For Americans growing up between the 1950s and the 1980s, religion was not a regular presence on television. Aside from Sunday morning shows or occasional commercials, religious programming issued end-time warnings, sought monetary contributions, or staged faith healings. But it did not cover news.
Today is different, however. Not only are there entire networks devoted to religious broadcasting, but also Christian television has moved directly into covering news and politics, reaching millions of Americans daily with a conservative perspective on current events.
As a scholar of religion and politics in America, I believe it is important to understand the impact of the medium at this point of time as well as how it came to have such influence.
The growth of Christian media
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American Christians have historically used new media to spread the gospel. In the 19th century, evangelicals used pamphlets and advertising techniques. The early 20th century produced a religious radio subculture that is still thriving in programs like the ones offered by Focus on the Family or Moody Radio.
By the early 1950s, preachers like Fulton Sheen, Robert Schuller or Billy Graham took to television.
While there was occasionally a political overtone to these programs, most of them refrained from explicit commentary. This changed beginning in the 1970s, in large part, because of two related political trends:
One, since the late 1970s, largely fundamentalist Protestant organizations like the Moral Majority took to popularizing Christian conservatism. These organizations rallied national support to influence politicians to oppose abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, among other causes.
Two, around the same time, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s presidency, conservative politicians started to harness evangelicals as a voting bloc. This gave Christian media further influence in the political world.
The above political changes were reflected in the rapid growth of Christian shows on cable television.
Pat Robertson’s longstanding talk show “The 700 Club,” the end-times prophecy show “Jack Van Impe Presents” and others began to address what was happening in the news from a Biblical perspective. They claimed they were providing viewers with “real” explanations that media and liberal politicians covered up.
As the data shows, religious broadcasting grew hugely in the 1990s and 2000s. Christian media increasingly commented on current events. And, critically, it began to have an influence on the wider culture.
Furthermore, Christian media was used to advance conservative biases. Authors and advocates of textbooks and curricula, for example, downplayed the women’s movement in American history or referred to slavery as “involuntary immigration.” Such changes were adopted in some Christian schools and their authors were often featured in Christian media.
There is considerable evidence, then, of the connections between Christian news and a conservative Republican base that sought steady support and advocacy from it.
Why this matters
The power of these programs is more than simply the stories covered or guests interviewed – it is their social impact on religious beliefs.
Christian news is effective in conveying its views because it repeats claims that viewers already believe, and provides them with particular emotional experiences that are described as facts. This way of viewing the world has moved closer to the center of conservative politics since the 1980s, a period of time when the Christian right acquired more influence in American politics.
Consider how in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan began to be depicted as God’s agent on Earth. In the 1990s, the growth of multinational corporations and trade deals was decried as part of a demonic “new world order.” And today, when Islamophobia is on the rise, Christian television channels depict and celebrate President Trump as the fighter-in-chief, who defends Christians despite his personal faults.
Amplifying one view?
The growing regularity of such examples has significant implications for American politics.
By presenting itself as authoritative, trustworthy journalism, Christian news reassures viewers that they do not need to consult mainstream media in order to be informed. More dangerously, it authorizes a particular, often conspiratorial way of viewing the world. It denounces neutrality or accountability to multiple constituencies as burdensome or even hostile to Christian faith.
Sadly, tens of millions of its viewers are left without a sense of two of democracy’s most necessary foundations: the value of multiple viewpoints and shared political participation.