Transmitting the word: a cultural analysis of religious broadcasting
Wanner, Curt Nielsen
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This dissertation analyzes the use of televised religious broadcasting by the evangelical community. The analysis proceeds from a culturalist orientation that locates religious broadcasting in the historical context of American 20th century evangelicalism. Starting in the 1940’s, religious broadcasting has been a critical and intentional component to the rise of this religious community. It has provided a platform for evangelicals to gain social, cultural, political and economic power. Religious broadcasting is a site of social construction that provides evangelicals with significant symbolic inventories that allow them to negotiate their specifically religious identity. As this is performed in the midst of world they see as increasingly secular, religious broadcasting also becomes a site of resistance, which has galvanized the evangelical community into a prominent social movement. To this end, religious broadcasting produces crisis narratives that frame evangelicals as both socially marginalized and empowered. This dissertation will specifically analyze three case studies that represent three different approaches to religious broadcasting. The first case study is Jerry Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour. This approach, “camera on the pulpit,” represents the traditional practice of placing a camera in a church sanctuary in order to broadcast the weekly service. The second case study is Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club, one of the longest running programs in television history. This approach, “camera on the couch,” represents an accommodating strategy that sought to copy popular television forms. The third case study is Joel Osteen’s Joel. This approach, “camera on the performance,” represents the most contemporary form of religious broadcasting and represents a highly developed understanding of contemporary media branding. Evangelical religious broadcasting has never been able to attract a significant audience of non-believers. Therefore, its manifest motivations of engaging the culture and bringing the gospel to the lost world, have never materialized. Instead latent motivations have developed that relate to the actual audience. Religious broadcasting allows the evangelical audience to “work out their salvation” in the biblical frames of being in and not of the “world.” This ultimately provides evangelicals with feelings of legitimacy, relevance and empowerment in the contemporary cultural context.