King's Evangelical Divinity School

1 May 2010


With a looming major validation event and a couple of publication deadlines this month, I've not beeen a very good blogger of late. Apologies for that. That said, one of the things I've been asked to write for a forthcoming dictionary-type academic publication on Pentecostalism was a short essay on televangelism, which I just finished. I thought this might be of interest, so I'm posting the pre-edited version below. Hope you find it useful.

Televangelism, by Calvin L. Smith

While not an exclusively Pentecostal phenomenon (for example, the Catholic priest Charles Coughlin’s weekly radio broadcasts in the 1930s reached audiences of millions, while more recently Jerry Falwell and Robert Schuller are firmly outside the movement), nonetheless from the outset Pentecostal preachers were quick to recognise the opportunities religious broadcasting offered. Clearly, there are doctrinal reasons for this. Already strongly conversionist by virtue of its revivalist roots, early classical Pentecostalism’s eschatological interpretation of its pneumatology and pneumapraxis, associating the movement’s inauguration with the ‘last days’, contributed considerably to a sense of evangelistic urgency. Thus, it was a logical step for revivalist Pentecostal preachers such as Oral Roberts and Aimee Semple McPherson to exploit radio in order to reach wider audiences than could be accommodated in buildings or tent meetings. Likewise, with the arrival of television Pentecostals quickly embraced the new medium, so that even by the early 1950s Rex Humbard, one of the pioneers of televangelism (a term coined by Jeffrey Hadden and Charles Swann, 1981), was broadcasting church services weekly, while just a few years later Oral Roberts had developed the infrastructure necessary to reach most of the U.S. television audience.

To this driving evangelistic motivation we might add other explanations why Pentecostalism has embraced wholeheartedly, and indeed monopolized, the electronic media. Given the association between old-style Pentecostalism and a culture of orality religious broadcasting has proved attractive to the Pentecostal masses. More generally, sociologist Steve Bruce argues that televangelism is conducive to conservative and fundamentalist expressions of Protestantism (including Pentecostalism) which eschew liturgy in favour of ‘hearing the Word’. Bruce also highlights the entrepreneurial drive exhibited by Pentecostal ministers and organizations, contributing to Pentecostal televangelists’ success (1990). It may also be argued that Pentecostalism’s belief in the miraculous is prime territory for exploitation by what televangelism commentator Quentin Schultze refers to as the “new sorcery” where the televangelists’ showmanship, entertainment and miracle-working is directly compared with the slick “snake oil” salesmen and quacks of yesteryear (1991). Aside from this focus on healing and the miraculous, the medium’s unashamed culture of soliciting donations from viewers lends itself particularly effectively to the dissemination of that other component of the so-called health and wealth gospel: prosperity.

From its very inception televangelism and money have been inseparable bedfellows. Bruce details how in 1961 Pat Robertson purchased a defunct UHF television station and raised finances for a single broadcast just long enough to solicit further donations. Later, Robertson’s telethon requesting 700 people pledge ten dollars a month to cover ongoing broadcasting costs gave rise to his famous 700 Club talk show, hosted by Jim Bakker (1990, 38-39). Bakker, of course, who later left Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and eventually formed his own PTL network, was at the centre of one of the first major televangelist scandals. Initially a sex scandal which forced Bakker to ask Jerry Falwell to act as caretaker of his network until he was seen by the public to have undergone a suitable period of penance and restoration, financial irregularities and details of extravagant expenditure subsequently emerged which shocked U.S. Pentecostals and ultimately resulted in Bakker serving time in prison.

Away from the financial irregularities and opulent lifestyles associated with some of the better-known televangelists, scandals have not been limited to the financial sphere. Sexual scandals have also periodically made the news, which is all the more poignant given the fundamentalist moralising and celebrity status of some televangelists in question. A notable example was the downfall and unforgettable televised confession of the Pentecostal televangelist Jimmy Swaggart for his involvement with a prostitute. Swaggart, of course, was well-known for aggressively promoting a strict and ascetic moral lifestyle in his regular broadcasts.

Yet although televangelism invariably evokes scandal in most people’s minds, there are other important issues the medium raises. Not least among these is the second word of the portmanteau “televangelism”. Thus, despite a clear market demand for religious broadcasting (as evidenced by a plethora of programmes, channels and networks expanding worldwide), the evidence is that, ironically, the medium actually wins very few converts and is completely ineffective as an evangelistic tool. Instead religious broadcasting is primarily aimed at and viewed by Christians, so that together with talk shows and church services, U.S. Christian networks such as CBN broadcast family-orientated secular programming as a wholesome alternative to television’s normal fare. Arguably, then, televangelism contributes to a sectarian mindset and separation from the world. Meanwhile, the Christian networks such as CBN and Trinity Broadcasting Network exercise an important hegemonic role, providing (but also controlling) broadcasting outlets for individual ministries and televangelists across the U.S.

Another important issue is the social and political impact of televangelism. The cult of celebrity can directly contribute to enhancing a televangelist’s public profile and political aspirations. More importantly, though, is how ownership of a television channel or network can provide a powerbase and important launch pad for political activity. For example, Pat Robertson famously sought to garner support for the Contras waging a civil war against the leftist Sandinistas in revolutionary Nicaragua. He also sought the Republican Party nomination for the 1988 presidential election. More recently, John Hagee’s strong Christian Zionism (a position which, until recently, commanded considerable sympathy among classical Pentecostals) has keenly sought to mobilize support for the modern State of Israel, even seeking to bring pressure to bear on successive Washington administrations to back the Jewish state (though the extent to which his activity has actually directly contributed to U.S. foreign policy is open to debate and challenged by some political observers).

What of televangelism’s social impact? Focusing on different expressions of Pentecostalism represented by three highly successful Black televangelists (T.D. Jakes, Eddie Long and Creflo Dollar), Jonathan Walton (2009) explores the extent to which Black televangelism serves as a role model for African Americans and whether it reinforces cultural myths and anaesthetizes viewers against the need for structural change. Whether or not readers agree with Walton’s analysis, nonetheless his academic treatment demonstrates the need for further study into televangelism’s social and cultural impact.

So far, this brief paper has focused primarily on televangelism in the U.S., and with good reason. For example, focusing on the British milieu William Kay discusses how relaxed regulations in North America helped ensure religious broadcasting developed more widely, freely and powerfully, compared with the United Kingdom where a much more regulated broadcasting industry severely curbed the rise of televangelism until recent years (2009). Even with the advent of satellite television and the deregulation of broadcasting, the negative portrayals of U.S. televangelism resulted in strict rules concerning solicitation of donations (though this situation is now beginning to change). Elsewhere across the world, televangelism is a growing – and predominantly Pentecostal – phenomenon. In some regions such as Latin America, where the last three or so decades have witnessed an explosion of Pentecostalism, use of the electronic media has been widespread for some years (for example, the preacher Luis Palau has broadcast across the continent for decades). Significantly, Latin American Pentecostals are increasingly exhibiting a strong preference for local rather than North American programming. Nonetheless, despite the recent explosion of televangelism across the globe, North American religious broadcasting represents a powerful player and important trendsetter within the medium.

Further Reading

Bruce, Steve. 1990. Pray TV: Televangelism in America. London: Routledge.

Kay, William K. 2009. ‘Pentecostalism and religious broadcasting’ in Journal of Beliefs and Values 30.3, 245-254

Hadden, Jeffrey K. and Charles E. Swann. 1981. Prime time preachers: The rising power of televangelism. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Schultze, Quentin. 1991. Televangelism and American culture: The business of popular religion. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Walton, Jonathan L. 2009. Watch this! The ethics and aesthetics of Black televangelism. New York: New York University Press


Stuart said...

Fabulous piece Calvin, best article I've read on this subject, which is astonishing given the brevity, thank you.

Is this one open to be cross-posted?

Calvin L. Smith said...

Thanks for the kind words, Stuart. Most gracious and encouraging. Unfortunately this is one of those rare instances where, because it will eventually appear in a book for which I've signed a contract, I'm pretty sure the pre-edited version can only appear on my personal website and institutional website(that's the standard practice). Very sorry about this, as given your comments I'd like more people to know about it. There is nothing though to stop you referring to/commenting on the article and then linking to my site.

Stuart said...

No problem at all, completely understand. I'll do a brief intro with link pointing here.

Adam said...

Good post. Thanks.