User:Annquin/Televangelism in Popular Culture

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With the rise of mass-media religion starting in the 1970s and reaching ever greater power in the 1980s, with phenomena such as megachurches and televangelist television networks and media-star preachers like Jim Bakker and Jerry Falwell, came a range of satire and media critique. This article looks at the presentation of populist right-wing religion in the media, particularly in the UK and US, showing how it represents the changing nature of organised Christianity and the growing opposition to this newly politicised religion. It also might provide some viewing or listening suggestions for keen skeptics.

Historical background[edit]

In the 60s and 70s there was an interest in spirituality and an openness to religions, old and new, manifest in the popularity of Billy Graham in the early 1960s and then non-Christian religion from Summer of Love. However, in the 70s this countercultural dream seemed to slowly die. The Manson family and Jim Jones showed the danger of cults, while there was a general sense that hippies had failed and spiritual enlightenment just meant getting off your face on drugs; in the late 70s, psychedelics were replaced by speed and later cocaine.

In the 1980s religion rather than a progressive social force became associated with Ronald Reagan. The popularity of megachurches and televisual ministries stirred up fears of semi-fascist populist political movements, while a series of scandals suggested the televangelists were as interested in the vast amounts of money these churches could make as in anybody's salvation. From the mid 80s figures such as Jim Bakker became the subject of media scrutiny (Bakker was convicted of fraud in 1989 after a lengthy media investigation). This led in both the US and UK to a series of satires of the new wave of religion, which reflected a hostility both to Christianity and the growth of the mass media in general.

Before the 1980s, there had been an interest in populist politics in films from Elia Kazan's A Face In The Crowd (1957) to Sidney Lumet's Network (1976), but these films had generally taken a more sympathetic view of an anti-corporate, anti-statist politics that was less rooted in religion. John Huston's Wise Blood (1979) portrayed an unorthodox preacher as a quixotic, even tragic figure. Although Wise Blood drew on a strongly Catholic novel by Flannery O'Connor, it fell into a tradition of satires on pre-television popular religion, such as Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry (1927; filmed 1960) and John Kennedy Toole's 1954 novel The Neon Bible, filmed by Terence Davies in 1995.

However, the 1980s saw a shift in popular culture rightwards, and any idea of religion as a subversive force was replaced by the development of the wealthy and conservative megachurch based in an evangelical Protestantism. Combining an intolerant religion and right-wing politics with the worst aspects of mass media and marketing - and thereby making an awful lot of money - this proved a ripe target for satire. Such works typically focused on satellite television, a new innovation in the 1980s, although megachurches would sometimes feature, and media included motifs such as the suburban housewife superstar modelled on Tammy Faye Bakker, and the corrupt, money-grabbing television preacher (with any number of models).

Media power[edit]

In God We Tru$t (1980)[edit]

Widely regarded as the film that killed Marty Feldman's career, this satire on religion was directed by Oz Scott and Michael Schultz and also stars Peter Boyle, Andy Kaufman, and Richard Pryor as "G.O.D." A monk sets out to make a lot of money to save his monastery; he meets up with a prostitute and has zany adventures among richer Christians. Its humor comes out of a zany anarchic tradition that goes back to Monty Python and other elements popular with 60s counterculture and 70s hippydom.

"Satellite" - The Hooters (1987)[edit]

The Hooters were a modestly successful American college rock band best known for their appearance in the Philadelphia leg of Live Aid in 1985 and US hits like "All You Zombies" and "And We Danced". One of their biggest hits, especially in the UK, was the televangelist satire "Satellite", which mocked the aspirations to wealth and media control of religious television networks such as Jim Bakker's PTL, Pat Robertson's CBN, and Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Salvation!: Have You Said Your Prayers Today? (1987)[edit]

A low-budget feature film satire of televangelism by New York underground director Beth B, starring Stephen McHattie as a TV preacher. It draws heavily on 1980s televangelism, with punk singer Exene Cervenka playing a Tammy Faye Bakker-esque housewife who becomes a Christian rock star. Viggo Mortensen also has an early role. Beth B's background lies in the nihilism of 1980s New York alternative film and punk rock, rather than the very different milieu of Marty Feldman. [1]

The Vision (1988)[edit]

A satire about a secretive cultish organisation using satellite television for vaguely-defined mind control, starring Dirk Bogarde, Lee Remick, and Helena Bonham Carter. It was made for British television in 1987 and first broadcast January 1988, with a script by William Nicholson (later to write Gladiator for Ridley Scott) and directed by TV director Norman Stone, who had earlier made a more pro-religious film with Jonathan Pryce as Martin Luther for the 1983 anniversary of the Protestant theologian's birth.

Lacking a real anti-religious bite, it focused more on the political, and drew on anxieties about the coming of satellite television to the UK, where in the late 80s Rupert Murdoch's Sky and British Satellite Broadcasting (a consortium of British media companies) launched rival platforms motivated by money rather than faith.

The casting was interesting. Bogarde was one of the first homosexual actors to make his sexuality only semi-secret, appearing in groundbreaking films like Victim (1961). Remick had starred in Elia Kazan's 1957 satire of populist media politics, A Face in the Crowd, and Otto Preminger's similarly sardonic Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Putting either of them in charge of right-wing religious populism was somewhat ironic.

"Jesus Loves Amerika" - The Shamen (1988)[edit]

The Shamen were an indie-dance group from the north of Scotland, best known for media-provoking, MDMA-promoting, pun-based, novelty-pop, UK number one "Ebeneezer Goode" (1992).

This earlier, only slightly less controversial indie hit proclaimed a general distaste for religion, media, and the USA, with a hookline saying "Jesus loves America and we don't love neither". It combines a straightforwardly atheistic sentiment with an anti-Americanism that probably draws on the Clash's "I'm So Bored With The USA" and the Smiths' celebration of British culture.

It was part of a British trend for political sampling-based music that also included Paul Hardcastle's 19 and much-derided indie band Pop Will Eat Itself; the development of samplers and other recording technology allowed music makers to comment directly on contemporary media by incorporating elements recorded from news broadcasts and other popular culture.

Grace (1992)[edit]

Doug Lucie's play is a late entry in the cycle of 1980s televangelist dramas, focusing on the establishment of a British religious satellite network. Critics recognised by then that televangelism was old news, an obvious target, and Paul Taylor noted that it was significantly easier to write about the obvious corruption of the likes of Bakker than the more complex psychology of sincere fundamentalism, although the play does deal with both halves, with varying dramatic success.[2]

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000)[edit]

This critically-acclaimed documentary biography of the wife of disgraced TV preacher Jim Bakker reflected an interest in the televangelist as camp figure. It covers both her time with Jim in the 1980s and her later life: she subsequently married Roe Messner, who had helped the Bakkers build Christian theme part Heritage USA, but he had his own problems and ended up in jail for fraud in the late 1990s. Directed by Fenton Bailey and with a narration by drag queen RuPaul, Tammy Faye was presented as an iconic strong woman similar to other so-called gay icons like Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, or the 1970s disco queens.[3]

The film devotes considerable time to Tammy Faye's relationship with the gay community, to whom she was notably more sympathetic than many right-wing Christians. This reflects a growing interest in conservative Christianity from the fields of queer and gender studies, also found in films like lesbian "cure" comedy But I'm A Cheerleader (1999).


With its celebration of its subject as a "survivor" and camp icon[3], The Eyes of Tammy Faye marked a change in the media's view of televangelism, which during Bill Clinton's presidency no longer seemed such a threat (though Pat Robertson remains immortal). The Catholic Pat Buchanan made a presidential run in 2000 to general hilarity. Even during the early years of George W. Bush, the military-industrial complex not the religious right seemed to be in control, despite the presence of some evangelical Christians around W., and John McCain continued the idea of military strength above religious purity by defeating Mike Huckabee for the GoP nod.

More recently, although the religious right has returned to prominence after Bush's presidency, the focus is not on the preachers but career politicians who may curry favour with them, and the 2016 campaign has focussed less on Christianity than opposition to Islam. This new world requires a different sort of satire, led by the likes of Stephen Colbert and John Oliver. Whether any of the satire had an effect, is another matter entirely.