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Tuning In To Religious Broadcasting: Programs Gives People Another Approach to Faith

Friday, December 29, 2000 at 12:03 PM

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A trade group monitoring religious radio and television says more people are tuning in, and they have more choices than ever before. According to a survey last year by the Barna group of California, at least 80 million adults tune in each week to a religious show on radio or television. The increase in programming corresponds to a nation-wide religious renaissance that could be changing how schools, media and civic organizations approach faith in everyday life. Janet Babin reports.

Janet Babin- Lillian Santiago of Cleveland doesn’t have time to watch much TV anymore. Her three young girls keep her off the couch and on the go.

But when the girls were young, Santiago would flip through the channels while her youngest slept beside her. Instead of the remote landing on a soap opera or news show, Santiago found herself drawn to Pat Robertson’s Christian TV program, The 700 Club. Even though she doesn’t consider herself religious, she watched it everyday.

Lillian Santiago- They would start out with pieces telling people’s life stories, little miracles, and I’m interested in that. I believe in miracles and I just kinda got hooked from then on.

JB- Pat Robertson says The 700 Club is seen by more than one million viewers just like Lillian each day. He spoke to a group of reporters during a recent visit with the Ohio Christian Coalition.

Pat Robertson- We’ve added stations - we’re on 200 stations now or more broadcasts and our cable network has about 68 million households . We’ve been adding dramatically ABC, NBC and FOX affiliates in the last six months. We’re replacing the Jerry Springers and Ricky Lakes of the world.

JB- Those voices in the background are reporters from religious stations covering Robertson’s visit. The Christian Coalition Leader’s speech was dubbed: “God and Country”.

After a small prayer session with Christian Coalition members, Robertson talked with reporters about starting the Christian Broadcasting Network 37 years ago.

PR- I started the first satellite delivery basic cable network in America, so I am a pioneer in broadcasting. Although I don’t like the word televangelism, that’s the Washington Post talking.

JB- In the beginning, Robertson’s show didn’t have much competition. During the 1980’s Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL Club Christian program gained viewers, and then notoriety, after Jim admitted to an adulterous affair. He was convicted of fraud involving money raised during the show and spent five years in prison. Jerry Falwell is another well-known televangelist, who established Liberty University and the so-called Moral Majority.

According to the trade group National Religious Broadcasters, the number of such programs is increasing. NRB spokesman Karl Stoll says more than 250 TV stations and 1,700 radio stations broadcast religious programming some or all of the time. Most of the programs solicit money to stay on the air. Stoll says those numbers don’t include independent TV producers who submit paid programming to cable and affiliate stations.

Karl Stoll- When you look at the full spectrum of religious broadcasting, at least in the US, evangelical Protestants really make up the majority of who is doing the broadcasting, and who’s creating the programs.

JB- Christian fundamentalists might be doing most of the broadcasting, but not all of it. The Eternal Word Television Network is on more than 1,800 cable systems, producing 24 hour programming targeted to Catholics. Jewish and Muslim shows also exist, but are hard to track because they’re usually locally produced and aired on cable stations. Not all the programs are in English.

In Cleveland, Abriendo Surcos, has been broadcasting local religious programming for six years in Spanish - it too has a fundamentalist Christian theme.

Pastor Laurie Hafner presides over the Pilgrim United Church of Christ, a more liberal congregation in Cleveland. She says most religious broadcasting doesn’t appeal to her parishioners, because they’d rather spend their time ministering than passively watching or listening.

After a recent Sunday ceremony, she talked about what it was like for her Easter Service to be broadcast nationally this year on ABC television.

Laurie Hafner- I know what goes into it, I think we’ve just all decided although that was a real nice thing and we were honored to do it, it’s much better to help folks rather than to be broadcast nationwide. It would be nice to get that message out and show people that there is another side than what they otherwise experience on TV or radio.

JB- While there are more people tuning into religious shows, there’s also evidence that church groups in general are experiencing a resurgence. Charles Haynes is Senior Scholar for Religious Freedom at the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum. He says the increase in religious broadcasting parallels a broader faith-based revival.

Haynes says the United States is now one of the most religious nations in the world, yet its institutions, including the media, still don’t want to talk about it.

Charles Haynes- Religion is often treated as something on the margins, something not quite important enough to be taken seriously.

JB- Haynes says cultural diversity is forcing society to recognize the important role religion plays in the lives of many Americans, not just Evangelical Christian fundamentalists.

CH- We’re entering an era where religion will be heard more often in our public square. We’ve become more used to the fact that people bring their religion with them to the political arena.

JB- Elliot Mincberg of People for the American Way is worried about how religion reaches the public square.

Elliot Mincberg- We monitor the 700 club everyday and just about everyday I get an email from the person monitoring it with yet another example of something that Pat Robertson or others say that is disrespectful or intolerant of people of different religious groups or different political views. So I think that anybody watching the 700 Club ought to take what is said with several mountainfuls of salt.

JB- Lillian Santiago says she’ll take Robertson’s words - without the salt.

LS- I like it cause it mixes in politics and science, it shows you how it connects to religion.

JB- Engaging Santiago and Mincberg in dialogue might just be the most difficult challenge of new century America. Again, the Freedom Forum’s Charles Haynes.

CH- We’re going to have to find a way for our public square to be open and free, let the voices be heard. But we’re also going to have to reaffirm our civic principles that help us to work with one another, to debate our differences with civility so that we can still build one nation out of many peoples and many faiths.

JB- There are many examples of religious diversity dividing nations. Haynes hopes that as religion becomes more popular in civic life and in broadcasting, the multitude of religious voices can instead become a source of strength. For those who believe in the constitutional separation of church and state, it will probably remain a source of controversy. In Cleveland, Janet Babin, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM. 

Additional Information

* Christian Coalition
* Freedom Forum

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