Commentary Magazine

Prime Time Preachers, by Jeffrey K. Hadden and Charles K. Swann; Fundamentalism and American Culture, by George Marsden

The Fundamentalists

Prime Time Preachers: The Rising Power of Televangelism.
by Jeffrey K. Hadden and Charles E. Swann.
Addison-Wesley. 217 pp. $11.95.

Fundamentalism and American Culture.
by George Marsden.
Oxford University Press. 306 pp. $19.95.

Although the current wave of religious fundamentalism has been building for some years now, we still lack a balanced, reasoned interpretation of this most recent manifestation of a persistent theme in American culture. The dominant tendency is to view it as a movement of the dispossessed and alienated—of those who, for one reason or another, have been left behind by the mainstream and who now, unable or unwilling to adapt to modern American society, stubbornly cling to the past. So pervasive is this view that even sympathetic observers tend to regard these stridently traditionalist critics of modern science and zealous defenders of biblical inerrancy as engaged in a hopelessly rear-guard action. Fortunately, after several years of superficial treatment at the hands of journalists, the fundamentalist resurgence is receiving more measured, thoughtful attention.

The most dramatic manifestation of fundamentalism has undoubtedly been on television, where several preachers have in recent years built up sizable audiences. Relying on contributions from loyal viewers, these “prime-time preachers” have not only paid for valuable air time (unlike mainstream ministers, who have depended on donated time), but have also established substantial production companies. Not surprisingly, the preachers and their organizations have attracted the attention of those eager to explore potential “abuses of unaccountable power”—especially power presumed to be wielded by religious figures.

As a result, we have been treated to countless “exposés” purporting to demonstrate how these preachers beguile helpless viewers who, if more adequately informed, would presumably give their money to worthier causes. (A dispassionate observer, however, might not see much difference between contributing $25 to a public-television station to get a canvas carry-all worth $10 and sending in $25 to Jerry Falwell to get a Bible worth $9.50.) As it turns out, the principal beneficiaries of these exposés have been the television preachers themselves. Always eager to claim the widest possible constituency for their cause, they have willingly sat back and allowed liberal hysteria to inflate the size of their audience into the tens of millions. Armed with such figures, the preachers have had little trouble gaining the attention of politicians. In the meantime the actual size of their constituencies has gone largely unexamined.

For this reason Prime Time Preachers: The Rising Power of Televangelism is particularly welcome. It provides some of the first hard evidence on what has come to be called “the electronic church.” The authors, Jeffrey K. Hadden, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, and Charles E. Swann, a Presbyterian minister and manager of a public radio station, seem well suited to their task. Though clearly uneasy with fundamentalist television preachers, they make some attempt to understand them and their followers on their own terms.

Using television rating data, Hadden and Swann demonstrate that the audience for fundamentalist programs has been greatly exaggerated. For example, they report that in early 1980 the average weekly audience for all nationally syndicated religious programs—fundamentalist as well as others—was about 20.5 million. This total weekly audience for sixty-six different religious programs was less than the typical weekly audience for a hit program like M*A*S*H.

The ratings of individual preachers are perhaps even more surprising. The number one and two religious programs during February 1980 were Oral Roberts and Rex Humbard, with estimated audiences of 2.7 and 2.4 million respectively. And during this same period the average weekly audience for Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour was about 1.5 million, placing him sixth among all religious programs—at a time when he was considered to be wielding significant influence in the presidential primaries. This is certainly less than the 15- to 25-million viewers variously claimed by Falwell and attributed to him by his many critics.

Hadden and Swann have another surprise. Their data indicate that the audience for religious programming actually peaked in the mid-70’s. Indeed, the biggest boom for nationally syndicated programs occurred between 1970 and 1976, when the total audience jumped from 10 to 23 million. That high has not been surpassed since then and has actually begun to decline somewhat. Although they present no specific trend data for individual programs, the authors reasonably conclude that such programs also reached their peak around 1976.

Perhaps less surprising but nevertheless significant is the evidence Hadden and Swann offer about who watches these programs. The ratings indicate that the audience for fundamentalist programs—indeed, for all religious programs—is disproportionately elderly and female. Anywhere from two-thirds to three-fourths of the viewers of these programs are over fifty; an equally high proportion are women. Similarly, the authors’ data reveal that the bulk of the fundamentalist audience is Southern. Midwesterners tend to be the second largest group of viewers, with Westerners and Easterners the least numerous. Typical is Jerry Falwell’s audience as of February 1980: 45 percent from the South, 27 percent from the Midwest, 15 percent from the West, and only 12 percent from the East. Hadden and Swann conclude that “the electronic church is still heavily a Bible Belt phenomenon.”



Unfortunately, after cutting through much cant about the influence of fundamentalist programming, Hadden and Swann succumb to a fashionable but wrong-headed theory to interpret their findings. They claim to discern in the electronic church ominous signs of an increasingly “privatized faith” in which “belief does not involve a relationship between the believer and a fellowship of believers.” Resurrecting the tarnished image of “the mass society,” the authors straightforwardly assert that “Television . . . destroys community.”

Now it may be true that television has weakened some social institutions, but it is not clear that the electronic church has so affected local churches. Certainly, Hadden and Swann fail to demonstrate that this has occurred; much of their evidence indicates the contrary. For example, it is frequently asserted that fundamentalist television programs have drained people and resources from local congregations. Yet the authors’ review of the available evidence indicates that whatever financial drain may have occurred, it has been greatly exaggerated by critics. As for church attendance, the authors cite Gallup and other survey data that actually show a small increase as a result of watching these programs. As Hadden and Swann note, the very phrase “prime-time preacher” points to the fact that these men have concentrated their efforts at times other than the traditional Sunday morning slots, when most of their potential viewers are in church.

When they speak of privatized religion, Hadden and Swann may have in mind millions of isolated elderly, sitting home watching the tube. Perhaps this is what they mean when they claim “television destroys community.” But this is to confuse cause with correlation. It is more probable that women and the elderly are the prime audience for the electronic church because they are the most likely to be at home. But in any event, the authors know nothing about what these viewers do when they are not watching television. We cannot therefore conclude, as do Hadden and Swann, that viewing these programs precludes social and community activities.

More importantly, the stress on privatized religion simply flies in the face of what we know about the social reality of the fundamentalist movement which sustains the electronic church. For those swept up in this phenomenon it is an intensely fraternal experience. In thousands of small fundamentalist congregations across the nation, friends and neighbors come together several times a week for religious services, choir practice, Christian school activities, visiting the sick, and marching to state capitals. All this Hadden and Swann completely ignore.

What Hadden and Swann lack is a wider perspective from which to evaluate the fundamentalist movement. This is particularly unfortunate because it is a phenomenon marked by ambiguity and incongruity. For example, at one point the authors describe the new multimillion-dollar headquarters of a Christian television network. It is crammed with the latest electronic equipment, housed in a building designed to look like an oversized colonial church. Hadden and Swann never elaborate on this very suggestive image.

Surely, however, it is worthy of note that self-conscious traditionalists and ardent critics of modern science should rely on the latest communications technology to spread the Word. Of course the preachers are skillful entrepreneurs, who want to reach the widest possible audience, and television—the institution in American society most responsible in their view for introducing alien values into the home—is clearly an ideal locus for doing battle with the evils of modernity. But it is not difficult to imagine an alternative scenario, namely, that of a traditionalist movement which rejects the taint of association with the sources of its displeasure. Today’s fundamentalists have not indulged in such Luddite tendencies. Indeed, as many observers have pointed out, their programs frequently imitate aspects of the more successful “secular” programs.



Still the question remains: why has this traditionalist movement taken the particular form it has? One critic who has addressed these issues is Frances FitzGerald. In a New Yorker profile of the Reverend Jerry Falwell,1 she focuses on the contrast between the fundamentalists’ gloomy, apocalyptic theology and their optimistic, middle-class values.

In addition to their much noted rejection of Darwinian science and their belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, most fundamentalists today subscribe to the doctrine of dispensational pre-millennialism. This teaches that the world is now very close to the reign of the anti-Christ prophesied in the Book of Daniel. It is during this period that Christ will at last return to earth and lead his righteous armies against the forces of evil. In preparation for his return, fundamentalists seek to be part of the “saving remnant” of true believers who will be spared the horror of the final apocalyptic struggle. Thus, fundamentalists describe themselves as living “in” but not “of” this world, as set apart from the doomed civilization in which they happen to find themselves. It is partly in accordance with this belief that they refrain from such worldly activities as smoking, dancing, listening to rock music, and watching movies or television.

Yet while preoccupied with setting themselves apart, fundamentalists also seem intent on participating in American society. Frances FitzGerald focuses on the strong middle-class aspirations of Falwell and his congregation in Lynchburg, Virginia. These people are “clerical workers, technicians, and small businessmen, and skilled and semi-skilled workers in the new factories.” Although they may not have matched Falwell’s own material achievements—he is often photographed wearing expensive clothes and standing beside his swimming pool and impressive house—they identify with them. Like most of his congregation, Falwell has known difficult times growing up in a rural area long untouched by postwar prosperity. Today, however, Lynchburg is part of the New South. It is a place where ordinary citizens earn enough to support modest but comfortable homes on clean and pleasant streets. Having known what it is like to be on the edge, Falwell and his congregation clearly relish their new place within the mainstream.

One way fundamentalists have resolved the tension between worldly aspirations and apocalyptic theology has been through their patriotism. In their cosmology, America itself has become the saving remnant—the bastion of righteousness in a godless world. Yet now America has begun to change, and no longer seems to stand for what it once did. Hence the dilemma confronting fundamentalists today: just as they have become able to secure themselves a place in the American mainstream, it has begun to offend them.



Frances FitzGerald is certainly not the first to observe the genuine ambivalence toward American society that is at the heart of the fundamentalist resurgence today.

As the historian George Marsden demonstrates in his Fundamentalism and American Culture—without doubt the most thoughtful recent work on the subject—that ambivalence has long been evident. Marsden quotes Dwight Moody, perhaps the foremost revivalist of the late 19th century:

I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, “Moody, save all you can.”

Marsden goes on to observe, much as one might of Jerry Falwell today:

The separation from the world [that Moody demanded] was not radically outward as in the Anabaptist tradition, but rather an inner separation marked by the outward signs of a life free from specific vices. Despite the hopeless corruption of the world, there was no demand to abandon most of the standards of the respectable American middle-class way of life. It was to these standards, in fact, that people were to be converted.

Marsden traces the roots of fundamentalism in the evangelical fervor that swept ante-bellum America, what has come to be known as the Second Great Awakening. From towns along the Erie Canal in New York to the farthest reaches of the Western frontier, revivals and camp meetings were everywhere in evidence. This religious fervor gradually spilled over into social reform movements such as abolitionism, temperance, and Sabbatarianism. What these varied efforts had in common was an intense optimism about America and its future. America was the New Israel, the visible manifestation of God’s will on earth, a place where man and society were being morally perfected in preparation for the glorious return of Christ and his thousand-year reign of righteousness. As the words of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” suggest, from this widely shared perspective the Civil War was one more crusade against iniquity. The victory of the North merely confirmed the evangelicals in their righteousness.

Belief in science and the progress it fosters was an important part of what Marsden calls the “evangelical consensus.” Of course, when they spoke of science, the evangelicals had in mind Bacon’s inductive method—the derivation of unchanging laws from the straightforward observation of facts. In the stridently democratic culture of the ante-bellum period, Americans seized upon this view of science with particular ardor. For it meant that both scientific truth and religious truth were there to be discovered by ordinary men using common sense, unaided by priests, churches, or metaphysical speculations. In America, spiritual and material progress would be unimpeded by any obstacles between rational individuals and the facts of nature—or of the Bible.



Thus, at the close of the Civil War evangelical Protestantism was an integral part of a happy synthesis of religion, science, and American nationalism. And it was precisely because these mutually reinforcing elements were bound up so tightly and coherently that Darwinism came as such a blow. It was not merely that Darwin challenged the biblical version of creation. A much more profound challenge, according to Marsden, was Darwin’s method of forming and testing hypotheses. His reliance on the speculative constructs that had been rejected by Baconian science challenged the evangelical consensus at its epistemological core. From within that consensus Darwinism appeared to open up not only science, but American democracy and religion itself, to a radical subjectivism.

Not all American evangelicals reacted negatively to Darwin’s challenge. Many were able to accept his work by drawing a sharp distinction between science, based on reason, and religion, based on faith. But this was obviously a difficult step for those accustomed to believing that science and religion rested on the same foundation. The once solid evangelical consensus gradually weakened, and there began a long process of bifurcation into two opposing camps. Liberal evangelicals, or modernists, clung to the optimistic reformism of the ante-bellum era. Their position came to be known as post-millennialism. The antimodernists gravitated toward the pessimistic doctrine of pre-millennialism. For them it became increasingly difficult to see God’s work in a society growing ever more godless; the New Israel was coming to resemble Babylon. All hope of reforming this world faded and was replaced by withdrawal in preparation for the imminent end.



Despite the shocks to the evangelical consensus, Marsden shows that throughout the 19th century the divergent tendencies were able to coexist within the various Protestant denominations. For the overwhelming majority of Protestants, and hence for the overwhelming majority of Americans, the evangelical consensus held together well into the 20th century.

World War I changed all this. The outbreak of war in Europe confirmed antimodernists in their belief that civilization was doomed. When America entered the conflict, their leaders expressed indifference to the outcome. But growing wartime hysteria forced many to abandon this untenable position. So, too, did vehement attacks from modernists who zealously supported the war—in part out of the defensive realization that their reformist optimism had been shattered. Under this pressure, the antimodernists also became veritable super-patriots by war’s end. This was of course entirely consistent with their roots in the American evangelical tradition. But it also committed them to a civilization that their evolving theology had written off as godless.

It was during this period that the various antimodernist groups began to call themselves “fundamentalists.” Having committed themselves to the defense of American society, they turned, once the war was over, to its reform. The fundamentalists first attempted, unsuccessfully, to purge the modernists from the various Protestant denominations; it was they who were driven out instead. They also turned their attention to such public institutions as the schools, where their efforts culminated in the Scopes trial of 1925.

That trial proved to be the turning point in the modernist/fundamentalist controversy. Though John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution, fundamentalism itself was the loser in the court of public opinion. As Scopes’s attorney, William Jennings Bryan, ineptly defended the old-time faith against the humiliating attack of Clarence Darrow, fundamentalism, once acknowledged by the likes of Walter Lippmann as a respectable, coherent critique of modern civilization, was quickly discredited. The national media were all there to spread, the word, of its demise.

Set in “a one-horse Tennessee village,” as Mencken put it, the trial fixed the popular image of fundamentalism as the religious impulse of uneducated, rural yokels. Once cast in this role, the yokels responded by embracing fundamentalism as their own, and it became “a focal point for the real hostility of rural America toward much of modern culture and intellect.” Forced out of the mainstream churches, fundamentalist preachers took to the airwaves and carried their message further and further away from the centers of American culture.



Marsden’s interpretation puts today’s fundamentalist resurgence in a new perspective. Most significantly, it suggests that the conventional view of fundamentalism as the expression of a rural, Southern hostility to modern America is extremely misleading. In the first place, prior to 1925 fundamentalism was primarily not a rural but an urban phenomenon, concentrated in the North and East. Its social base was mostly lower-middle-class Protestants, city dwellers overwhelmed by the changes wrought by mass immigration. For these people fundamentalism served as the core of a kind of defensive ethnic identity.

In the second place, as we have already seen, today’s fundamentalism is not a movement of the backward or dispossessed but of the newly arrived, struggling to maintain their place in the American mainstream. In this respect Jerry Falwell and his followers are the counterparts of the fundamentalists in the Northern cities before the Scopes fiasco. Though the comparison is by no means exact, both movements exhibit not merely opposition to contemporary developments in theology and religion, but the struggle to maintain standards of middle-class respectability in the midst of unsettling change. At the end of the last century the problem was the strange new diversity of immigrant cities. Today the problem is intrusive government and the pervasive adversary culture, which are increasingly in evidence as the New South becomes more tightly woven into the national community. In neither case has the action been wholesale rejection of American society.



But if fundamentalists today do not totally reject American society, neither do they eagerly embrace it. What they share with their precedessors is a deep ambivalence. As George Marsden demonstrates so vividly, the fundamentalist commitment to America ultimately collides with the pessimistic, world-renouncing theology that teaches distrust of all temporal institutions.

There are of course different ways of viewing this ambivalence. Frances FitzGerald is clearly put off by it. She writes:

They [Falwell’s congregation]. . . thought there was a compromise—or they wanted it both ways. They left the coal-mining valleys of Appalachia and came into the city to work for Babcock and Wilcox or the Dairy Queen. They would not for anything give up their cars or their television sets; they liked their freedom; but much of what they saw in this new world either scared or offended them. With this ambivalence, they looked to Falwell for all the old certainties done up in glossy packages. They looked to the church for a haven of security—but a haven with windows on the wide world.

Miss FitzGerald has difficulty coming to terms with people whose attitudes and opinions do not come in neat, coherent bundles. For her there is something escapist and in-authentic about people who want America’s affluence but not its problems. Her concept of modernity, never fully articulated but implicit in her analysis, leads to the conclusion that if people accept the material abundance of modern life then they must also accept its cultural trappings—no matter how extreme or even bizarre they may become.

But what if her notion is wrong? What if fundamentalists are not fighting social and historical forces that must inevitably overwhelm them? The inevitability of social change in the direction of more and more individual freedom is the most persistent and least scrutinized argument made against social conservatives of all varieties. But it may be, in this case at least, an inevitability that exists in the eye of the beholder. It may be that fundamentalists are not so much conducting a hopeless rear-guard action as doing what we all do: picking and choosing a way of life from the options set—and sometimes thrust—before us. Like many other groups in American society, fundamentalists accept what suits them and reject what does not. Their choices may be wise or unwise; one need not defend any specific choices to disagree with the view that their overall effort is somehow more misguided and futile than anyone else’s.

The curious tendency of today’s fundamentalists “to have it both ways” constitutes the essence of the historical relationship between fundamentalists and American society. They have always been a unique group of traditionalists, in that their beliefs include a long-established commitment to the least traditional of all societies. They have long had to deal with the dilemma that their future as well as their past is bound up with the fate of the one nation that, as de Tocqueville first noted, was born modern. To some degree, fundamentalists must be modern in spite of themselves.


1 May 18, 1981.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest