William F. Fore

The Electronic Church

VTR Date: April 18, 1983

Guest: Fore, William F.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. William Fore
Title: The Electronic Church
VTR: 4/18/1983

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Were the proverbial Man from Mars to return home from these United States, were he to report to his fellow Martians on this land, its people and its customs, perhaps he would cite the Electronic Church, religious broadcasting, as one of the most interesting phenomena of our times. After all, Americans who watch television’s preachers are in the millions themselves. They are devoted. They support the electronic church with huge sums of money. Television’s preachers are…they are heard by everybody, but there are also voices raised in doubt and concern about their impact, and about what their very presence symbolizes about our national life. Sometime back, Dr. William Fore, who’s a minister in the United Methodist Church, wrote a most interesting commentary for TV Guide, to the effect that indeed, there is no such thing as a television pastor. Well, Dr. Fore is Assistant General Secretary for Communication for the National Council of Churches, and I’ve invited him to join us today.

Dr. Fore, you said there was no such thing as an electronic pastor, and elsewhere, you said in a fascinating speech that you gave in England not so long ago, you said: “This is true idolatry, absorbing the secular society’s vision of success and self-centeredness, and justifying it with a thin coating of Christianity.” And you were referring to this electronic church. What does that mean?

FORE: Well, first on the statement that there is no such thing as an electronic pastor: I think that there are certainly such things as electronic religious programs, television programs dealing with religion, and under religious auspices. But what I meant there in that quote is that you cannot function as a pastor in a pastoral relationship that involves people to people through an intermediary of the television set. Television tends to separate people from the real thing, the real person. And as soon as put a television set in between people, and the religious mass or a worship service, then it ceases to be the same kind of service and becomes a kind of a show and has a different kind of participation.

HEFFNER: Dr. Fore, you say television mediates between the individual, the worshipper perhaps, and the pastor. This is not possible. This is not your definition of what a pastor does. But it isn’t television that does that is it? Isn’t it our society…

FORE: Yes, yes…

HEFFNER: …that makes for this relationship?

FORE: I think that’s also true. Of course, television really reflects the deepest assumptions of a society, and that’s part of the problem, and part of the problem of all religious broadcasting. But a Jerry Falwell or an Oral Roberts or a Pat Robinson simply cannot bury you, marry you, baptize your children, visit you when you’re sick, help you when you’re in prison, and so on. That kind of pastoral relationship can’t exist. Now, when I said that there’s true idolatry, that’s a different matter. Here we’re talking about the electronic church, which I prefer to call commercial religion at its worst. And this is when commercial religion, and here I’m talking, to use some names, like Oral Roberts, who tend to use all the Madison Avenue techniques. And while trying to pretend verbally to be criticizing all the values of society, actually are aping the secular values of society. The real values in the electronic church so-called, commercial religion, are wealth, power, winning, getting something for me, for Number One, a kind of an institutionalized selfishness. I think those are antithetical certainly to the Christian religion, and most religions of the world. In that sense, it’s true idolatry, to do these things, to say these things, those values, give it a thin coat of Christianity, and then call it religious.

HEFFNER: But if I recall my history books, of course, correctly, back in the twenties, there was an effort, too, to use religion as a basis for glorifying, for sanctifying, if you will, a kind of American, free, capitalistic spirit, which the church was used in their way. There was no television then…

FORE: You’re quite right.

HEFFNER: …we’re really talking about radio preaching.

FORE: Right.

HEFFNER: You’re…

FORE: You’re absolutely right. That tends to be a heresy of every age, that the secular society, the culture, is going to misuse religion for its own ends. You can find it throughout all of history. You certainly do find it in the 1920s, with some of the tent preachers. You certainly find it in the late 30s and 40s with the “You can win”, “You can be Number One” kind of philosophy of some of the early radio preachers. Now, it’s nothing new. It’s just in new manifestation, new clothing in television. But I think in television it’s exacerbated, because television inherently tends to put pressures on even the religious communicators with the best of motives. It forces them to modify what they’re saying in order to reach the largest possible audience, to get more money in order to buy more time. It forces them to never put any of the hard sayings of religion to people because that would offend them. It, in effect, really forces them into the mold of commercial broadcasting. And I think that, in a way, the commercial broadcasting is as much at fault here as the commercial religionists themselves. It’s a combination of the distortion of commercial religion and the demands of the commercial broadcasting system.

HEFFNER: But if we go back to a point that you make, and make so well in this very interesting paper, you indicate that there are needs, demands in fact, on the part of many of our colleagues, our American fellows, that are met by the electronic preachers.

FORE: Yes, I think that’s the other side of the coin and needs to be said, that the electronic church has identified the needs of a particular audience, in the society that I think the mainline churches have failed to recognize, or failed to meet. These are the people who are alienated from society. They don’t feel like they’ve gotten their fair share of what society has to offer. They’re on the short end of things, generally, of education, and of wealth and of everything else, and of success. They feel disenfranchised. They feel like they don’t have any power. They distrust their politicians, they distrust their society in general. They certainly don’t like the eastern establishment, and so on. These are the people…it’s like the movie “Television” where people are asked the throw open the window and shout out the window, “I’m mad as hell, and I won’t take it anymore!” There are a lot of people who are angry and alienated, and ignored by society. The electronic church preachers have found those people and are not ignoring them. They’re reaching them. And the mainline church, to our everlasting shame, failed to meet those needs. And in that sense, we are partly responsible for having created it.

HEFFNER: Dr. Fore, would you not minister to those needs?

FORE: Absolutely. The problem is, instead of giving them the bread, they’re giving them the stone. You see, they recognize the need, but they’re not meeting the need.

HEFFNER: How could you say that, and how indeed, could I say that…and I might respond watching them exactly as you do…when there are so many millions of Americans who find their needs met with the electronic church, or by the electronic church?

FORE: Certainly for some people it is better than nothing and probably does meet their needs reasonably well. But you only have to watch the programs for a while to recognize how manipulative it is and how partial it is in its gospel. For example, almost all of the electronic church has what I call the “give to get” ploy. They call it the “See thing” or something, but the basic pitch is always “If you give, really give”…or course what they mean is “Give to me”…”If you really give, then God will give back to you and much more”, but they’re not they’re not talking about spiritual blessings, they’re talking about money and things. Now, that’s terrible because look what it does to people who see all the successful people parading before them on the television set, and they decide to buy into this, and they discover that their lives are not radically changed. Because Christianity, or any other religion only helps people deal with their problems, it doesn’t change their environment. So then they say, “There must be something wrong with me”. They’re not going to blame the evangelists, they’re not going to blame God or the television set. They’re going to say “I must be even more inadequate than I thought”. And I think that does a real disservice to people.

HEFFNER: Passing the plate is not really a function alone of television or of electronic preaching, is it?

FORE: Certainly not, and I…


FORE: …think people should vote, in a sense, with their support – a lot of people are sending a great deal of money to these people. But this “Give to Get” business has been characterized as a kind of “heavenly lottery”. You put your money in, and see if you can’t “win it big”. The only problem with a lottery is, is that only one person out of a thousand ever wins and the other 999 lose, and I don’t think that’s doing people…I think that’s doing people an injustice and misleading them.

HEFFNER: Of course, I’m not trying to justify or damn anything. But it seems to me we’re talking about something very old, very ancient…

FORE: Yes.

HEFFNER: …and it’s been with American institutionalization forever.

FORE: Elmer Gantry is a perfect example of that, 30 years ago. You buy your seat in heaven. Not such an original idea. Absolutely. As a historian, you know that back in the Reformation Days, one of the main points of reform that Luther spoke against were the indulgences, the idea that the Catholic Church of that time was selling indulgences…the motto was that as soon as the coin goes into the coffer of the church, the soul, which is hung there in purgatory, springs to heaven. Buying your way into heaven…this is just another manifestation of that today.

HEFFNER: Buying you way into heaven hasn’t been exactly an unknown phenomenon in the Protestant world either, has it?

FORE: That’s right.

HEFFNER: Why are you so concerned about this seemingly innocent way of meeting peoples’ needs?

FORE: Oh, well, I don’t think it’s innocent at all. I think it’s a very, very big business, and very sophisticated. When you think that the income for any given year for the 700 Club is over 70 million dollars…I was down there and they have a huge counting house room there where the money came in and I asked how much had come in and it was two hundred thousand dollars. If they don’t get two hundred thousand dollars every day they check with the post office to see if the mail hasn’t come in. They have to get a million dollars a week or more. Jerry Falwell, 70 million dollars…Oral Roberts, probably in excess of 80 or 90 million dollars. Very, very big business. And I think that in many ways, taking people with a kind of commercialization of religion that I resent. There are a lot of things about commercialization on television that I resent, and this is just one of them.

HEFFNER: Would you deprive the people who are so satisfied that they send their millions, ultimately, in total to these electronic preachers? Would you deprive them of that opportunity?

FORE: Certainly not. In the first place, as I say, some people are served by this. The shut-ins, the sick and elderly who can’t get out…it may be better to provide this electronic community than no community.

HEFFNER: But there are others who are sending their dollars and five dollars and ten dollars.

FORE: They have every right to do that, and Mr. Barnum said “There’s a sucker born every minute”. People have the right to do that. I think it’s important for the church to speak out in criticism about the kind of misleading and manipulative approach that the electronic church embodies.

HEFFNER: You mean the established churches.

FORE: The real church that people are in a face to face relationship with every week.

HEFFNER: That’s your definition. You have to have this relationship. You can’t have the intermediary of television, or it is not a real church. Isn’t that a rather self-serving, establishment position? Not that I would identify you with the establishment…

FORE: There are a great number of churches that are not so-called mainline churches, evangelical churches, such as the Sons of Baptists, for example, that are not part of the Council of Churches, that could be considered evangelical, that are strongly critical of the electronic church itself.

HEFFNER: There’s one aspect of this that hasn’t come up. I haven’t brought it up, but more interestingly I think, you haven’t brought it up. And that is the political complexion of the electronic churchmen. Now, is that a factor in your feeling about this?

FORE: Well, not very much. That’s only…it doesn’t run all through the electronic church. There’s a lot of distinctions that have to be made about these preachers. For example, Robert Schuller does not engage in politics, and on the other hand, Jerry Falwell obviously does. It appears that he is mixing the moral majority and his religion more and more, rather than less and less. So there has to be distinctions made. As a matter of fact, I think it’s important for any expression of religion to express itself also in the political area. I think that there are limitations as to how that ought to be done, but I am glad that Jerry Falwell is willing to say what he thinks about politics. I regret…and I think he’s quite wrong…to say that if I don’t agree with what he says I am not a Christian, or I am not going to heaven…I think that is where he makes his big mistake. He has every right to say those things, just as every United States Catholic bishops have a right to say that we ought to try to reduce the arms conflict.

HEFFNER: I wondered how you would respond to this. I wondered whether you would blanket or condemn the politicalization of the electronic church, which as you say, isn’t political in every aspect. But it’s a fairly widespread phenomenon.

FORE: Yes it is, and that’s not to me the centerpiece of the objections. The objections that I have are theological. See, I say that the electronic church takes people away from real, face-to-face community. And therefore does violence to their fellow man or their community. And that, I think, is very, very bad. I think it’s not good evangelism. It’s been shown that it only re-converts the already converted.

HEFFNER: And all those dollars must be coming from people who mean what it is they say…

FORE: They think that they are going to be bringing about evangelization of the world, a mission. But they don’t realize that five dollars of every seven dollars that Jerry Falwell raises is spent raising the money again, for example. And most of the rest goes to one church and to one educational institution. This money is not basically going into world mission work. It’s mostly going into the coffers of the television stations and the production houses.

HEFFNER: The thing that bothers me a little bit, and I question, is not your motives, but the way it comes out. It sounds so much like what every institution in our society has said about the impact of mass media, of mass culture, not just to single out television or radio, but m ass culture. Something has happened and that it’s bad, and that you can’t have an intermediary and be successful, between the institution and the individual. When you have nearly a quarter of a billion people you can’t have the good old days…

FORE: Well, that’s right, I would never say we should dis-invent the wheel, or not have television. But I think we have to recognize the limitations of any given medium. For example, in the National Council of Churches, where I work, we are engaged in programming every day of the week. We’re on the air on one of the three major networks every week. But we don’t try to give answers to questions people are asking, which most of the electronic church does. We’re trying simply to raise awareness of what’s going on in the world, to raise the moral and ethical issues about our world, to suggest that Christianity has some answers to those problems, and to suggest that people might find some real help by going to their local church. That’s all we think we can do on television. Whereas the electronic church commercial evangelists really seem to think that they can bring about mass conversion of the whole world, to bring Christ to the world. That’s just bad communication theory, as well as bad theology.

HEFFNER: And you are worried about the bad theology, essentially.

FORE: Yes, I am.

HEFFNER: I wonder…knowing your own interest in battling censorship, and your own role in the coalition against censorship, what would you do about this phenomenon that disturbs you so much?

FORE: Well, unfortunately a good deal of this is self-correcting. The statistics show that the audience for the electronic church actually peaked in 1977 and is decreasing. As they cut into each others’ pie, or market, they are suffering financially.

HEFFNER: How about “congregation”, instead of “pie” or “market”?

FORE: Well, no, I think that “market” is the correct term. They deal with it as a market. They’ll go into a particular station’s market, and if they don’t get enough money to cover their air time they drop that market. I know this for a fact, that they deal with it as a market. Never mind evangelism if it doesn’t pay. So some of this is self-correcting. And the other answer is…believe me, what I’ve always said is the answer…education of peoples’ awareness. And finally this thing will balance out. I think we’ll have the electronic church with us on into the future. But I think fewer and fewer people will be enamored by it as we begin to see that it’s really not making fundamental changes in the world.

HEFFNER: Now, I know that the paper that I referred to before, delivered in England, addressed itself to the potential for the development of electronic churches in other countries. Now you say a peak being around a couple of years ago in this country, what about in other countries?

FORE: Yes, well, I said in that speech in England that one of the main reasons that the electronic church has worked here is because of the marriage between essentially a conservative authoritarian theology with an essentially authoritarian one-way medium, television. And the fact that it is commercial. That is, as long as people can buy the time and reach the people and make more money and buy more time, as you can in an electronic church situation. I think another solution here and in Europe is regulation of broadcasting, in the sense of expecting stations to seek out what’s most important in the local community to meet the needs and interests of the total community…everyone, full spectrum…including religious programming, so that every station, including the one presumably that we’re on now, would have to program, would be expected to have some religious programming to meet the vast interests of the total community. In addition to that they could put on as much commercial religion as they want, but first they would have the public obligation to meet the needs and interests of the public community that they serve.

HEFFNER: And yet the fact is that so many millions of people search out, in this country, the electronic church.

FORE: A small percentage, actually. I think we’re talking…in spite of Mr. Falwell claimed last year he had 20 million in his audience, he actually has about 1.6 million in his audience. We’re talking an aggregate of maybe 5% of the total population. What about the other 95%? That’s what I’m saying. The stations have a positive obligation for that other 95%.

HEFFNER: Well, the reason I make the point is that if you talk about the dollars that pour in, and if you talk about the numbers, the numbers aren’t that great, but the dollars are. They’re impressive, very impressive.

FORE: Yes.

HEFFNER: They you must be talking about the numbers of people who are writing checks or digging into their pockets and sending this money. You wouldn’t do away with what satisfies them, I gather.

FORE: Certainly not. No, no, what I say is that once a station meets its public service obligations they can sell time…they should be allowed to sell as much time as they want to whoever wants to t try to reach people who want to pay for that kind of programming.

HEFFNER: But why won’t this still be true idolatry?

FORE: Oh, it is. Oh, as far as I’m concerned theologically it’s misleading people. I don’t believe, for example, that the kind of proof texting that is used to prove every point by most of these preachers is a valid understanding of what the Bible, of what the Bible is and God reveals Himself in the Bible…I could have all kinds of theological disagreements with these people and in fact believe that they’re preaching a kind of idolatry by assuming that the values of society, the secular values of society and clothing them with religious words. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have the right in a democracy to speak those things.

HEFFNER: do I understand correctly that your major concern, then…that you’re willing to let this idolatry go on? Do you just want a piece of the electronic pie free for mainline, traditional broadcasting?

FORE: In a pluralistic society I think it’s important that television using the public airways should meet the total spectrum of public interest, therefore I’m very much against de-regularization of public broadcasting, and that includes public interest in religion. At the same time, I think, that any entrepreneur who wants to get out and sell his brand of religion has the right to do that, and people have the right to support it.

HEFFNER: Well, you see, that’s what puzzles me. Because if it’s wrong theologically, if it is damaging to our psyches and our sense of ourselves, as you seem to indicate, what makes it right when mainline churches get time from commercial broadcasters? What makes that right? What makes that acceptable?

FORE: I see your point. It’s right because, let’s say the Catholic Church has 40% of the audience in the average community. Therefore the Catholic concern should be understood in that community, is all, because there are people of that persuasion there. Again, I believe that in a thorough-going, pluralistic democracy. And the only alternative to that would be to become a Torquemada or somebody, and put Jerry Falwell into the torture chamber. Obviously not what I approve of. I can disapprove of him theologically, but I can defend to my death his right to be wrong theologically.

HEFFNER: So you’re willing to have error…

FORE: (Laughter)


FORE: That’s what makes America great, and let me say that I think one of the small, few, redeeming values of the electronic church is that it has put the mainline church on its mettle because of its failure to recognize the needs of this 5% because they were here before ignored.

HEFFNER: And what is the mainline church doing on its mettle?

FORE: I wish it were doing more, and every time I get an opportunity I tell it to get in there on television and radio with programs that provide the bread but not the stone to those people.

HEFFNER: That’s a wonderful expression, the “bread of life, but not the stone”. Dr. Fore, do you really think that would be successful? Or is your point that it really needn’t be successful in the criteria of success, it’s just what’s done within?

FORE: Thank you. You have said it precisely. The measures of success, in my terms, are not whether we have so many millions of dollars coming in, or so large an audience, as whether I’m faithful to my perception of the gospel, and the church is faithful to it, and reaches a reasonable number of people out there with it.

HEFFNER: No free enterprise with religion.

FORE: Oh, yes, absolutely.

HEFFNER: After a certain point has been satisfied.

FORE: In the case of a broadcast station, they have the public service obligation. Again, the Catholic 40%. That part ought to be met. But after that, I say let free enterprise move. After all, the television set is our electronic soap-box, and Mr. Falwell and the rest must have the right to be on those programs.

HEFFNER: So your concern, again, essentially, is not with what they do, but what with what the mainline church cannot do because they don’t have the income available.

FORE: Yes, and what the society should expect from its broadcasting system.

HEFFNER: Dr. William Fore, thank you so much for joining me today.

FORE: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us here again on THE OPEN MIND.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

This is Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. We would like to know your ideas and your opinions on the subject we discussed. Please send your comments to me in care of this station.