,” religion in politics is portrayed in this episode as basically synonymous with evangelical activism, as represented by Francis Schaeffer, Moral Majority, and the Christian Coalition more specifically. Granted that the evangelical right stands at the center of “culture war” conservatism. Nevertheless, I favor in my teaching Robert Wuthnow’s model of a conservative-liberal divide that cuts across the entire religious landscape, resulting in the formation of new interreligious coalitions on both sides of the line–and pressing some religious groups to awkwardly straddle the faultline. Examples: Catholics pursuing a politics based on the “seamless web of life,” which doesn’t transpose well into the categories of “liberal” and “conservative” as conventionally used in American politics today; or socially conservative Muslims who agree with conservative evangelicals on many issues but are alienated by “Christian America” rhetoric and evangelical Islamophobia.

Basically, I want students to understand that “conservative-liberal” has become a very important axis for understanding American religion today, but I don’t want them thinking just “evangelical” when they think “conservative,” a tendency that this documentary would reinforce.

In the final moments of the documentary, Prothero says: This moment in American religious life is about pluralism. We’re making the space bigger, extending the sacred canopy over more people. But we don’t have a narrative for this yet. Will we come up with one? What’s the story going to be? To Prothero and the makers of this documentary, I would say: Certainly God in America doesn’t give us that new, pluralistic story; it’s good that you appear to recognize that. May I (bitchily) suggest that part of the reason we don’t have a new narrative yet is that documentaries like this one continue to place Protestants at the center of the story, with other religious groups, when they appear, orbiting around the Protestants? If you want a narrative about religious pluralism in America, then a more radical decentering is needed than anyone involved in this project was evidently willing to hazard or creative enough to imagine.

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The 707

So, back during the first week of school, I’m walking to my office, and someone passing out little business card-sized promotional flyers hands me this:

Friday, September 20, 2013

Upon first glance, I see “PSY 125” and think this must be an unusually elaborate attempt by a professor to get last-minute enrollments into their class. Then I see “follow Jesus” and think: Oh… This is one of those emerging-churchy, “look, we’re evangelical but cool” kind of student groups.

I finally got a chance today to visit the group’s Facebook page, out of curiosity. A few random observations:


1. This is their Facebook cover photo. Let’s think about the iconography of gender and race. Notice that the group, as represented here, is mostly female–standard for American religion. Notice that their non-white member is literally foregrounded. And notice that while the women are cheerfully but modestly smiling, the two men (I think the one farthest to the left is a man) are doing that wide-mouthed, aggressive “Hooah!” to show that, yes, they’re Christian but they’re still bad-ass dudes. Muscular Christianity with a Jackass twist.

2. The group is associated with The Bridge Church, led by “Pastor Chad.” (I realize it’s just Episcopal-snooty of me to consider “Mother Lisa” a perfectly normal form of address while finding “Pastor Chad” affected.) The Bridge Church informs visitors to its website that “The Bridge is a Baptist Church but do not hold that against us.” An intriguing rhetorical move. Discuss.

3. After reading the above, I was intrigued to take a gander at their statement of faith–which I had to download, evidently because members are supposed to sign it, witnessed by the pastor. Huh. So that’s what the Baptist tradition of “soul liberty” looks like in practice. Two lines into the document, I realized this thing had been written during the 18th or 19th century, which surprised me: I had expected to see a contemporary-language statement of faith given the hip-contemporary tenor of the website.

I don’t know enough about Baptist history to recognize the statement, so I Googled the opening lines and found copies on a lot of Baptist churches’ websites. It took me a few minutes to hunt down the statement’s historical origin, though, because the statement usually appears on these websites without any identification. Eventually I found people referring to it as the  “New Hampshire Confession” and dating it to the early 1830s. Question: It’s possible that most websites present the confession without identifying its historical origins because the webmasters just aren’t as historically minded as I am. But am I reading too much into things if I propose that a lot of the folks who embrace this confession may not even think of it as having a historical origin, or may regard its historical origin as entirely irrelevant, because they think of the statement as expressing timeless truths?

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Reza unchained

On Monday, I participated in a panel discussion with some other faculty from my department about Reza Aslan’s Fox News interview. Part of my comments were directed toward putting Aslan’s book in a broader context of American religious minorities writing about Jesus (as described in Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus). But here’s what I had to say about the interview itself.

I was surprised by how quickly Aslan became defensive when asked why he, as a Muslim, was interested in writing about Jesus. Granted that Green’s intentions proved “confrontational,” certainly, if not “hostile,” and probably Aslan went in expecting that. But he could have handled the question differently. Rather than responding as if it were an attack (even if that’s what it was), he could have treated the question as a softball pitch allowing him to dive right into explaining his fascination with understanding the historical Jesus, just as he does it in the introduction to his book. Certainly, after all, the novelty of a Muslim writing a “historical Jesus” trade book is part of what makes his book stand out from the many other extant instances of the genre. So why not play that up to advantage? Why not acknowledge, and embrace, the “Huh, interesting,” factor–rather than responding to it immediately as an attack?

My answer to that question is this: Aslan does not want to be pegged as a Muslim writing about the historical Jesus because he rests his authority for writing the book on a claim that he has advanced beyond religious bias or investment. Repeatedly in the interview, Aslan insists that he is “a scholar.” Not “a Muslim scholar.” Just “a scholar.” The subtext (or one subtext, anyway) of that insistence becomes clearer when you read the intro to his book. There the narrative he presents for himself is this:

When Aslan was 15 years old, he became a born-again evangelical. Then he went to college, where in the process of preparing himself to defend the Bible from “the doubts of unbelievers,” he was dismayed to discover that “the Jesus of the gospels” and “the Jesus of history” are not the same. He lost faith in biblical inerrancy. He felt that evangelical Christianity was “a costly forgery [he] had been duped into buying.” And from there he made his way back to appreciation for Islam. But the crucial conversion here, for the purposes of the book, isn’t Christian to Muslim. It’s–his words–the conversion from “unquestioning believer” to “inquisitive scholar.” From someone “chained to the assumption that stories I read were literally true” to someone who could discern “a more meaningful truth in the text, a truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history.” Having been liberated–unchained–from the dogmatism represented by evangelical Christianity, Aslan has encountered, through scholarship, the truth about who Jesus was. And now Aslan is an evangelist for that truth: “My hope with this book is to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of Christ.”

Hence Aslan’s defensiveness about his book being characterized as a Muslim perspective on Jesus. Aslan doesn’t see his book as providing “a perspective” on Jesus. He is, rather, using scholarly methods to tell the truth about Jesus–as distinct from the invested “perspectives” of religious believers. This, of course, is a naive understanding of how scholarship works. I would like, generously, to think that Aslan is “dumbing things down” for a trade audience. But I suspect he isn’t: his autobiographical intro suggests he really has converted to a kind of Enlightenment liberalism in which he sees himself as a person who has escaped dogma and now applies rational methods to discern how things simply, truly are. He was defending that self-perception in the Fox News interview: Don’t come quoting criticisms of my work raised by evangelicals. I’m a scholar.

That’s part of what’s happening in that interview, anyway. It’s what’s happening when Green quotes William Lane Craig and references unnamed Christian scholars she’s had on her show in the past who defend the historicity of the Resurrection.  An entirely different line of criticism is deployed when Green cites John Dickerson’s reading of Aslan’s book as the latest instance of a centuries-old Muslim apologetic against the divinity of Jesus. Aslan is right to poke giant holes in Dickerson’s misreading of his work. Aslan is not writing in a tradition of Islamic skepticism about Christianity. He’s writing in a tradition of Enlightenment skepticism about Christianity.

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