Religion, Money, and Politics, Part I

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: James Wall and William Fore
Title: Religion, Money, and Politics, Part I
VTR: 3/29/87

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Both of my guests today have joined me individually here at this table before. Dr. William F. Fore, Assistant General Secretary for Communication of the National Council of the Churches of Christ, and author of the newly published Television and Religion, a fascinating study of the shaping of faith, values and culture in America. And Dr. James M. Wall, editor of the distinguished national weekly publication The Christian Century, and author of such insightful weekly editorials about almost every aspect of our lives that I always want to probe his thinking much more often than I do here on The Open Mind.

Both are Methodist Ministers. Both deal very much with the secular world. Both have a profound interest in, and strong convictions about, the interrelationships among three themes each of us was taught (when we were being brought up in an age far different from this one) that we were to avoid in polite company: religion, money and politics.

But events have pressed these maters so hard upon us recently, juxtaposed them so vigorously and perhaps even decisively, that they can’t be ignored, particularly when taken together as they are so often these days, only at the greatest risk to the best of our national traditions, to the very principles of the good society, of the good life. So that I’ve invited these good friends and wise colleagues to join me this week and again next week for something of an elaboration upon this unholy trinity: religion, money and politics.

Gentlemen, thanks for joining me today. Not an easy subject that we’ve chosen, and I guess the fact of the matter is that we decided to meet together long before the current explosion relating to the religious television people. I don’t want to focus too much on the role of the electronic ministry in terms of the personnel, but I mentioned a moment ago the principles of the good society, of the good life – how did it come about that the apostles of the electronic ministry have put such a focus on the good life in terms of living well and living high?

Fore: Well, I think that one thing that surely has happened to them is that they have proved Lord Acton yet once again, that power does corrupt, and in this case celebrity status corrupts. I don’t know their inner motives when they started out; I suspect they all were of the very highest motives – wanting to try to bring their understanding of religion to the multitudes through this powerful new medium. But the medium of television itself has corrupted them.

Heffner: But Bill, Lord Acton didn’t say that power corrupts. He says that it tends to corrupt and you have to have corruptible material for it to work that way.

Fore: You’re quite right. Again, I don’t want to make the moral judgment, except I think I must say that they, each one, made a kind of Faustian compact here. They agreed to buy into the world of television, in exchange for which they got money and the power and the prestige and the celebrity status. Now, in some cases, they’re being asked to pay the price. Heffner: Jim, Bill seems to think that it’s a function of television – the evil eye that we’re looking at here. Do you think so too?

Wall: It’s the function of the way television is functioning right now – namely, the enormous amount of money that it takes to put these programs on the air. You are quite right – these television evangelists wanted to be on the air with their messages. In order to do that, it takes money. The mainline denominations, as Dr. Falwell knows, would like to do this but they don’t have the money to do it. They don’t’ want to spend that kind of money nor will they be able to raise that kind of moony because in order to raise it you’ve got to really make an appeal to people in a way that the mainline denominations simply are not willing to do. Send us your dollars, send us your five dollars, and we will make you happy – that is something of an approach that the mainline churches refuse to use.

Fore: I’m not sure if I can comment on that…that the mainline churches would be very well advised to “do what they’re doing” even if we didn’t have to raise the money – even if we could raise the money from the people in the pew – for the same reason that television tends to corrupt the message. I ‘m not saying we should not use television in the churches, but you have to use it for very…you have to restrict what you can achieve with it. You certainly can’t do what the electronic church people have tried…set out to do, which is to be a church, to be an electronic pastor, to bring the gospel to people through television.

Heffner: Why not?

Fore: Well, because in the first place, television in our country, as we know it, tends to be highly simplistic. People expect it to give very, very simple answers to both simple and complex questions. Second, television tends to separate people from each other. It does not bring people together in any kind of face-to-face relationship. And I think, ultimately, any religion, and certainly Christianity, depends on face-to-face encounter in some kind of a…what we call the church – people confessing their sins with each other, helping each other out, visiting the sick, helping the poor, in a community. And community is…and that’s what I say in this book, that community is the essence of any viable and vital faith. Television separates us out from that and makes it a highly individualistic exercise.

Wall: What you’re saying though is that the television evangelists have created individual groupings that have replaced people’s affiliation with their local churches. And I agree that that is wrong.

Fore: They’ve turned them into an audience instead of a community.

Wall: Alright. But there is a need for churches, in some way, to utilize this medium to get across the message.

Fore: Absolutely. But the message in the sense of preparing people to receive the gospel, but not really providing the ultimate answers on the air.

Wall: But serious conversation, probing of problems, sharing of concerns, is a legitimate thing to do. The problem is that you attempted to want to go for the larger audience and that is what the…what television corrupts – it forces you to go to the larger audience.

Heffner: But wait a minute. I want to ask Jim to go a little further on this. Id o detect a very profound difference here – and I’m not just trying to create a wedge, as you suggested…

Wall: …television likes to do. You’re looking for conflict.

Heffner: No, I’m looking for what I always have believed…

Wall: …For distinctions.

Heffner: …that people of thoughtfulness, people I generally associate with the ministry, want to do. They want to get at the truth of the matter. And I wonder whether here, though…you are a man of print, essentially, where you have your own television program, but you are still the editor of Christian Century and I think of you always in terms of what you write, I think you’re much more accepting than Bill is on the medium itself. Bill seems to be saying that the medium is the message, the media is the message – you’re doing the McLuhan business. You seem to be leaving very little room for the appropriate use of the medium.

Wall: Oh no, no, no. I think that television can do many things wonderfully well.

Heffner: But you also seem to be saying there is something in the dynamic of television that corrupts, or tends to corrupt.

Wall: Well, I made some qualifiers. I said, in television in this country, as we know it…commercial television in this country demands, by the very nature of the structure – we’re dealing here not with just a technology but with a whole social structure called television. It demands large audiences…no one needs to tell you how difficult it is for a quality program like this to stay on the air simply because it only gets a few hundred thousand people as an audience, whereas…

Heffner: Stop pulling my leg.

Wall: Well, you’ve got to have, these days, on a network, something closer to a thirty million audience or it just doesn’t even count. And I think that’s a bit outrageous.

Heffner: Yes, but are you two talking about the medium, or are you talking about the society in which you function?

Fore: Oh, you cannot separate those out.

Wall: Let me try and address this by going to my magazine, which you alluded to. We put out a magazine once a week. I write a lead editorial which is usually two-and-a-half columns long. I am confined to a certain length, or I have to somewhat cut my argument. The academic would have used about twenty pages to make some of these same arguments, but in order to reach the attention of the reader, you make it smaller. So you do always suffer a little bit in any form of communication. I think what I’ve been arguing in this discussion is that the church bodies – such as the mainline denominations – who want to use television should do so, but not worry about the numbers that they’re reaching. And what you’re saying is that the televangelist got caught up in the numbers game.

Fore: That’s exactly right.

Wall: For example, a use of the medium for worship services for people who can’t otherwise get to church in a local community – the radio station or the mass being celebrated. That’s obviously not the same as being in the church, but if the person is an invalid or sick, then it’s a very important medium. So the problem is – don’t demand large numbers – which is what the society says is the criteria of success.

Heffner: Yes but ok…Society does. Does the evangelical tradition demand large numbers?

Wall: Now don’t get us drawn into what I think has been a preacher bashing tendency by the media since this whole episode regarding Jim Bakker has developed.

Heffner: Are you, once again, joking about the big medium and the little me…that I, with this program or any program, could draw you gentlemen into something you don’t want to do?

Wall: What I’m saying is that much of the criticism of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert, in this incident of recent weeks, has been somewhat gleefully pursued by people who are looking for a chance to do some bashing of this particular brand of religion – fundamentalism. And they’ve taken great delight in poking fun at this brand when it was done. I took exception to your use of the phrase, “Evangelism depends on numbers”.

Heffner: It is a question, Dr. Wall. It is a question.

Wall: Well, I took exception to the way you asked the question so I will respond by saying no. evangelism does not have to concentrate on numbers. Evangelism, at its best, concentrates on reaching as many as you can get but not worrying if the numbers do not get astronomical.

Fore: Well, I have a slightly different answer, which is that the kind of evangelism, and indeed the kind of theology, that’s embedded in both the Charismatic Movement and the Fundamentalist Movement, as we see it in these electronic church people. Now, I’ve qualified that quite a lot…that’s not all the evangelical church. Their theology does put a very high premium on numbers, on people converted and how many souls won for Christ. Now my problem with that has been since I was very young – that I wanted to know about the quality of that – what does it mean to be for Christ, or to be transformed. And the numbers didn’t mean that much to me. But to them, numbers mean a lot.

Heffner: Now why do you think that our colleague here, and friend, Dr. Wall, was ready to bash me…at…when I asked that question, which you answered…and you’re not minister basher…

Wall: I wish we had the tape that we could look at the way the question was worded, because you used the phrase, “evangelism”. And you seemed to me to be making that tantamount to what Bill was just describing. Evangelism, as a way of reaching people, is a good thing. The way in which some televangelists are using the medium, is a bad thing. That’s the distinction that I wish to make.

Heffner: do you mean that historically one would not have found that there was almost an inevitable emphasis upon numbers? Not at any cost – that an emphasis upon counting the…

Wall: The first evangelist, I think you would be safe to say, was Jesus of Nazareth. He seemed to be relatively content with beginning with twelve.

Heffner: And if that isn’t a low shot or a low blow, I don’t know what is.

Wall: And then he began to expand to others who heard him. But most of them turned away from him. So I guess I’m going to answer you by saying that at its worst the church has relied upon numbers, at its best it has relied upon quality.

Fore: Would you say, Jim, that one way to make the distinction is that the authentic Evangelism of the faith requires us being faithful to what we find the faith to be for us, and we try to communicate it to others? Rather than to be, and I put in quotes, “successful”, which means that I get you to agree with me no matter what kind of arguments I use? See, I think there is a very important distinction there. A lot of the Fundamentalists – theologically and certainly the Charismatics – tend to try to use any method they can to get people into the fold. I think that…I think it was Paul Tillich who said that the task of the Christian Evangelist, really, is to help people make a decision for Christ for the right reasons. By that I mean that I think it is better for people to make a decision, and even against and to reject Christianity, for the right reasons, than it would be for them to accept Christianity for the wrong reasons.

Wall: It was Paul Tillich who also said that the task of the Christian, and that meant the modern human being as well as the Christian, is to learn to live with ambiguity. That’s what we’re learning to live with here – the ambiguity of the fact that we’re talking about using media in order to reach people with quality words, even though we know, in terms of ambiguity, that the potential for doing that for success reason is inevitably there.

Heffner: Now, would you teach me how to ask you the following question in such a way that it doesn’t come out pejoratively? Is there anything about Evangelism that would, of necessity, make for an emphasis not upon ambiguity but upon certainty?

Wall: I’m not sure I understand what…you want me to help you ask that question, but I’m not sure I understand the question.

Heffner: You know what I want to do. I want to be able to ask you, without being accused of putting down any movement at all, whether this particular movement doesn’t depend and hasn’t historically always depended upon …not upon anything that could be considered ambiguous, but upon certainty? Upon the certainty of conviction. And I’m not trying to…I’m not a minister basher. I wouldn’t have invited you gentlemen here. I would have bashed you around the corner, seriously. I’m asking a question of whether we can expect…Bill asks whether we can expect of television, basically, in this society, anything different from an emphasis upon numbers. And I ask whether we can expect from this movement the kind of ambiguity…

Wall: What movement are you asking about?

Heffner: The Evangelical movement.

Fore: No, not Evangelical. It’s the electronic church ministers…

Wall: See, that’s where we’re having trouble.

Fore: There’s a whole evangelical community out there that disdains and distances themselves from MR. Falwell and Oral Roberts as much as we do.

Heffner: I understand. Does it…can it accept the ambiguity.

Wall: No, no. we need to clarify.

Heffner: That’s what I was trying to do.

Wall: Let’s clarify terms here. First of all, you’ve got…Evangelism has been the fundamental principle of the church since its very beginning.

Fore: Evangel means “good news”. It just means communicating good news.

Heffner: Can I call it the Evangelical Movement then?

Wall: No if we want to talk about the possibility of corruption with success you can very narrowly focus on the televangelistic people – individuals who are using television in order to be evangelistic. That’s what we’re talking about. That means…yes, the potential for corruption is very, very high.

Heffner: And before we had…

Wall: Not illegal corruption, but success pre-occupation.

Heffner: Before we had this instrument of television?

Wall: Before we had the instrument of television you had a similar problem because there were those who would say Billy Sunday was preaching his heart out back in the twenties, but that he had his eye on numbers. I think that’s a legitimate criticism.

Heffner: But that’s all that I really asked. I asked whether, just as Dr. Fore believes, that this medium in this society must of necessity tend to corrupt because it must put its emphasis upon numbers. Whether it is not true that the movement you speak about…not the television variation, but for all times, hasn’t put its emphasis upon an approach that forsakes what you call ambiguity, and your call for ambiguity, the capacity to accept it. Now is that cleared up?

Wall: That’s certainly clear and Tent Evangelism has always been distinctive from local organized churches. Tent Evangelism has almost, by necessity, needed success in order to survive. By “tent” I mean an Evangelist would come into a community, would set up a tent on a vacant lot and would spend a week or two weeks preaching and having people give money so that he could pay to patch the holes in the tent. Then he would move on to another city and do the same thing. That’s a form of Evangelism that started in the tents, as distinct from the local congregations that worship around a church altar.

Fore: Let me put it in a little bit different way because I think I essentially agree with that. In religion of any kind – whether it’s Islam, or Hindu, or Christian, or Jewish – there’s always a spectrum of theological holy belief, once you develop a wholly developed religious tradition, ranging all the way from what we usually call liberal to conservative. Now, the conservative wing in every one of those religions, I think, always tends to absolutize whether what scriptural basis they have and be rather authoritarian and absolute and unambiguous as you’re asking the question.

Heffner: Why use the word conservative?

Fore: Why use the word conservative?

Heffner: Yes.

Fore: Well, it’s not a good…I hate to use that word, but…

Heffner: Do you mean it politically?

Fore? No, no, no. I don’t mean politically. I mean theologically conservative. That is to say, going back to the fundamentals, and that’s what…

Wall: That’s true of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

Fore: So that you always have a strain in any full blown religion of a small percentage, maybe five, ten, fifteen percent who knows, that are quite authoritarian and quite unambiguous, and that’s what’s happened in the electronic church. Now the marvelous thing is that television, which also tends to be a simple, direct, and authoritarian answer, is a perfect fit for this very kind of religion. And that explains why these guys have prospered so much in the last ten years.

Heffner: You have, in television and religion and other writings that I’ve read of yours, down-played what is, at the present moment, an emphasis upon the huge number of Americans who avail themselves of the …

Fore: Oh yes.

Heffner: …of the religions…or not religious…the electronic ministry.

Fore: The size just isn’t that big. That’s why I said five, ten or fifteen percent, who knows. The best research that I know of – the Annenberg School of Communication research with the Gallup people two years ago – to my satisfaction showed that the core of viewers of the electronic church who view one hour or more of that programming a week is no more than about 4.84 million. That’s a very small…that’s a little over two percent of the total population.

Heffner: Where does all the money come from then?

Wall: From them.

Fore: From them. Somebody said the other day that the support for Pat Robertson is a mile deep and a food wide. And that’s the kind of support we have for these electronic church people – a very few people with a tremendous depth and salience of support. They give…I forget what the figure is that came out of the Annenberg research, but it’s something well over $100 per person a year, which is at least four or five, six times maybe, as much as the average person gives to the mainline church.

Wall: Let me make a point which I think is very valid. I’ve used this in discussing my magazine, The Christian Century, with a colleague of mine who edits a magazine called Christianity Today. I kid him sometimes by saying it should be called Christianity Yesterday, but he only chuckles at that very briefly.

Fore: Does he tell you that you should be called The Christian Nineteenth Century?

Wall: No. he thinks we’re too modern. The point I want to make is that the magazine like ours…and what was the point I was trying to make? You’ve thrown me off.

Heffner: You were talking about numbers, and I’m impressed with…

Wall: Yes, here’s the point I want to make, and that is that the tendency of secular oriented liberal people of religious faith is to have their religion to be important but not to fill up 100% of their time. The tendency of the conservative is to put almost 100% of their interest in their religion. So that they will give most of their money, when they give any money, to religion. They will buy religious books, they will buy religious magazines. Whereas in the liberal community you are competing with secular magazines because your readership and your listenership has interests other than religion. I’m not saying that’s bad, I’m just saying that there is a pre-occupation with religion amongst the conservatives.

Heffner: Now both of you have put at a minimum…you haven’t minimized, but you put at a minimum the numbers of American involved in the electronic ministry.

Wall: That’s right, but they put their money behind it.

Heffner: Alright, I understand that. Given that, and you agree on that, are you concerned about the nature and the future of the electronic ministry and would you wish that it were different from what it is, and would you do something to make it different?

Fore: Those are three different questions.

Heffner: Okay, let’s take the last one.

Fore: Well, the second one is the easiest one. I, of course, would wish it were something different, but I don’t’ expect it to be. I think we have this with us always, as some people have said about the poor. You always are going to have a fundamentalist and conservative strain of religion. And it manifested itself in the Tent Evangelism, as Dr. Wall said, of earlier times. Now it’s going to manifest itself with television. And when Oral Roberts gets too old, as he almost is now, and Rex Humbard passes from the scene, as he is about to these days – off the air – some bright, young, fundamentalist conservatives will come along and think of something even sharper and better to sell religion to those people – I almost said the gullible – who would buy their particular brand of religion. We always have that. So I don’t’ expect it to change. I don’t think the flap that we’ve had the last few weeks about all of this is going to fundamentally change the nature of the electronic church.

Wall: This only brought it to the attention of the public. That’s the only thing.

Fore: And it’s certainly not going to change mainline churches.

Heffner: Would you have it differently?

Wall: I don’t think that’s a question that we can even address.

Heffner: Why?

Wall: You can’t change things. That’s the way the…that’s the way most sociological structures of societies are made up.

Heffner: Now look. I read Christian Century every week. Not thoroughly every week, but I certainly read your editorials and I know that you call for change. Why change here?

Wall: I’m addressing the society at large. I can’t control the five to ten percent of the population that is willing to follow the televangelists. I can’t change t hem, I can’t get them not to do that.

Fore: You would like it to change, but you don’t expect it to change.

Wall: Well, I mean…if I could re-write the en tire society to suit myself I would make a lot of changes.

Heffner: What do you think the impact will be on the election coming up? Will Pat Robertson…

Wall: Alright, I’m glad you mentioned that because I’ve been thinking about this discussion about Pat Robertson. I’ve always maintained that Robertson’s great threat in this coming election is that he will be able, like Jesse Jackson in the democratic primaries, to come away into the convention with maybe 250 delegates, because he will go state-by-state, he will have that five to ten percent of the voters who will come out to caucuses, who will vote in primaries, and therefore make their numbers more important than they are by total numbers and he’ll get his delegates. And then at the convention he will be a very big influence. What impact will this have on him? Nothing. It might even help because it will only strengthen the conviction of his followers. Remember, the followers are getting bashed as much as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert. And they are going to be more and more willing to go out there and support Pat Robertson because they are being picked on by big media and by liberal society and by secular humanists.

Heffner: and that will give him some kind of, not controlling, but large voice?

Wall: He will have a very significant role to play in the convention because with 250 delegates you are carrying a pretty big stick. He’ll have some say so over who will be the vice presidential nominee, he will have a lot to say about the platform because the Republicans usually let the right wing choose the platform anyway and they won’t mind that.

Heffner: Gentlemen, since we’ve reached the end of this program, and as I said at the beginning, I wouldn’t tell a lie that we’ve agreed ahead of time that you would sit where you are and we’ll come back for a second program. I only half thank you for joining me today and wait until the next program. Thanks a lot.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to The Open Mind, PO Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

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