is uncommon in American television. It does appear, however, through
two primary avenues. First, consistent with traditions developed
in the radio era, there have been a variety of religious programs
on the air. Second, there are occasions when religion has appeared
in general entertainment program offerings.
programs have been a fixture of television from its earliest years.
The pattern was established in radio, where certain sectarian organizations--both
national and local--receive free air time (called "sustaining time")
for productions intended to elucidate consensual "broad truths"
about religion. Programs produced by the National Council of Churches,
the United States Catholic Conference, the New York Board of Rabbis,
and the Southern Baptist Convention, received such air play without
competition until the 1970s when an entirely new type of religious
newer programs, which came to be called Televangelism, first emerged
nationally after changes in federal policy began to allow use of
domestic satellite transmission for the creation of alternative
"networks." A number of new and existing television "ministries"
capitalized on the situation. These were largely outside the religious
mainstream, representing independent, non-denominational, conservative
Fundamentalist or Pentecostal organizations. Among the earliest
programs were Rex Humbard's Cathedral of Tomorrow, Oral Roberts
and You, Pat Robertson's 700 Club, and Jim and Tammy
Bakker's PTL Club.
the mid-1970s until a series of scandals struck three prominent
programs ten years later, televangelism was a force on television
and in the world of religion. Early on, this new religious broadcasting
was feared to have negative consequences for conventional religion
by drawing members and financial support away from churches. After
academic studies confirmed that audiences for these programs tended
to be small and made up of already-religious, church-going people,
that controversy faded.
Televangelism's role in politics has been a more persistent issue.
Fundamentalist minister Jerry Falwell used his Old Time Gospel
Hour program as a platform for political influence through the
founding of The Moral Majority, a conservative think-tank, and The
Liberty Lobby, a political organization. Falwell withdrew from politics
at the time of the scandals, but Pat Robertson used his position
as host of The 700 Club to launch his own political career,
culminating in a run for the presidency in 1988, and the founding
of his own political organization, The Christian Coalition, shortly
thereafter. Several televangelism ministries also founded and developed
their own universities, such as Falwell's Liberty University, Oral
Roberts University, and Robertson's CBN University, which was renamed
Regent University in 1990.
is the singular case which typifies the evolution of modern televangelism
from its roots in "Bible Belt" fundamentalist radio toward an altogether
conventional television presentation. While other televangelists
continued to hold to more traditional "worship and preaching" production,
The 700 Club evolved a sophisticated "Christian talk show"
format. At the same time, its Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN)
evolved into The Family Channel, a widely-carried cable service
featuring "family-oriented" re-runs and motion pictures.
lasting legacy of televangelism has been its impact on sustaining-time
or "public service" religion. The conventional churches and church
organizations saw their air time gradually erode as "paid time"
televangelism rose to prominence. By the mid-1990s virtually no
national or network-based sustaining-time religion persisted. A
number of these organizations participated in the founding of their
own cable network, The Faith and Values Channel (originally the
Vision Interfaith Satellite Network), in 1988.
appears in entertainment programs more rarely. In the 50-year history
of television in the United States, fewer than two dozen series
or pilots have featured religious persons in leading or title roles.
The majority of these were Roman Catholic, with only nine non-Catholic
examples. Four of these were pilots which were not developed into
regularly appearing series. The Catholic programs include some of
the most memorable: Father Murphy, in which the main character
pretends to be a priest; Sarge, featuring a former detective who
becomes a priest; and The Father Dowling Mysteries, in which
a priest becomes a detective.
reasons that are not entirely clear, the programs featuring non-Catholic
characters have been less successful: Bridget Loves Bernie,
a sitcom which turned on the theme of a religiously-mixed marriage;
Keep the Faith, a pilot featuring two rabbis; St. Peter,
a pilot about a young Episcopalian priest in Greenwich Village;
Almost Heaven, the antics of a group of deceased souls trying to
find their way to heaven; Steambath, adapted from a stage play by
the same name; Great Bible Adventures, a 1966 pilot, and;
Greatest Heros of the Bible. Jewish or Muslim characters
are rarely depicted, except in a Biblical or period drama.
presentation of religious characters and themes holds that religion
be as general and conventional as possible, so as to avoid potential
controversy. For example, whereas Roman Catholics are most often
identified as such, Protestant characters are not identified by
denomination. And, religiosity is most often limited to the most
obvious and innocuous external signifiers, such as place of domicile
(a convent, for instance) or dress (nun's habit, yarmulke, or Roman
collar). One of the most overtly religious programs in this general
sense was Highway to Heaven, starring Michael Landon. Landon's
portrays Jonathan Smith, an angel whose assignment is to help ordinary
mortals through difficult times. This show built on the gentle persona
developed by Landon in Little House on the Prairie, and during
the mid-eighties was successful with both adults and children. More
explicit religious activities are rarely presented and superficial
when they are (group prayers on M*A*S*H, perfunctory table
grace on The Simpsons).
the 2000 made-for-television movies and miniseries produced between
1964 and 1986, fewer than 30 dealt with religious matters or included
religious main characters. Nine of these were historical (usually
Biblical): A.D.; The Day Christ Died; Jesus of Nazareth; Mary
and Joseph; Masada; The Nativity; Samson and Delilah; The Story
of David, and; The Story of Jacob and Joseph. Four were profiles
of historical Catholic figures, three involved Protestant characters,
two were Jewish in theme or character.
The Hour of Power with Robert Schuller
Photo courtesy of Crystal Cathedral Ministries
began to find its way into some prominent series in the early 1990s,
this time not as a major theme, but as a significant element nonetheless.
A "new age" or "seeker" religiosity was a fairly common theme of
Northern Exposure, frequently introduced by the character
Chris. Picket Fences regularly dealt with religious themes
and ideas, and born-again Christian joined the firm in L.A. Law
during this time. The short-lived Touched By An Angel repised
themes found in Highway to Heaven. Religious awakening and
interest was also a theme of thirtysomething.
a series based on a novel by Katherine Marshall, was hailed as a
religiously-attuned program during its short run in 1994. It thus
followed in the footsteps of such earlier period pieces as The
Waltons and Little House on the Prairie, where religion
was portrayed as a more obvious and natural dimension of "earlier
places are rarely depicted, at least in use. Early programs such
as The Goldbergs and Leave it to Beaver did show families
attending church or synagogue as did The Simpsons in the
1990s. However, these were the exceptions. Religion is most frequently
shown in connection with rites of passage, specifically in connection
with births, deaths and--most frequently--weddings. There have been
hundreds of weddings shown on daytime serials alone.
M. Hoover and J. Jerome Lackamp
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See also Billy
Graham Crusade, The; Christian
Broadcasting Network/The Family Channel; Man
Everett C.; Robertson,