Do today’s celebrity televangelists realize how much of their success is due to Billy Graham - “America’s Pastor” - who died on Feb. 2? Graham took the first step on a road that led to today’s television ministers’ fame and fortune.
Graham was the first to put big time religious preaching on national TV, when he aired his blockbuster Madison Square Garden “crusade” Saturday nights on the ABC network back in 1957. No one at that time could have imagined what would happen to the relationship between religion and television 60 years in the future.
Religious programming had already been on television before Billy Graham’s mega performance, but its place was a quiet, little God ghetto of free airtime given to the national organizations of Catholics, Jews, Protestants and Baptists, respectively, who produced low-key programs aimed at educating the public about their religion. The relationship between religion and the mass media has changed a great deal since then.
Today, rich and famous television preachers such as Joel Osteen, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Pat Robertson and prosperity preacher Creflo Dollar are celebrities whose television ministries have grown into empires with multiple outlets for their message and influence.
While televangelists were busily and eagerly promoting religion (and themselves) on television, mainstream television’s programming departments studiously avoided the subject, which they apparently considered too hot to handle. Generally speaking, clergy and religious rituals can be found on TV only when a scene calls for performing a wedding or funeral.
But it looks like things are changing this season. The CBS network is planning a bold move with two new shows that deal with religion. “Living Biblically” is a sitcom about a lapsed Catholic who decides he should try to live by Biblical values and directives before he becomes a father. Aided by his local rabbi and priest (who are best friends), the sitcom deals with moral challenges without sacrificing humor or respect. Real clergy were hired as consultants to the show to avoid giving offense.
The other religious show on the CBS schedule is “God Friended Me”. It’s about an atheist who is friended by God on Facebook. The show is being labeled a comedy that will explore the different aspects of faith, science, and belief.
Religious documentaries have been on the increase for the past several years. Scholars of religion participated in bringing the study of religion to the television audience with programs such as The Story of God With Morgan Freeman, Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery, and the long-running Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.
All these programs are efforts to bring balanced recognition to a topic that is central to the lives and identities of 85 percent of the world’s population.
Too often, when religion is mentioned on the air and in the news it is all about violence and conflict. It’s true that the world’s chaos is often religiously tinged, but intelligent viewers know that isn’t the whole story of religion. America’s own political and social instability and cultural conflict serve to heighten the public’s appetite for something authentic and transcendent. That’s why the time is right for entertainment programs that reflect the TV viewer’s personal search for spirituality and meaning. That’s why the time is also right for informative programs that help viewers understand how others see the world.
Religion makes an appearance on the big screen as well as on TV this year. “Mary Magdalene,” is a feature film that will be released in the U.K. before Easter. “Believer,” is a documentary that focuses on the front man of the rock band Imagine Dragons, Dan Reynolds, who works to reconcile his faith as a Mormon with the Mormon Church’s stance on the LGBT community. It will be screened in theaters this summer and will air on HBO in the fall.
Since a fundamental purpose of religion is to impart hope, the nomination of one particular little film for an Oscar is most gratifying. The film is a reminder that “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” is still the gold standard of human behavior for both the faithful and faithless alike. The 23-minute film, “Watu Wote” (Swahili for “All of Us”) is based on a true story of human decency and heroism.
In 2015, Al-Shabab terrorists stormed a bus in Kenya and ordered the more than 100 passengers to separate into Christians and Muslims in order to kill the Christians.
The Muslim passengers refused. Instead, they shielded their fellow Christians and offering their hijabs so the women could not be identified by their religion. As a result of this act of solidarity, almost all of the passengers survived the attack.
The film was nominated for Best Live Action Short Film in the 2018 Oscars.