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Religious Broadcasters: Proselytizing or Politicking? - 2002-04-16

Religious broadcasting has a long history in the United States, encompassing everything from fire-and-brimstone preaching to gospel singing to soap-box politicking. And while most evangelists have always agreed their society and culture sorely need improving, there has also always been a tension between those who want to better the world by saving souls and those more interested in making improvements by changing laws.

That tension made headlines recently when the National Religious Broadcasters fired its newly appointed president for making public comments that seemed to favor religion over politics.

Reverend Bill Cook's basement in Runnemede, New Jersey is like many suburban cellars. There's a TV corner, a laundry area, piles of stuff everywhere and little computer work stations for the minister and his sons. This is also where he makes radio.

"As part of our program each week," he said, "we welcome a local pastor who'll encourage us with a thought from God's word. A happy segue, hopefully it'll make people feel better about what I have to say."

Reverend Cook is assembling a weekly show about Camp Haluwasa, a Bible camp. "Now, you want to know how I normally edit," he asked? "I play it at double speed, so I can edit twice as fast."

Bill Cook is one of several local ministers who produce their own material for WSJI, a small 2,000-watt station, whose call letters stand for "South Jersey's Inspiration." Light Christian "adult contemporary" music fills most of the airtime, punctuated by the ministers' upbeat 90-second messages.

I'm Pastor David Marks from Bethel Baptists in Cherry Hill, and I wonder what happens when life puts the squeeeeeeze to you?

The preachers on WSJI generally, as they say, "keep it positive." They highlight ways to make time for family and faith and values. Like many evangelists in pulpits and broadcast studios everywhere, they're often critical of contemporary culture. But mostly, they leave the overt politicking to others.

D. James Kennedy, a Florida Presbyterian leader, is one of the most politically active electronic evangelists in the country. For almost 30 years, his "Coral Ridge Ministries" has been using radio and TV to try to "reclaim America for Christ" - part of a broadcasting tradition that dates back to the 1920s and 30s and such radio revivalists as Billy Sunday, who fought the repeal of the Prohibition Act, which had outlawed alcohol.

In recent decades, religious broadcasters have played a significant role in the rise of the conservative movement in U.S. politics, and have been given much of the credit for Ronald Reagan's election as president in 1980 and the Republican Party's takeover of Congress in 1994. There has always been a tension between the politickers and the proselytizers, but Timothy Morgan, deputy managing editor of Christianity Today magazine, says it's intensified of late.

"Within Christian broadcasting," he said, "everyone would affirm the importance of saving souls and influencing culture. The question at hand is whether you're going to put the accent on involvement and engagement with partisan politics or are you going to focus on evangelizing the lost. I think at the moment it is very much at a stalemate."

The political side of the debate got a boost earlier this year. The National Religious Broadcasters, a group of about 1,100 evangelical Christian radio and TV stations, fired its new president - just weeks after he took office. Wayne Pederson drew criticism for telling a newspaper interviewer he was concerned about the direction of Christian broadcasting - concerned that his organization, whose annual convention is a frequent stop for Republican politicians, was getting "associated with the far Christian right and marginalized."

Mr. Pederson said, "Sometimes we as Conservatives are aligned with, identified with, perceived as being identified with a particular political party. Anytime we, as followers of Christ, are more known for our political stance than our religious commitment, then we've done a disservice to Christianity. And I wasn't saying Christian broadcasters shouldn't speak to the moral and social and even political issues, I was merely saying we should be more known for our theology than our politics."

Mr. Pederson isn't alone in calling for evangelical ministries to return to what he believes are their religious roots. In a recent book, Blinded By Might, two top former aides to evangelist Jerry Falwell say the quest for power corrupts Christians. But another new book, Why You Can't Stay Silent, by Tom Minnery, counter-attacks.

"Throughout most of the 20th Century," Mr. Minnery said, "those who were very conservative, the fundamentalist movement, pulled back from society… and I believe the 20th century, with its decline in culture has seen the results of that. There is no longer a moral conscience as there should be, and that conscience should be the church. And so the call to re-join the cultural battle is a very important one for Christians."

Mr. Minnery's organization, Colorado-based "Focus on the Family," was among the most outspoken about Wayne Pederson's leadership and threatened to leave the National Religious Broadcasters if he stayed. "For the incoming leader of the organization to call a portion of the membership "the far Christian Right," he said, "that obviously symbolizes extremism and someone who is on the fringe - that is something that did not go down well.

Wayne Pederson insists he had no intention of disenfranchising any members of the organization. He says no one approached him to clarify the statement or seek reassurance, they only demanded his resignation.

According to John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio, tensions are so high because the conservative movement has grown so politically powerful. Almost all evangelical broadcasters do want to change society, he said, it's just a question of how.

Professor Green said, "I suspect that the mainstream of Christian broadcasting doesn't want to go back to the traditional days of just evangelism, but may also be very skeptical of too active a political role and too close an identification with particular political figures. So in a sense the situation may represent a move toward the center, rather a move to the right or into a more traditional era."

The "center" Professor Green is talking about is still one located squarely on a part of the political spectrum that believes America is decaying morally because of abortion rights, promiscuity and homosexuality.

Back in his basement in New Jersey, Reverend Bill Cook is putting the finishing touches on his weekly show. He said that the key to changing society is getting the message out to the public, and keeping it positive.