On a recent show, John Oliver explored televangelism—and got viewers to send him thousands of dollars. Oliver’s satire of religious cable programming was partly about those shows’ odd status: mostly unregulated, yet permitted to take in tax-free donations due to their owners’ status as religious organizations.
In a 1992 paper, sociologist Jeffrey K. Hadden argued that televangelists owed some of their success to the deregulation of the US broadcasting system.
Hadden writes that broadcast religious programming, often with a political bent, is as old as the radio. In the 1920s, the first US radio stations included religious programs, and in the ‘30s, Catholic priest Father Charles E. Coughlin gained fame for his demagogic, anti-Semitic broadcasts.
Still, the country’s fledgling radio networks mostly declined to run evangelical shows, finding that they created “headaches,” Hadden writes. That prompted the 1944 creation of the National Religious Broadcasters, which pushed for more access to the radio waves for its members.
Starting in the 1960s, when the FCC freed radio and television stations from a requirement that it give away air time as a public service, ramping up the media’s commercialization, religious broadcasting became dominated by evangelicals. Mainline religious denominations generally didn’t have a way to pay for airtime, and some were leery of the idea of using radio or TV as a tool at all. Many evangelicals, on the other hand, saw the technologies as a great way to reach the public and were happy to participate in free-market TV, using parts of their shows to raise money from listeners.
In 1977, Pat Robertson founded the Christian Broadcasting Network. Fellow evangelists Paul Crouch and Jim Bakker followed with their own networks. Between the late 1960s and the mid-80s, the number of Americans watching religious TV grew from about 5 million to almost 25 million. The adoption of cable by many viewers was a particular win for niche religious programming.
Meanwhile, the Reagan era brought the Religious Right into a prominent place in the country’s politics. Yet Hadden writes that their growing involvement in political action did not seem to benefit the televangelists. Jerry Falwell, for example, did not get new viewers for his Old-Time Gospel Hour when he founded the Moral Majority, despite the new visibility the political organization gave him.
In the late ‘80s, the world of religious television was hit by a series of sexual and financial scandals. Meanwhile, the fast growth of the market had led to an unsustainable level of competition, and many religious broadcasters had disappeared by time Hadden’s paper was published in the early 1990s.
Still, Hadden argued it was too soon to predict the end of televangelism, given the survival of major religious broadcasting networks and the continuing growth of the cable system. As Oliver’s segment points out, more than two decades later, televangelists are still going strong.
Editors’ Note: This story was updated to correct a typographical error.