Religion 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.

Religious 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 television developed.

These 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.

From 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.

Robertson's 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.

Another 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.

Religion 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.

For 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.

The 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).

Of 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

Religion 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.

Christy, 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 times."

Religious 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.

-Stewart M. Hoover and J. Jerome Lackamp


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See also Billy Graham Crusade, The; Christian Broadcasting Network/The Family Channel; Man Alive; Parker, Everett C.; Robertson, Pat