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Pray TV; religious television is here to stay, so let's get it right.

Pray TV

In the spring of 1986, PTL needed cash desperately. The television ministry had built up an $8.4 million debt to the builder of its Christian amusement park, Heritage USA. Jim Bakker figured that he needed to do something fast, so he decided to hold a telethon to raise at least $1 million for the builder. He made this decision on a feeling, a feeling of faith.

"Well, Lord, I know I felt faith," said Bakker to God and then to his studio audience. He explained to his followers that the Lord seemed to speak in his heart, saying, "Well, you're on television all day; just mention it to the satellite people, the need, and do the special that you were doing with the studio audience all week long, to be able to raise that million dollars."

The special offeer was a steal: for $1,000, Bakker offered his viewers a package of lodging and free recreation that had once cost $3,000. PTL's audience grabbed at the deal and contributed $16.6 million in just 12 days. There was only one problem, and it had religious overtones: There was no room at the inn. Jim Bakker is now serving a prison sentence for fraud.

What is it about television that allows, or perhaps even encourages, a television minister like Jim Bakker to succeed? In Forgiven, * Charles Shepard describes Bakker's appeal, revealing his gift "for making his TV audience feel what he felt--or seemed to be feeling."

Bakker was not the first religious leader to tap the power of television, and he will not be the last. Fulton Sheen and Martin Luther King used TV well before Bakker, and both Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson are trying to reach out through the medium today. But Robertson and Jackson will probably fail, despite their charisma. They may share Bakker's ability to grab viewers emotionally, but their messages come from extemes in the Judeo-Christian tradition: Robertson most recalls Abraham, emphasizing the obligations religion imposes on its believers, while Jackson seems determined to be a modern Moses, emphasizing the liberation it promises them.

Both obligation and liberation are essential elements of religious life, but neither should be emphasized at the expense of the other. Unless a television minister comes along who can see the value of being both an Abraham and a Moses, religious leaers on TV will continue to be viewed by most Americans as extremists, charlatans, or fools.

Preacher features

It wasn't always this way. After 20 years of broadcasting the "Catholic Hour" over radio, Bishop Fulton Sheen broke into television in the early 1950s with his series "Life is Worth Living." The title of the program captured the optimism of the fifties perfectly: Life was worth living, especially for Americans in a time of unparalleled prosperity. Sheen's talks on subjects such as war, Stalin, psychiatry, and God's sense of humor were extremely popular, and his shown won an Emmy in 1952. Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and many nonreligious people watched the show; at its peak it was carried by ABC on 170 stations in the U.S. and 17 in Canada. If the Roman Catholic Church had not become nervous about the bishop's celebrity status and pulled him off the air in 1957, he might have continued broadcasting through the sixties.

Catholics were not alone in being suspicious of the power of television. The Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr felt that TV was nothing less than a peril to culture. After viewing Nixon's Checkers speech, he wrote that the vice-presidential candidate's "tear-jerking account of his personal history, involving his devoted wife, charming children, and even the family dog [was a] great show," but "what becomes of every rule of logic and reason in the proceeding?"

When Billy Graham's crusade came to New York in 1957, Reinhold Niebuhr became angry. All the "high-pressure techniques of modern salesmanship" and the "arts of the Madison Avenue crowd" were pressed into service, according to Niebuhr, who described Graham's evangelism as having "a blandness which befits the Eisenhower era." The alliance between revivalism and Madison Avenue troubled Niebuhr, because he saw popular religion beginning to copy the secular world's frantic pursuit of success.

Martin Luther King Jr. used television well, making the most of network coverage as he fought for civil rights through civil disobedience. After the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, King was the second black ever to appear on NBC's "Meet the Press." By the time of the 1963 March on Washington, King was a celebrity. All three networks covered his "I Have a Dream" speech live at the Lincoln Memorial, giving President Kennedy and millions of Americans their first chance to witness an entire King address. "He's damn good," remarked the president to his aides.

After the assassinations of Kennedy and King, the turmoil of Vietnam and Watergate, and the headaches of oil crises and runaway inflation, religious messages on television went from optimistic dreams to pessimistic pronouncements. The televangelists rose to prominence by describing America as a country blessed by God but in danger of losing divine favor if it did not adhere to a Christian agenda. Abortion, homosexuality, AIDS, and "secular humanism" were all signs that the country was sliding downhill, making life look bleak to the born-again Christian community. But even if America did not turn itself around, most believers had an escape clause in their religious contracts: God's final triumph was near, and his faithful followers would be taken from the sinful world to a heavenly kingdom when the end arrived. All in all, the evangelical message fit the mood of the seventies and eighties: The world is a mess, but don't worry; you'll be saved if you believe in that old-time religion.

Among the most prominent of the televangelists were Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jim Bakker, men who different markedly in style but who shared the same basic beliefs about God, country, and the end of the world. The story of Bakker's rise and fall reveals the ambitions of all four, since it was Robertson who gave Bakker his start in broadcasting on his "700 Club," Swaggart who worked to expose the Jessica Hahn affair and bring Bakker down, and Falwell who stepped in to take control of the collapsing empire.

Praying for Dollars

Forgiven is an exhaustive account of Bakker's life and career, containing details of his sexual actiivty with Jessica Hahn and a number of male PTL employees, revelations of his deceit and mismanagement, and stories of his incredible greed (he personally made $1.6 million at PTL in 1986). Charles Shepard, an investigative reporter whose work about PTL won a Pulitzer Prize for the Charlotte Observer, leaves you feeling that Jim and his wife Tammy were really much more corrupt than they were ever said to be in the press--hard to believe but true.

Shepard's most significant contributions are his insights into why the televangelist was so attractive to nearly a million followers. Bakker was never interested in ministerial duties such as teaching and counseling (he dropped out of Bible college after a year and a half); his real love was theater, and as early as high school he was fascinated by show business. During his early training on Robertson's "700 Club," he learned to speak to the common person, intentionally weeding big words out of his vocabulary. Bakker lived by his emotions, not his intellect, according to Shepard: "He used tears, humor, righteous anger, bruised self-pity, and gentle ministry to touch viewers in their living rooms." Unfortunately, his changing emotions were the tail that eventually wagged the PTL dog. when he was accused by a reporter of lying to his studio audience. Bakker said, "Sometimes I just get caught up in what feels true."

It is no big surprise that Bakker found success in television. He could perform well on-screen and broke down the distance between himself and his audience by building a set to resemble his living room and beginning his shows by walking out of the studio audience. As a manipulator of facts, he was a master: he could present PTL's affairs in the most favorable light possible, free from instant analysis by critical onlookers or tough questions from suspicious reporters. Shepard is right on target when he says that Bakker's program "testified to the power of one-sidded television to shape public opinion."

By 1987, Jim Bakker's religious messages, based on simple, childlike trust in God, were being transmitted through 165 local stations covering 85 percent of the national TV market. One of the most popular tenets of Bakker's faith was "seed-faith giving": Give to God and you shall receive much more in return, for God wants his followers to have material success. This was part of the prosperity gospel that had troubled Reinhold Niebuhr so much in the fifties, but it was an idea just right for the acquisitive eighties.

Now that Jim Bakker is in prison and most of his fellow televangelists are struggling to stay in business, it is worthwhile to ask how Christians will use television to bring their message to the American people in the nineties. Clearly, the most constructive religious message for Americans is one that balances liberation and obligation. A message of obligation alone fosters narrow-mindedness and intolerance, while a call for pure liberation creates chaos and alienation. What is needed in the nineties is a television spokesperson for the full Judeo-Christian heritage. Despite the Bakkers and the Swaggarts, because of the obvious power of TV, sincere religion should not look askance at it: Religious messages are important enough to be seen and heard widely. It is not hard to imagine how religion could better channel this power: televised movie reviews with an emphasis on the religious messages found in contemporary films; "real life" stories showing work in church homeless shelters and ministries among the rural poor; talk shows that examine the spiritual challenges of modern life in a balanced way.

Unfortunately, most TV audiences do not get excited by people with moderate or mediating positions. Viewers want bold stances, passionate extremes, and strong visuals, not the nuances and paradoxes that make Judaism and Christianity so rich. It was hardly surprising that the schismatic black priest George Stalling chose "Donahue" to announce his recent break with the Roman Catholic Church. Saying specifically that he had chosen the show because of its national syndication, Stallings described his new African-American church and unveiled its official logo. Logo? Since when have churches needed logos?

The challenge, of course, will be for religious broadcasters to present shows with substance while retaining humility in a medium that glorifies shallowness and celebrity. It's a challenge worth meeting; television might be a peril to culture, but it's a part of modern culture that religion cannot ignore.

Henry G. Brinton is the pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

(*1) Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry. Charles E. Shepard. Atlantic Monthly Press, $22.95.
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Author:Brinton, Henry G.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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