The Story the Media Missed1
Jeffery K. Hadden and Anson Shupe
"We have enough votes to run the country
.And when the people
say weve had enough, we are going to take over the
M.G. "Pat" Robertson, President, Broadcasting Network
The electronic communications revolution is a technological megatrend
that is reshaping not just America, but our entire planet. Its marvels
of instant global communication inundate us with massive quantities
of new information and images in alluring new packages, challenging
and even overrunning traditional values as it alters lifestyles around
the world. It is transforming our allegiances. Yet few recognize its
impact; fewer still understand.
It is a fundamental truth of our era that leaders who dont know
how to use the mass media effectively see their movements stop dead
in the water. Mass media can lend or withhold the publicity needed to
attract members, achieve responsibility, or stave off ignominy, by focusing
attention on certain causes and crusades to the exclusion of others,
by identifying this movement as "newsworthy" or that one as
Television in the first two decades following World War II played a
major role in mobilizing black Americans for the civil rights movement.
Despite control over books, newspapers and libraries, southern whites
could not stop even illiterate blacks from seeing nightly television
broadcasts of civil rights activity on the "Huntley-Brinkley Report."
Nor could the Pentagon, with all its image-making propaganda machinery,
contain or stifle the news of unrest over the escalating Vietnam conflict
during the 1960s. There is even good reason to believe that the archetypal
American Demagogue, Senator Joseph McCarthy, was in large measure brought
down by television coverage of his Senate hearings.
The Televangelist Empire
Almost without our recognizing it, the communications revolution is
re-shaping American religion. And American religion, in turn, is using
this electronic communications technology to reshape the countryand
beginning to reach out to reshape the world.
How on earth could this be? The answer is simple. Evangelical Christians
have developed the most sophisticated communications system on this
planet. They have done so in full view of the American public, but nobody
was paying any attention. Radical social activist Jeffery Rifkin is
among the few who were taking note. In The
Emerging Order, a book that deserved much more attention than
it received, Rifkin documents the development of evangelical political
power in America and concludes thus:
Of one thing there is little doubt, the evangelical community is
amassing a base of potential power that dwarfs every other competing
interest in American society today. A close look at the evangelical
should convince even the skeptic that
it is now the single most important cultural force in American life.
But skeptics remain aloof from the evidence. And while they continue
to snarl at any suggestion of ascending political power among evangelicals,
those who would change America are going about the business of mobilizing
their resources, unmolested by the ideological opponents of the New
The typical mass media commentatorsnewspaper, journalists, televisions
roving reporters and anchor persons, and most editorsare captive
to a secular mindset that is predisposed to exclude religion from news
except when it is bizarre or sensational. Compare, for example, media
attention devoted to covering the Jonestown suicides in 1978 or the
recent Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker debacle with analysis of major currents
of religious change. Pope John Paul II has been the subject of much
news because of his unprecedented globe-trotting. But there has been
relatively little analysis of the meaning or implications of the Popes
Nor is the typical communicator well-equipped to assess what information
about religion may cross his or her path. There are only about 250 religion
newswriters in the entire United States. To the extent that religion
is covered, the majority of journalists find themselves covering it
between assignments to report on natural disasters, crime sprees, traffic
accidents, garden shows, and country fairs. And when a significant religious
story does break, editors tend not to assign their religion reporters.
For example, of the 270 members of the press corps registered at Jim
and Tammy Bakkers Heritage USA for the news conference following
the second meeting of the Falwell board, only five were members of the
Religious Newswriters Association, the professional organization if
religion writers in the secular media.
Not surprisingly, news coverage of religion tends to be superficial
and lacking context. Reporters are ill prepared to probe beyond the
surface of events. One result is that mass media communicators tend
to portray religion in a skeptical or even negative light, particularly
if the newsmakers in question do not reflect the establishment. Faced
with new religious developments, reporters tend to display a mixture
of professional cynicism, ignorance, and bemusement, and an off-hand
dismissal of the possible widespread or profound implications of religious
"At least since the Enlightenment," writes Rodney Stark and
William Sims Bainbridge in The Future
of Religion, "most Western intellectuals have anticipated
the death of religion." They continue:
The most illustrious figures in sociology, anthropology, and psychology
have unanimously expressed confidence that their children, or surely
their grandchildren, would live to see the dawn of a new era in
which, to paraphrase Freud, the infantile illusions if religion
would be outgrown.
This belief in the inevitable demise of religion is anchored in a sweeping
world-view known as secularization theory.
In a nutshell, secularization theory holds that the Protestant Reformation
and the Renaissance set in motion the forces of modernization which
swept across the globe and loosened the dominance of the sacred. The
technological, industrial, scientific, and cultural revolutions of the
Western world are the result. In due course, the theory holds, the sacred
shall disappear altogether except, possibly, in the private realm.
Western scholars have long assumed that this view is the product of
rational analysis and objective research. Perhaps, but growing numbers
of social scientists are no longer so sure. Notwithstanding, secularization
theory has permeated Western culture, trickling down from the mandarins
at the apex of higher education until virtually everyone who has passed
through any but the most parochial of colleges and universities has
been indoctrinated with its assumptions.
When confronted with evidence that religion persists as a vital force
in the hearts and lives of men and women in the modern world, scholars,
intellectuals, and opinion leaders become incredulous, clinging stubbornly
to the fixed notions of the past quarter-of-a-millennium.
It is primarily through journalism that we have the opportunity to
see the effects of the secularization paradigm in everyday though. The
world is filled with events beyond our first-hand experience, of which
we are afforded glimpses through the lens of the mass media. What we
know about the world is largely determined by the reporters and editors
who define what is news and by commentators who decide what is worthy
In a very profound sense, as Michael Schudson concludes in Discovering
the News, "the daily persuasions of journalists reflect
and become our own." The media gives us more than a disembodied
message about some event they have judged to be "news." In
subtle, and sometimes not so subtle ways, they provide a perspectivea
way of looking at and thinking about what they report.
Meeting the Press
Only in recent years has there been any systematic data to assist in
understanding the attitudes, beliefs, and values of American journalists.
Stanley Rothman, professor of government at Smith College, is the architect
of a study initiated in 1977 to investigate elites in the public interest
movement, the federal bureaucracy, and media.
"The typical journalist," write Rothman and his Lichter colleagues,
"is the very model of the modern eastern urbanite." Journalists
are politically liberal and aloof from traditional norms and institutions,
as are most people who possess their demographic and educational profile.
On a broad range of social and moral issues, journalists express more
liberal views than the "man in the street." A few examples
of personal morality issues: Whereas 71 percent of the general public
believed homosexuality to be morally wrong, only 38 percent of the media
elite agreed. Sixty-five percent of the general public, compared with
35 percent of the media group, believe abortion to be morally wrong.
And by a margin of 57 percent to 22 percent, the general public was
more likely to view smoking marijuana as morally wrong.
Almost twice as many people in the general public (47 percent to 24
percent) believe that living with someone of the opposite sex outside
of marriage is wrong. And, by approximately the same margin (52 percent
to 27 percent) the general public believes that divorce should be more
difficult to get.
On these and a number of other moral issues, only about half as many
journalists as members of the general public expressed a socially conservative
point of view. Media elites would likely interpret these data as evidence
that they are more tolerant of individual choice in a pluralist society.
But through the eyes of conservatives who feel strongly that abortion,
premarital sex, and drug use are morally abhorrent, the data provides
proof positive of the press corps tolerance of immorality.
The study also shows that media elites are on the average much less
active religiously and less orthodox in what they believe, confirming
another suspicion of evagelical conservatives. Furthermore, it is quite
probable that the average person of deep religious conviction will attribute
the medias "intolerance of immortality" to a lack of
Comparing the religious behavior of the media elite with a national
survey conducted by the Gallup Organization during roughly the same
period reveals further dramatic differences. Whereas half of the media
sample professed no religious affiliation, 68 percent of the national
sample reported being church or synagogue members. More than nine out
of ten in the national sample express a preference for a religious group.
In an average week in 1981, Gallup reported, 41 percent of the national
population attended church. Only 8 percent of the media elite report
that they attend religious services weekly; 86 percent report they seldom
or never attend.
These figures add up to some whopping differences between the values
and behavior of media elites and the general public. But the data doesnt
prove that the generally more liberal values of media elites on social
issues and high levels of alienation from traditional institutions and
authority result in a distorted presentation of these issues in their
reports. Nor does their low level of religious involvement mean that
they are either overtly or subtly biased against religion in a way that
would affect their ability to objectively assess the role of religion
in the political process.
The media, according to Lichter, Rothman, and Lichter, try to uphold
two contradictory self-images that are not easily reconciled. On the
one hand, they see themselves as cool, non-partisan reporters struggling
to get the news. But beneath the veneer of the objective reporter exists
a social reformer.
The problem is not just that journalists all went to the same schools,
read the same newspapers and, hence, all operate from the same narrow
liberal paradigm. "Probably just as important, " is that a
fair proportion "desire to exert
moral power, as patrons of outsiders and victims with whom they
identify, against traditional restrictions and institutional authority"
This is a subtle but consequential characteristic. Even Walter Cronkite,
perhaps the most beloved broadcaster in the history of television, has
failed to recognize its power. Once asked whether journalists were biased
toward a liberal perspective against established institutions, he said
no but added that his profession was prone "to side with humanity
rather than authority."
One may reasonably ask, so what?
The answer rests in an understanding of how these beliefs and behavioral
patterns affect the way religion is reported in the news or analyzed
as an element of the political process. Journalists are not, as a group,
very religious; some of them even disdain religion. Furthermore, they
interact daily with colleagues who also feel indifferent or negative
about religion. Thus, living in a subculture that shares their ambivalence
or hostility toward religion, they come to believe their viewpoint is
normative, and widely shared by the general public.
Asking the Right Questions
There are many reasons why the media have misunderstood and misreported
the story of an ascending New Christian Right. Clearly their liberal
bias is an important factor. But if Lichter and his colleagues have
correctly characterized journalists as "closet reformers," we have added
a crucial ingredient. Like-minded reformers can be championed. Reformers
with different but not antagonistic goals can be tolerated. But reformers
of a different stripe pose a threat of immeasurable proportions.
When Jerry Falwell was discovered by the mass media and believed to
have a huge following, he was terrifying. Only after his image was trimmed
back down to size were his presence and message tolerable within a pluralistic
society. The dissonance was reduced by the information that Falwell
didn't really have the television audiences and Moral Majority following
Now comes Pat Robinson, and the mechanisms for reducing cognitive dissonance
are being summoned anew. But it will be more difficult this time. The
media's interpretation of the resources Robertson has available to launch
a significant campaign clashes badly with the overwhelming evidence.
Journalists assess religion in terms of their own preconceived, and
mutually held, notions of its irrelevance in the modern secular world.
From this follows the belief that the New Christian Right couldn't really
be a force large enough to upset the status quo. And because these views
are reinforced in interaction with other media people, they are inclined
to ignore, discount, or reject evidence that would suggest the contrary.
The media has focused on two questions. First, how
big is the movement? Lacking any background on the movement,
the media first tended to accept the claims of its leaders, especially
Falwell, uncritically. And he assured them that the answer was very
big. Falwell claimed television audiences in the range of seventeen
to fifty million for his Old-Time Gospel
Hour, three to five million members of the Moral Majority, and
took credit for registering four million voters. When the election was
over, he claimed credit for the Reagan landslide and the defeat of liberal
congressmen and senators who lost re-election.
Every social movement that is perceived as powerful can be expected
to face organized opposition, both from pre-existing organizations and,
almost always, new organizations that emerge specifically for the battle.
People for the American Way and Americans for Common Sense were the
most visible of a dozen new organizations created to battle the right-wing
threat of the Moral Majority, The Christian Roundtable, and Christian
Voice. Common Cause and the American Civil Liberties Union were the
most visible existing organizations to turn their attention to "saving
America from religious zealots."
Just as the New Christian Right had a vested interest in persuading
the media that they were very large, so also did the counter-mobilization
organizations. Unless the Moral Majority was really a serious threat
to society why would anyone give money to People for the American Way?
So they repeated Falwell's claims and made up some statistics of their
own to show that the threat was real.
Implicit in the formation of a counter-mobilization effort is a second
question, namely, how unconventional is
the threatening movement? And the answer (no matter what the
cause or the nature of the group's activities) is always very
unconventional. If not, there would be no need for a counter-movement,
since they could simply be accepted as one of the many competitive interest
groups in the political arena. By labeling them unconventional in the
extreme, the opposition aims to brand new movements as illegitimate.
If allowed to operate unchecked, the argument goes, they would constitute
a grave threat. In this case, the New Christian Right is a threat to
the very stability of the political system.
The perception of the New Christian Right as very
large coupled with the perception that their beliefs about religion
and politics were very unconventional
led to a brief period of hysteria, when it seemed as though America
was in grave danger of being overrun by fundamentalists. Gradually,
the exaggerations became evident. When that happened, the media radically
restructured the "born-again Christians-turned-politicians" story to
make it consistent with the new evidence that they were not so dangerous
after all. Jerry Falwell was recast as a bit player rather than a star.
But Jerry Falwell has refused to get off the stage. On a pretty steady
basis, he does things and says things the media cannot ignore. So, the
media flip-flops between warning Americans about the dangerous zealot
from Lynchburg and announcing his important or imminent fall.
When Pat Robertson got the attention of the national media with his
prospective presidential bid, the media returned to the same questions
they had earlier asked of Falwell. First, how big is his audience? Or
alternately, how many evangelicals are there in America? And, second,
how unconventional are his views about religion and politics?
On the face of it, the answers are again the same. Robertson has a
large audience (or, there are a lot of evangelicals) and his religious
and political views are highly unconventional. But, as with Falwell,
these are the wrong questions. Or, at the very least, they are questions
of misplaced emphasis.
The number of viewers of Robertson's The
700 Club is not unimportant. But it is secondary in importance
to the total array of resourcesof which his television audience
is only one parthe might bring to bear on a presidential bid.
Similarly, the question of how many evangelicals there are in America
is relevant. But more important are his prospects for coalescing those
evangelicals into a solid voting bloc.
What about Robertson's unconventional beliefs? Compared with the media's,
there can be no question that his theological and political views are
unconventional. Very unconventional. But comparing Robertson's views
with those of the media can be terribly misleading. As we have seen,
the views of the media are not very representative of the public at
Obviously, it makes much more sense to examine Robertson's beliefs
(theological and political) in light of the views of the general public
than through some standards of conventionality established by the media
and by Robertson's adversaries.
If the press were to take that task seriously, a door would open to
the understanding that they are more out-of-step with the general public
than Pat Robertson is. He's done some serious thinking about how to
mobilize Christians for a march to the White House. It may turn out
to be a march of folly. But on the other hand, it could be the media
who, failing to properly assess persistent evidence, are the ones on
such a march.<
1 From Televangelism,
Power and Politics on God's Frontier. 1988 by Jeffery K. Hadden
and Anson Shupe. Excerpted by arrangement with Henry Holt & Co., Inc.
Originally Published in April 1988
issue of the Boston Review