Today...we are about to go deep into a world where "we have always been at war with Eastasia"--the world of dominionist media, where people are isolated from the outside media, where the "two minute hates" are broadcast from dominionist leaders...and where there is not a chance in hell that dominionists will hear a word in edgewise. We begin with a look at the history of dominionist broadcast media, ranging from the early 1910s (yes, really!) to today.
More after the cut...
The subject of dominionist media institutions almost deserves a book in and of itself, in part because dominionist media pretty much was born with dominionism in and of itself. As best I can, though, I'll be giving an intro to the subject over the next few days.
The beginnings of dominionist media
The history of dominionist broadcast media, at least in the manner we are familiar with most, starts largely with one person--Aimee Semple McPherson.
McPherson was one of the first televangelists ever, beginning her radio career in 1918 (shortly after the Navy allowed private broadcasting after World War I)--in fact, she was the very first of a long line of Assemblies televangelists (to this day, Assemblies and other neopentecostal churches dominate televangelism). Ironically, her "radio preacher" empire also led to the first split from the Assemblies; she set up International Foursquare as a "radio church" after the Assemblies threatened to yank her preaching credentials for being a divorcee.
Aimee Semple McPherson originated a lot of the tactics seen in television ministries, including the "love-bombing" approach taken by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker during their PTL years; she also originated the getting "slain in the spirit" manifestation in neopentecostal churches (where people fall on the floor as if they are in a coma or struck by lightning; it's a staple at Assemblies revival services and on televangelist faith-healing programs), was quite possibly the first televangelist to promote a version of "name it and claim it", and incorporated Hollywood theatrics into her radio shows and live preaching--something that, too, would become a veritable staple of dominionist televangelism and television media.
Aimee Semple McPherson also originated the televangelist sex scandal (infamously, she faked her own kidnapping to elope with a lover); the scandal didn't kill the ministry, though--she proceeded to accuse the courts of being "the bats from hell" and essentially claimed that the court was being used by Satan to pillory her. (This, too, is a very common tactic of dominionists today.)
Aimee Semple McPherson is also responsible, in large part, for the beginnings of the popularisation of political dominionism. In particular, her antics were almost singlehandedly responsible for the formation of the FCC (in the 1920s, radio was directly regulated by the Commerce Department, which did not have the legal authority to enforce rules mandating that stations stay on frequency--and Aimee Semple McPherson frequently did change frequency--often stepping all over the signal of other broadcasters, in a pattern that would later be repeated in a different form by large dominionist "satcasting" radio networks):
Not long after McPherson’s skirmish with the Department of Commerce over radio broadcasting regulations, a Federal Court in Chicago ruled in 1926 against Herbert Hoover, regarding what radio stations could and couldn’t do under the Radio Act of 1912. The judge’s ruling determined that Hoover and the Department of Commerce had to issue radio station licenses to all who asked for them, he had no right to restrict what frequencies radio stations used, their hours of operation or their transmitter power. Because of this court ruling, between July of 1926 and January of 1927, broadcasting became a "free-for-all." The number of radio stations increased to over 700 and many jumped around the dial to any frequency they chose and used higher output power than they were assigned. The chaotic situation finally ended in February 1927, when Congress passed the Radio Act of 1927, which formed the Federal Radio Commission. The FRC became today’s FCC in 1934.
Reportedly (though Foursquare has tried to pass this off as urban legend) Aimee Semple McPherson literally cursed Herbert Hoover in the name of Christ if he tried to regulate her station:
KFSG was then assigned to 1080 on the AM dial and on 1090 from April 1925 to February 1928. KFI was at 640, KHJ was at 740 and KNX was on approximately 833 kilocycles, and 890 by the end of 1924. If Aimee was allowing KFSG to use other frequencies other than the one she was assigned to broadcast on, she was not alone. There were plenty of newspaper stories in the mid-1920s, especially in larger eastern cities, about radio stations moving up or down the dial to escape interference from other stations. Whatever took place possibly kept happening between 1924 and sometime in 1925. There must have been some warning from the Department of Commerce that KFSG could lose its license if the station continued breaking the rules, but we have no date of such an incident.
In response to these warnings from the radio regulators, at some point, a frustrated Mrs. McPherson fired off an angry telegram to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. He was in charge of regulating radio broadcasting at the time, before he was elected President of the United States in November of 1928. The telegram to Hoover from Sister Aimee reportedly said:
PLEASE ORDER YOUR MINIONS OF SATAN TO LEAVE MY STATION ALONE. YOU CANNOT EXPECT THE ALMIGHTY TO ABIDE BY YOUR WAVELENGTH NONSENSE. WHEN I OFFER MY PRAYERS TO HIM, I MUST FIT IN WITH HIS WAVE RECEPTION. OPEN THIS STATION AT ONCE!
I wrote to Aimee’s son, Dr. Rolf K. McPherson about this in 1994. He tried to tell me the incident between his mother and Herbert Hoover regarding the telegram never took place! In his letter responding to me, Rolf said, "This is one of the many rumors which have persisted through the years. Mother never attempted to defy the law, but always endeavored to comply with the rules. The statements you mention certainly were not typical of her way of doing things. I might explain that the equipment in those days was not always adequate, but the situations were cleared as quickly as they could be."
However, history seems to prove that such an incident more than likely took place. Matthew T. Schaefer, Archivist at the Hoover Presidential Library, responded to my inquiry about this much-reported incident of early radio history. He wrote the following to me: "Trying to separate the history from the legend of the McPherson telegram to Hoover is difficult. All who have written on Hoover, the Department of Commerce and radio mention the McPherson telegram." These sources include two biographies on Herbert Hoover and a dissertation, and they all cite volume II of Hoover’s memoirs, published in 1952 as their source. Schaefer continues, "In the memoirs, Hoover writes as if he has the McPherson telegram in hand. Unfortunately (for today’s historians), the original McPherson telegram is not extant. This leaves as the earliest source, a radio address Hoover gave on November 11, 1945 on the 25th anniversary of radio. In this speech, Hoover tells the story about KFSG violating the radio regulations, then says ‘I can give you approximately the telegram I received from her,’ then proceeds with the words of Aimee Semple McPherson."
In the radio speech from 1945, the words Hoover spoke are nearly the same as in his memoirs, except for the last three sentences of the telegram, which he read this way:
WHEN I OFFER UP MY PRAYERS, I MUST FIT INTO THE RECEIVING SETS IN HEAVEN. YOU DON’T KNOW THEIR WAVELENGTHS AND NEITHER DO I. STOP THIS INTERFERENCE WITH ME AT ONCE.
The last sentence seems to be Sister Aimee’s way of telling Hoover and the radio inspectors from the Department of Commerce to stop sending her letters about KFSG straying off-frequency and interfering with other stations. Hoover reportedly told her that if she stuck to the rules, she could keep her license for KFSG and stay on the air. Another version of the story told in some radio history books says Hoover convinced McPherson to hire a competent broadcasting engineer to keep the KFSG transmitter within its assigned power and frequency. The reason this story is inaccurate is she already had a capable engineer for KFSG from the start, Kenneth Ormiston.
She was also the first dominionist televangelist to explicitly run a character assassination campaign against a non-dominionist candidate. In a pattern that is almost identical to the 501(c)3 violations of Rod Parsley and occuring in thousands of neopente dominionist and SBC churches today, Aimee Semple McPherson accused a Democratic candidate of being a "closet Red" and an agent of Satan in a manner eerily similar to modern dominionists:
Religious Right broadcasters long ago learned an important lesson: Repeat almost anything often enough and many people will believe you -- even if it leads them to act against their own interests. Starting with radio evangelism in the 1930s, media-evangelists have perfected the use of each new technology to influence elections and legislation, hammering home reactionary theology with the clear aim of gaining political power.
Aimee Semple McPherson pioneered the approach in the 1930s on a powerful Los Angeles' radio station. Broadcasting from her "temple," McPherson styled herself a modern-day Joan of Arc in a titanic struggle against communism. Her crusade reached the boiling point in 1934 during the insurgent Democratic gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair. The socialist author had pledged to "end poverty in California," but the evangelist, in an alliance with Republican leaders, Hollywood propagandists and political consultants, redefined the race in apocalyptic terms.
"Someone has cast in the poison herb," she bellowed on the Sunday before Election Day, "and if we eat thereof we shall all perish and the glory of our nation as it has stood through the years shall perish with us." At first the front runner in an era of mass unemployment and hard times, Sinclair had become the target of the nation’s first "media campaign," and ultimately lost by 200,000 votes. McPherson had seized on growing fears of revolution, convincing her flock -- many of them poor -- that the real enemy was satanic communism and its Democratic messenger.
Not much has changed since then except the targets: the contemporary Christian Right rails against Satan in the form of feminists, gay rights activists, and any politician who doesn't endorse their vision of an essentially theocratic state. Since the late 20th century, the rhetoric has turned increasingly outrageous, while the potential impacts become even more dangerous.
In fact, Matthew Sutton's Clutching to "Christian" America: Aimee Semple McPherson, the Great Depression, and the Origins of Pentecostal Political Activism (appearing in Journal of Policy History - Volume 17, Number 3, 2005, pp. 308-338 and availale to those with JSTOR access) is a definitive paper on how Aimee Semple McPherson was probably the first well known dominionist preacher--setting the mold for people like Pat Robertson, Rod Parsley, Ted Haggard, Jerry Falwell, and a veritable host of dominionist televangelists.
Aimee Semple McPherson's KFSG also invented one other innovation that would become very important in dominionist circles--the "parallel economy" of dominionist entertainment and what might be best described as "dominionist fanfiction", specifically in the guise of a specifically "Christian" radio adventure show:
Along with Sister Aimee’s sermons on Sundays and other days of the week, the station broadcast a Christian action serial, "The Adventures of Jim Trask-Lone Evangelist." This was probably brought on by the popularity of the radio action serials then, such as "Little Orphan Annie", "The Lone Ranger", "Superman", etc.
Dominionist and other "religious' radio shows--including, notably, the infamously anti-semitic "Father" Coughlin--eventually led to the end of network sponsored religious programming from the "Big Two" networks (CBS and NBC--the old NBC Red and NBC Blue networks had not yet split into NBC and ABC yet):
NBC’s approach became definitive of the network philosophy regarding religion that developed. ‘NBC will serve only the central or national agencies of great religious faiths .. . as distinguished from individual churches or small group movements’, said a 1928 NBC statement of principles (Jennings, 1969: 29). NBC was the dominant network in the early years. Its major rival CBS (founded in 1927) struggled financially and, as a result, was initially open to selling air time for religion.
Independent religious broadcasters thus gravitated to CBS, and one of them, Father Charles Coughlin, precipitated yet another crisis over religious controversy. Coughlin first began appearing on CBS in 1930, and rapidly began to build a following through his mixture of populism and ardent nationalism. His program took on more and more of a ‘political’ stance, as he attacked both ‘unregulated capitalism’ and ‘international bankers’. A confrontation ensued with CBS management, which insisted that Coughlin ‘... desist from these subjects and submit advance scripts’ (Barnouw, 1966: 46). Coughlin appealed directly to listeners, who sent 1.25 million letters of protest to the network.
CBS decided to take a different approach along the lines of the NBC model. It moved to replace all paid religious broadcasts (including Coughlin’ s) with a program called Church of the Air, which offered free air time to speakers from the three ‘major’ faiths on a rotating basis. This donation of air time, called ‘sustaining time’, thus became the dominant model for network treatment of religion.
Coughlin continued his program by creating his own network of individual stations (based at WOR in New York) linked by leased telephone lines. He became more and more overtly ‘political’ in his broadcasts, first supporting Roosevelt, and then teetering toward fascism. He suggested that ‘Christians suffer more at the hands of the Reds than Jews do in the Third Reich’, that Nazi actions elicited publicity because of ‘Jewish influence in radio, journalism and finance’, and that Jews were leaders in communism against which Nazi Germany had to fight in self protection (New York limes, 21 November 1938: 7). He also objected to attempts to censor him on radio as a ‘typical case of Jewish terrorism of American public opinion’ (New York Times, 27 November 1938: 46). His perceived anti-Semitism and pro-Nazism eventually led to his being discredited in the wake of national consensus forged by the USA’s entry into the war.
The Coughlin affair had far-reaching consequences for broadcast policy and practice regarding religion. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the industry trade association, moved in 1939 to adopt its first industry code, and it included provisions covering religion that were widely perceived to have resulted from the still-fresh memories of the Coughlin controversy. The New York Times reported that the code ‘was seen in some quarters as designed to bar Father Charles E. Coughlin from buying time on stations belonging to the Association ...‘ The code was explicit regarding religion:
Radio ... may not be used to convey attacks upon another’s race or religion. Rather it should be the purpose of the religious broadcast to promote the spiritual harmony and understanding of mankind and to administer broadly to the varied religious needs of the community. (quoted in Jennings, 1969: 109)
In its discussion of appropriate approaches to controversy, the code set an important precedent, and provides a telling account of the developing self-understanding of broadcasters regarding their role as guardians of public discourse. The code directed that potential controversy in broadcasts should be dealt with by integrating controversial spokespeople into ‘public-forum-type’ broadcasts, where the ‘... control of the fairness of the program rests wholly with the broadcasting station or network’ (New York Times, 4 October 1939: 15).
Eventually radio broadcasters started taking the NBC model--namely, only offering radio time to national denomination reps rather than individual radio preachers; to this day, dominionist radio broadcasting is effectively constrained to Sunday morning programs on local channels or to dominionist owned-and-operated radio stations and networks.
Dominionist groups, however, were not about to be stopped.
Dominionist broadcasters get a lobby
In 1942, a number of denominations (including, notably, the Assemblies of God) created an alternative to the mainstream ecumenical Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches) called the National Association of Evangelicals. The NAE was quite explicitly set up as a place where mainstream Christianity was flatly not welcome:
In 1942 conservative evangelicals formed the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), whose mission was to "raise up a witness against the apostasy of groups claiming to represent Protestant Christianity without such loyalty to the historic Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ." This group was organized to create a distinct separation from liberal denominations, which was necessary in order to gain power in the up-and-coming broadcast industry. In 1944, the NAE formed the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), whose goals were more specific to safeguarding access for its conservative evangelical membership to the airwaves, in addition to providing protection from competition with liberal denominational broadcasters and the United States government.
The core membership of the NAE has always been dominionist churches (the Assemblies was one of the, if not the, founding membership and most of the other early members were neopente churches in the same mold or fundamentalist churches that shared core theology with the Assemblies); churches have joined as their membership has gone either more solidly dominionist or as they have been steeplejacked.
Two years later (after the decisions of CBS and NBC to only carry denomination-representative level broadcasting), they created a lobbying body for televangelists called the National Religious Broadcasters (of note, the NAE blames the decisions of NBC and CBS to stop carrying televangelists on a conspiracy of mainstream Christian churches and not on the decidedly bad behaviour of televangelists of the time).
Despite NRB lobbying, national television networks would in general not give broadcast time to individual televangelists (the networks maintained a strict "denominational level only" approach to network-level religious broadcasting until 1975 on both radio and TV networks); rather, televangelists began syndicating TV programs to stations. (Many preachers, like Billy Graham and Jimmy Swaggart as well as most of the "old-school" televangelists, got their start primarily through syndicated Sunday morning television shows.) A look at religious broadcasting in the 1960's is revealing:
Part of the reason for the early successful syndication and acceptance of these independent programs was their quality and dependability. Though produced by evangelical denominations, the programs reflected characteristics similar to other sustaining-time programming: they were low-key in their approach, they were moderate in their doctrine, and they often employed a dramatic format.
There were many other independent Christian groups which had neither the resources nor the stature to attract free time from either networks or local stations for the broadcast of their programs. These were generally evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant groups from the Southern states, most of whom had been active in radio. When television arrived, the more aggressive also moved into programming on the new medium. Because they lacked the advantage of free air-time and the resources of large denominations behind them, those which eventually survived on television were highly competitive in nature and had developed the structure and charisma for attracting substantial financial support from the viewing audience to enable them to purchase commercial air-time from the stations. It was these independent, audience-supported evangelists who came to take over the religious airwaves in the 1960s and 1970s and earned the nickname of the electronic church.
Coming into the 1960s, therefore, there existed primarily a four-part structure in religious television.
- Network sustaining-time programs, produced by networks in association with the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Roman Catholic Church, the National Council of Churches, and several other recognized faiths and denominations.
- Syndicated sustaining-time programs, comprised primarily of pro- grams produced by individual denominations and syndicated nationally.
- Local programs, mostly sustaining-time programs, produced by local television stations either independently or in association with local religious groups or churches.
- Paid-time, audience supported syndicated programs, produced primarily by independent Protestant groups, supported by audience contributions, and aired on time purchased from individual local stations.
In spite of the obvious financial disadvantages of having to purchase all their air-time, raise their own money, and produce their own programs, paid-time programming fared very well. By 1959, 53 percent of all religious time on television was occupied by programs that purchased their air-time, compared to 47 percent by all other types of religious programs. (7) Though much of this air-time was initially in the smaller markets, it illuminates the doggedness which has characterized these smaller religious broadcasters.
- Federal Communications Commission, Submission by the Communications Committee of the United States Catholic Conference and Others in the Matter of Amendment of the Commission's Rules Concerning Program Definitions for Commercial Broadcast Stations, BC Docket No. 78-355, RM-2709, 1979, Table II.)
As a minor aside, this would also lead to the dominionist "telethon" format--which eventually led to the infamous claim by Oral Roberts that "God would call him to heaven" unless he raised a million dollars by month's end.
Broadcasting became decidedly friendlier during the 60's and 70's for dominionists. Among other things, UHF television station broadcasting upened up in this era; UHF stations lived on syndicated content for much of their broadcast material (in the days before Fox and WB/UPN/CW). Televangelists started setting up some of their own stations under nonprofit television rules; in other cases, they simply rented time and started the establishment of small empires:
Changes in the relative structures of religious television began to occur during the 1960s. There was a marked decrease in programming which was broadcast on sustaining-time, and a corresponding growth in both the number and size of the independently syndicated evangelical programs which were broadcast on purchased time. These changes accelerated even further in the 1970s.
Some of the growth patterns for these evangelical programs are dramatic. Rex Humbard, for example, began his television ministry in 1953, broadcasting his local church service in Akron, Ohio. From 1953 to 1969 Humbard was able to develop his program and financial support so that he was able to purchase air-time regularly on 68 stations. In the following year, the number of stations carrying his program rose to 110, and an additional 100 stations were added in each of the following two years. In just three years his purchasing capability and syndication quadrupled!
Oral Roberts experienced similar growth with his program. His television ministry began in 1954 with a revivalist program which was syndicated over 16 stations. In 1967 Roberts perceived that television was a medium which required a different approach from the one that he had been using and that had brought him controversial fame on radio. In that year he closed down his television program and began to redesign it. His new program appeared two years later. It comprised a variety show featuring well-known guests and performers, with a message delivered by Roberts in a much smoother, "cooler" style. His formula apparently worked. His Thanksgiving Special in the following year, using his new approach, reached over 27 million people.(9)
Since the late 1960s there has been a rapid growth of independently syndicated evangelical or fundamentalist programs which purchase their air- time from local stations and raise support from their audience. The number of these programs increased from 38 in 1970 to 72 in 1978. (10)
Starting in 1960, independent evangelical organizations also began to purchase and establish their own television stations and to develop their own programming networks. While these groups had owned radio stations in different parts of the country for several decades, the scarcity of television frequencies delayed their entry into the television market. The expansion of UHF-frequency licenses provided them with the opportunity they needed, and by 1978 there were approximately 30 religious television stations with another 30 applications for a television license by religious groups before the FCC. (11)
The impact of this recent growth on the nature of religious television in America has been profound. Programs that purchase their air-time (primarily evangelical and fundamentalist programs) have come to dominate television's regular religious programming. The extent to which they have grown is indicated by their dominance of air-time. While in 1959 programs that purchased their air-time accounted for 53 percent of religious air-time, by 1977 they occupied 92 percent of air-time used for religious programs.
. . .
The near elimination of local programming has come about because local stations have found it more profitable to sell time to evangelical and fundamentalist syndicators than to provide time free for public-service programming.
These changes have caused a marked lack of representativeness in the presentation of religious faith on American television. In 1979 more than half of all national airings of religious programs were accounted for by only 10 major evangelical programs. Other religious expressions and traditions were almost forced off the air totally by these (now) wealthy conservative Protestant organizations.
The irony of this situation is that most of these independent broadcasters are associated with National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), a business association of evangelical broadcasters. NRB was formed in 1944 with the primary intent of gaining more and better air-time for their associates. These broadcasters, who once could not get enough time, have been so effective in their struggle that they now hold a virtual monopoly over air- time used for religious programming, having forced most other religious programs off the air by their cut-throat purchase of time. Yet they show none of the consideration for other types of programming which they originally sought for themselves.
- Ellens, Models, p. 76.
- Arbitron figures, quoted in Jeffrey Hadden and Charles Swann, Prime-time Preachers: The Rising Power of Televangelism, Reading, Mass.: Addison- Wesley, 1981, p. 55.
- Personal correspondence from Ben Armstrong, Executive Secretary of NRB, on March 31, 1980. Definitions of what constitutes a "religious station" vary significantly, from one owned by an identifiable religious group to one with a specified amount of religious programming.)
This was very signifigant in the rise of dominionism and the promotion of dominionist theology; one of the people who got his start in this era was none other than Jerry Falwell, and another was Pat Robertson. For that matter, the vast majority of the televangelists of this era were Assemblies of God "name it and claim it" promoters who promoted faith-healing as well as--increasingly--claims that the US had fallen into perdition and itself needed "naming and claiming for Christ".
Much as there was an increase in television preaching by dominionists, the AM bands began to open as stations were abandoned for the new FM high-fidelity bands. Religious broadcasters began buying these up as well as the "non-profit" FM bands at the low end of the dial reserved for educational and religious broadcasting.
Dominionist broadcasting got a major jump in the late 1970s and early 1980s from two major changes--the invention of satellite television networks and cable, and the opening of the shortwave radio bands to private nonprofits.
Tomorrow, we continue the series with a discussion of dominionist broadcasting in the modern era--including discussions of the major players nowadays in dominionist broadcasting.