Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


By Richard M. HarleyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 24, 1981


Turn the clock back to election year 1980. There's a new political tidal wave in America -- triggered by the volcanic activism of Christian evangelicals.

Skip to next paragraph

* Press reports proliferate that evangelical TV preachers are reaching many millions of viewers each week with politically laden sermons.

* Entrenched liberal politicos worry that the televangelists, through the sheer reach of their TV networks, will tilt the election outcome in favor of conservative Republicans.

* Victories of Republicans across the nation seem to confirm the effectiveness of the TV evangelists.

It all adds up to an image of rising power that few will question.

But there are doubters, among them, two probing sociologists from different parts of the country. William Martin at Rice University in Houston and Jeffrey Hadden at the University of Virginia both had hunches that the emerging image of the "televangelists" was a distorted one. Each gathered his own data. And now they find their hunches confirmed.

Americans, they concluded in separate publications, have been peddled some very misleading media myths about the extent of the TV preachers' influence.

Professor Martin says that major newspapers and magazines have been tossing around unsubstantiated estimates of the televangelists' regular weekly audiences with reckless abandon.

Press estimates that had ranged from 40 to 130 million turn out to be more accurately placed at around 7 to 10 million, according to his analysis of Harris and Gallup polls, the Nielsen and Arbitron media rating services, and other independent researchers.

A much publicized TV evangelist like the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whose aides had sometimes claimed 25 million regular weekly viewers for his religious broadcasts , turns out to have more like 1.5 to 2 million, according to Professor Hadden's analysis of national TV rating services.

"The image of the televangelists has been pure puffery," Hadden says.

"They have sent up a lot of hot air, he adds; "the media have built a balloon around them; and now they're flying high in political influence -- far higher than their actual political organization would merit."

Not unexpectedly, the conclusion is hotly contested by evangelicals. They are quite sure that data like Arbitron's and Nielsen's have not taken into account the full reach of the televangelists (not all of whom are so politically oriented).

The politicians, for their part, also appear convinced that the media image is the one to go by.

Just after he ordered Israeli jets to bomb Iraq's nuclear reactor, Prime Minister Menachem Begin was on the phone to the Rev. Mr. Falwell, briefing him about the event. When visiting the United States the week of Sept. 7, Mr. Begin again took the time to meet with the Rev. Mr. Falwell and other prominent evangelical leaders at the Blair House in Washington.

Last fall, after the sweeping Republican victories, Mr. Falwell found himself the dinner guest of Sen. Charles H. Percy, a Republican from Illinois, and Gov. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, of West Virginia. (Just get-acquainted meetings, the Rev. Mr. Falwell's aides say.)

And as President Reagan prepared to announce his appointment of Judge Sandra Day O'Connor to be the first woman on the Supreme Court (a nomination opposed by evangelicals who dislike her liberal record on abortion) the Rev. Mr. Falwell's phone again rang. This time President Reagan himself was on the other end to advise him of the appointment.