Communism and the Rise of Christian Influence in American Political Mass Media
The effective use of today’s Mass Media and the influence it wields in the public arena has given modern American Christianity a unprecidented access to voters and so to an increasing amount of political power in both the Federal and Local Government. From Rush Limbaugh to Pat Robertson; from Fox News to the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN); there is a continuous outpouring of right-wing Christian political rhetoric to influence their listeners to vote a Christian platform. In many ways the viewing screen has replaced the pulpit; and even when a minister does preach to a live congregation, it is often recorded or televised. So how, in less than a century, did the Born Again Christians transform themselves from the preachers of a spiritual agenda into a powerful and organized political movement, becoming a significant voting bloc that has gained mastery over the media. Todays Christian’s more than ever before have gained political clout enough to effectively move legislation and transform the national conscience? To explore this we have to examine the cause of the rise of Christian influence in American politics, as well as the Christian community’s increasing use of mass media as a successful tool to promote Evangelical and political dogma.
Two primary reasons why Conservative Christian leaders were suddenly more acceptable as a political force by mainstream Americans were the ‘Cold War’, and the fear of atheism that it brought on. On August 29th 1949 the Soviet Union successfully tested its first Atomic Bomb and America’s nuclear standoff with Russia and its communist vassal-states began (Cold War Museum, p 1). People started building bomb shelters in their backyards and millions of Americans feared for their safety and for the future of their children (Cold War Museum, p 1). But the central conflict of the Cold War was not over nuclear weapons or even over territorial disputes; it was over political and social ideologies; including the ideology of faith. Since the introduction of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution the acceptance of science over God as the cause of creation appalled many Christians. And the fact that both Nazi Germany and the USSR considered themselves modern, science based nations, only added to the fear of a dark future where God was not essential. In America’s 1950s eyes the Soviet Union was a godless tyranny; a radical nation of sworn atheists that followed the anti-capitalist tenets of Karl Marx, who proclaimed that “religion is the opiate of the masses” (Stanford.edu). The Soviet leadership in Moscow reinforced America’s fears by upholding the Marxist doctrine of atheism, by persecuting worshipers in Russia, by banning religious practices, and by calling for a world wide communist revolution that would sweep its godless dictatorship across Europe, Asia, and eventually the United States (Caplan, GMU, 1). Inside the new Soviet Union, the only religion that mattered was communism, a terrifying prospect illustrated so well in George Orwell’s book “1984” published in 1949. Apprehension over the looming godlessness of the Soviet Union helped to alter the way many Americans thought about the relationship between religion and politics (Inboden, Intro). To believe in God became an important part of post WWII patriotism, along with a belief in capitalism, trust in the establishment, and a defense of conservative Protestant values (Inboden, Chap 1). The Cold War became a new crusade, with America as the primary defender, not only of The West, but of Christendom itself (Inboden, Intro).
Prior to World War II, America’s relationship to Marxism was not as cut-&-dry or as negative as it became following the Allies’ territorial division of the Third Reich, in which Russia claimed half of Europe for the Reds. In the later part of the 19th Century and the early part of the 20th, many people in the United States and Europe supported communist crusades like Women’s Suffrage, the rights of Trade Unions, and other social and political policies that empowered the working class (Markowitz, 1). The official Communist Party of the United States was founded in 1919 and it is still in existence today, supporting social causes as well as Communist Party candidates in local and national elections (cpusa.org). In fact, prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917, American Marxists like activist Emma Goldman and writer John Reed, author of “Ten Days that Shook the World” spoke out, along with many other Americans, that Marxism was an essential political movement promoting peace and equality in the United States, with Reed saying “We, who are Socialists, must hope… that out of this horror of bloodshed… will come far-reaching changes… and a long step towards our goal of Peace among Men” (Reed, The Masses). In the 1930s, President Franklin D Roosevelt also embraced socialist concepts when he implemented the New Deal. Whether mainstream Americans liked it or not, the fact that Socialists, and even Marxists were scattered amongst the population, especially in educated circles, with socialist ideas woven into numerous causes, was to some extent accepted, and even promoted, at least in first half of the 20th Century. But as World War II came to a close, that was about to change.
By the mid-century, after Russia had tested its bomb, the word “communist” became synonymous with “traitor” and many liberals, artists, writers, and intellectuals were publically labeled “Reds” and charged with sedition by such staunch anti-communist leaders as Senator Joseph McCarthy, who used the power of the media well to terrify the public into supporting his crusade against the atheist commies that dwelt amongst them (ushistory.org).
But McCarthy was not the beloved spokesman for God in America that the nation was waiting for. That person would come from the unlikely union of Christian Ministry and Conservative Capitalism in the form of the Reverend Billy Graham and multi-millionaire newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Inboden & Frontline).
William Randolph Hearst, like Joe McCarthy, was a firm believer in American Capitalism and a staunch adversary of anything Communist (Citizen Hearst). Hearst just needed a trusted and charismatic speaker that he could throw his media empire behind to sell his anti-communist message to the public; and he found that person when his eyes fell on the young, up-and-coming Christian minister, the Reverend Billy Graham (God in America/Frontline). A graduate of WheatonCollege outside of Chicago, Graham had been preaching in tents, halls, and churches for a number of years, from one end of the country to the other. His was a style not unlike the charismatic Revivalists of earlier America, drawing crowds in the thousands and inspiring them to become born again (Believe, Revivalism 1). According to “Believe”, the Religious Information Resource:
“Revivalism is not a sporadic phenomenon in the Christian tradition but rather a steady force which breaks into public prominence whenever churches and society tend to ignore its concerns for experiential religion;” and that “Billy Graham… played down some of the more strident… aspects of the method (but) retained… the direct, forceful sermon appeal, the biblically oriented message, the call for personal, public response, the use of gospel music and of large mass meetings” (Believe, Revivalism 1).
Graham’s message was one of personal salvation and his belief in America as a nation of Christians who can vastly improve their lives and their nation by receiving God and Christ into their hearts (Inboden & Frontline). But Graham had another message as well; an anti communist message. He despised Russia almost as much as Hearst and McCarthy did; but unlike them, Billy Graham’s solution was a spiritual one; to bring Americans to Jesus as a bulwark of righteous Godliness against the forces of the godless Soviet empire (Inboden & Frontline). At a speech cited in the Frontline documentary, “God in America”, Graham stated that “The principles of Christ (were) the only form of ideology hot enough to stop communism” (God in America/Frontline). Graham firmly believed and preached that “when communism conquers a nation it makes every man a slave; but… when Christianity conquers a nation it makes every man a king” (God in America/Frontline). When William Randolph Hearst heard this he ordered his team to “puff Graham” by using Hearst’s massive news and media network to transform the preacher from a simple yet dynamic Christian minister into a national pro-god, anti-communist celebrity (God in America/Frontline).
Hearst’s newspapers and magazines printed story after story about Billy Graham, who was also interviewed on national television by the famous newscaster Edward R. Murrow, speaking about Graham’s religious and political views, as well as his family values as a good Christian and as an American (Inboden & Frontline). According to Uta Balbier from the German Historical Institute in Washington DC, “William Randolph Hearst was responsible for” Billy Graham getting headlines in papers like the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune and also the cover of Life Magazine, turning Rev Graham into a “media star” (Balbier, GHI). Balbier goes on to say that Graham figured out a new way to speak in the media, developing a “distinct language” and a “new public religious discourse” (Balbier, GHI). Billy Graham’s new found fame gave him access to the highest political circles in the United States where Graham used his nationwide popularity and the power of his pulpit to advise and influence America’s social and political future. One of Graham’s private meetings was with President-Elect Dwight D Eisenhower during which time Graham expressed concern that Eisenhower had not yet settled on a church denomination to belong to, telling the president-elect that it was important to the nation for its president to have “a faith” (God in America/Frontline). Graham advised the president-elect to join Mrs. Eisenhower’s Presbyterian congregation and as a result, soon after taking office, Dwight D Eisenhower was baptized in his wife’s Presbyterian church, becoming a full-fledged “Communicant” (Inboden & Frontline). Soon Ike was speaking out against the Russians, saying that America is a “religious civilization” and that it is just such religious fundamentals and faith that is a sign of democracy. Eisenhower proclaimed in one televised speech that those who do not have faith in god are “silly.” Not long after this, President Eisenhower added the words “under God” to the pledge of allegiance and later pushed for the Congress to decree that “In God We Trust” become the nation’s official motto (Inboden & Frontline).
In 1957 Billy Graham preached for three straight months in New York City, converting the masses at such venues as Times Square, Madison Square Gardens, and Yankee Stadium where he drew a crowd of 100,000 people (Balbier, GHI). Vice President Richard Nixon, had aspirations to run for the presidency in a couple of years and so he decided to join Graham on the pulpit at the largest of these events where Nixon proclaimed that “America’s strength comes from faith in God” (God in America/Frontline). According to Uta Balbier from the German Historical Institute in Washington DC, American flags flew everywhere during Graham’s New York sermons, “blending American patriotism with Evangelical spirituality”, as Graham (referring to a potential conflict with the Soviets) called for his audience to “tell the world tonight that our trust is not in our pile of atomic and hydrogen bombs but in Almighty God… that we are united and ready to march under (his) banner” (Balbier, GHI).
As Billy Graham continued in his rise to prominence as the most televised spokesman of god in American politics, another set of figures began to rise; both of them bringing religion and politics into the growing media spotlight: John F Kennedy (a Catholic running for president) and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (a Christian minister and civil rights leader), both of whom, like Graham, had to be media celebrities as well as political and religious leaders, because by the early 1960s, over half the households in the country were watching the TV regularly (UNESCO, intro). According to UNESCO, before the outbreak of WWII there was virtually zero television to watch, with the first full time television transmitter going into operation in 1941 (UNESCO statistical report, pg 74). The number of transmitters in the United States grew from zero to 351 by 1953 and had reached 579 by 1960, with 310 receivers/televisions per 1000 inhabitants by the 1960 presidential election (UNESCO statistical report, pg 74 – 77). Television was about to transform politics and religion in the United States forever.
Television and the mass media during the 1960 presidential campaign made the incumbent Richard Millhouse Nixon (Reverend Billy Graham’s pick) look unctuous, pale and covered in sweat because he was “recovering from the flu” and had “refused makeup; whereas the Catholic challenger, John F Kennedy looked confident and handsome, winning the “image battle” and defeating Richard Nixon in the election by a narrow margin (CNN/Time). Mass media and televised debates had begun their climb to prominence in American politics and from now on image was everything. John F Kennedy’s religion became an issue as the first non-Protestant to be elected president. He was accused of being a papist with the potential to allow the Vatican to tell him how to run the country; so Eisenhower and Nixon formed a committee of Protestant Ministers to confront the issue (Time Mag – Sept 19th 1960). Here the separation of American politics from religious influence was demanded even though it was overlooked when it came to Billy Graham. But the nation seemed to be moving away from that separation when it came to the public outcry against the Long Island Jewish family that sued the public school system there to remove its morning protestant prayer (God in America/Frontline). The issue went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which overturned all of the lower state’s court’s prior rulings supporting prayer, and instead banned it from all schools across the nation for being unconstitutional (God in America/Frontline). As with the Scopes Monkey Trial, the mass media covered the story like entertainment and the people of America watched, listened, and read about it like they were following a soap opera; and the nation was like wise polarized as it had been over Scopes: believers in America as a Christian nation and those who believed that it was a secular country.
Another polarizing religious/political issue that was played out in the mass media of the 1960s was the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What had once been an internal state matter facing problems with “uppity Coloreds” that “had to be dealt with” by the local authorities now became a News Story from one end of the country to the other. Newspapers, radio, and television covered the brutality of the police against the demonstrators in Birmingham with dramatic zeal that turned the tide of public opinion outside of Alabama against the authorities and making Martin Luther King a household name (Citizen King/Documentary). And Martin Luther King made great television and on some levels was very similar to Billy Graham only with a totally different political message. King was a Baptist preacher and he delivered his speeches woven in with references to God and faith and the providence of his people, merging the pulpit and politics into the same message (Citizen King/Documentary). This had a far reaching effect on the role of the preacher in American life. What the Reverend Billy Graham had begun, and Martin Luther King Jr. had continued and amplified, was turning into an invitation to all charismatic and ambitious evangelical preachers to get in front of the television cameras and get their message to the masses. A new breed of Evangelical was being formed; one who saw film, television, and the news media as the path to spreading their righteous message of Christian patriotism; and possibly create a bulwark against the rising tide of liberal secularism in America that ousted prayer and creationism from schools, and would soon legalize abortion and homosexuality. The Jim and Tammy Baker’s of America were starting to see the possibilities.
In order to clearly describe the rise of the Christian-Right in American politics through the use of mass-media we must touch on the Christian-Right’s successful entry into creating and distributing its own evangelical films, especially those films that carried the message “the end of the world is near”. The history of religious plays and movies as both propaganda and as entertainment goes back to some of the earliest traveling theater troupes who performed a work called a “Passion Play,” which depicted the last days of Christ’s life including his death and resurrection (Hagerty, NPR). Passion Plays go back to 16th Century German and were performed around Easter, usually in an outdoor venue. In America they began as traveling troupes, moving through the frontier areas like the Revivalists preachers, with the company usually involving a core troupe playing the major roles and an army of locals playing the non-speaking extras (Hagerty, NPR). Passion Plays were considered true spectacles, not to be missed when they came to town; employing horses, livestock, props, costumes, set pieces , and dozens if not hundreds of actors. The first Christian movies were Biblical films, like The Passion Play of Oberammergau in 1898, From the Manger to the Cross in 1912, and Cecil B DeMille’s masterpiece King of Kings in 1927 (Celluloid Sermons, pg 15). Other than making biblical epics the early Christian filmmakers also made Missionary movies, including a few films produced by Billy Graham during the 1950s. But for the most part during for the first half of the 20th Century the hard-core Christian ministers in America condemned Hollywood as a “cesspool,” and proclaimed that watching movies was a sin (Celluloid Sermons, intro I-II).
But as the 1960s came around and religious personalities like Billy Graham and Martin Luther King rose to prominence on television, the filmmakers of Christian movies began to transform their creations from dry, static lectures on screen, or over-sentimental biblical stories, to true art films meant to evoke an inner question of faith, gratitude, and mystification (Celluloid Sermons, intro I-II). Movies like Rolf Forsberg’s Parable, which portrayed Christ as a clown and the world as a circus gained huge artistic accolades when it premiered at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair; later winning numerous awards at well-respected international film festivals, thus setting the stage for a generation of Christian films that would strive to connect to the public on an artistic level (Celluloid Sermons). No longer were films considered sinful by American ministers. Film, television, and all media had become a tool to help preach the word of God. But there was growing polarization within the Christian filmmaking community. On one side there were conservatives like the Rev Billy Graham; and on the other side there were more liberal groups like The Council of Churches and Dr. Albert Schweitzer who was a big supporter of Rolf Forsberg’s work (Interview with Rolf Forsberg).
Less than a decade later the image of Christ as a clown would return in the Broadway musical hit, Godspell, which the writers said was inspired by the film Parable (Lindvall, Celluloid Sermons). Another hit Gospel based musical from that period was Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Weber, which swept the world in multiple translations and was soon made into a successful Hollywood film. Rolf Forsberg continued to make artistically inspired Christian films (and one Buddhist film after Forsberg converted to Buddhism) until he teamed up with Hal Lindsey in 1978 to make the apocalyptic dramatic-documentary, The Late Great Planet Earth (Lindvall, Celluloid Sermons). The pre-millennialists in America had been speaking for decades about the end of the world being neigh, and The Late Great Planet Earth gave them a top grossing film to back their predication up. It became evident that art films, entertainment, and media in general was an effective way to proselytize the Christian cause. As the 1980s and beyond continued, more and more mainstream films began to be produced by Christian companies for a general audience, many of them covering similar themes as those in The Late Great Planet Earth. Early efforts at Christian-Hollywood arrived with sensationalist documentaries like In Search of Noah’s Ark. However, soon after, more narrative films were produced like The Rapture, starring Mimi Rogers, and the very first Hollywood feature produced completely by Christian backers, The Omega Code, a suspense thriller that received quite a bit of press. Both of these more narrative films enjoyed large financial grosses, serious critical exposure, as well as a mix of mainstream and Christian audiences.
The trend in successful mainstream Christian filmmaking continued on in the 1990s and into the next millennium, reaching a peak with the blockbuster cinematic version of the Christian literary series The Chronicles of Narnia; which was released by Disney but produced by Walden Films, a self-proclaim Christian-leaning production company. Later in the decade, one of the top grossing films of the year, The Passion of the Christ, directed by Mel Gibson, came to the big screen and was an unexpected sensation. Gibson, a sworn, born again, pre-Vatican 2 Catholic, was accused of anti-Semitism as well as using the movie theater as a pulpit; but this film proved definitively that a pro-Christian mainstream movie can be just as big a blockbuster as any film from Hollywood. The trend continued with further movies about Narnia as well as Christian-messaged films like Vegie Tales and Evan Almighty.
So, as the Christian leadership was growing a stronger hand in the entertainment industry, based on the early successes of such films as Parable and The Late Great Planet Earth, evangelical preachers were developing a powerful platform of their own on the television screen. In the 1970s and 1980s, a growing group of outspoken televangelist ministers like Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, and Jimmy Swaggart were sweeping the airwaves with their message of truth in the Bible and salvation through Christ. Audiences grew and donations came pouring in, empowering not only what Christians believed was the word of God, but also giving voice to causes that were dear to their community, like anti-abortion, abhorrence to homosexuality, and the return of prayer in schools. It was not long before the leaders of Christian media also began to speak on politics. One of the loudest early voices in this growing forum was Pat Robertson, who ran a popular radio show, The 700 Club. Also in the 1970s and early 80s, charismatic Christian preachers like Jim and Tammy Fay Baker rose to prominence at the spearhead of television evangelism.
As the 1970s came to a close the voices of politically minded Christian conservatives grew loud enough to help elect a president. During the 1980 presidential election, Jerry Falwell and his Christian movement called the Moral Majority helped to elect President Ronald Reagan. The belief amongst many Christians at the time was that God still did not belong as an active force in American politics when it came to elections. But that rapidly changed when Reagan stole the hearts and minds of the Christian establishment, speaking at a Moral Majority rally and stating “you can’t endorse me, but I can endorse you.” Jerry Falwell started appearing side by side with Reagan more and more, becoming in essence one of his advisors. With the help of the Christian voters, Ronald Reagan won the election by a landslide, thus transforming the way devoted Christians approached partisan politics from then on.
Since then the Christian Right has been hugely influential in politics and was key to electing President George W Bush in 2000. The major tools of these powerful ‘politics from the pulpit’ movements have been television, radio, film, podcasts, blogs, and periodicals, all used effectively to communicate their political agendas, and in the case of the Tea Party, to create a new movement onto itself.
As of the writing of this paper the CBN, (Christian Broadcasting Network) website, and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition website were both clearly active in a combination of religion and politics. On a visit to the CBN website the first pop-up said “Will you help us promote Voter Guides” followed by one pop-up after another; such as the “Congressional Scorecard,” a scorecard to keep track of the true conservatives in Washington; an ad saying “Pray & Vote – Join the campaign to help educate voters for the 2012 elections.” The organization’s mission statement says “working to represent the pro-family agenda and support politics that will strengthen and preserve, rather than threaten, our families and our values.” The site also promoted “Stand with Israel”, “Repeal ObamaCare”, “Stop the Freedom of Choice Act”, “the sanctity of traditional marriage” act, and the “Fairness Doctrine” meant to save Rush Limbaugh’s and John Hannity’s radio shows. The site went on to give advice on how to “educate” ones friends to vote “the right way”, and then it listed every e-mail and twitter address for the representatives in Washington with a note saying “tell them what to do”.
The amount of political rhetoric, endorsements, and campaigning that is practiced on these religious websites suggests that Christianity itself has become a powerful and in many cases a prefered candidate in America’s elections. The evangelical minister and media star, Pat Robertson even ran for president in the 1990s but lost the Republican nomination, as did the conservative Christian television minister Mike Huckabee in 2008. To be fair, two Christian ministers well-known from television, Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson both had failed bids for the Democratic presidential nomination as well. Although the message of God in American politics tends to generate from the Republican Right, evidence shows that Christian Ministers and religious pundits on either side of the aisle are no longer trepidatious about bringing their faith very loudly into the voting booth while using the media to convince others to do the same.
The conquest of the media by political and religious pundits has given the Christian right a loud voice in today’s American political arena, gaining in some cases unprecedented power to influence decisions at the top aside from endorsing candidates, such as the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court and the passage or blocking of certain legislation. Among some of the more radical ideas that have been recently suggested is a call for a clear proclamation that the United States is a “Christian Nation” (see my paper on The separation of Church & State), and that our laws should be based on the Bible (see my paper on American Law & the Ten Commandments), as well as some even more extreme views from the farthest reaches of the Right, like that the rule of God should also be the rule of the land, harkening to a possible American style, Theocracy. The highly publicized conflict between the Bible and Science has also caused strife on the campaign trail as many far Right candidates openly reject the Theory of Evolution in lieu of the Biblical story of Creation. And many pre-millenialist Christians that were once stirred by The Late Great Planet Earth are now using media to call for preparations to be made for the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ. And the old fear of communism that helped to launch Rev. Billy Graham’s long ministry has reemerged in today’s political rhetoric with questions of President Barak Obama’s devotion to Christianity mixing with Right-Wing charges that he is a Moslem, that was born in Kenya, and that he is a communist. Even though some of these ideas are not mainstream even in the Conservative Right, it is clear that the blend of Christian doctrine with conservative politics has been effectively promoted in the Christian dominated corner of the media in such a way that the agenda is fast becoming a part of the American landscape of political dialogue, however extreme, partisan, or Biblical it might be.
Balbier, Uta Andrea (GHI research fellow); Billy Graham’s Crusades in the 1950s: Neo-Evangelicalism between Civil Religion, Media, and Consumerism; German Historical Institute, Washington DC (GHI); ghi-dc.org;
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Frontline; Religion in America; episode 5: a New Light; PBS; Documentary
Hagerty, Barbara Bradley; NPR; History of Religious Passion Plays; Feb 22nd 2004; 5/3/12;
Inboden, William; Religion and America: Foreign Policy 1945-1960; Cambridge University Press, 2008, Book
Linvall, Terry, & Andrew Quicke; Celluloid Sermons; New York University Press; New York; 2011; book
Markowitz, Norman; Labor: An Analysis of Past Strikes, Political Strikes, Present & Future Struggles; 3/19/2012;
Reed, Jack (John); The Traders War; The Masses: 1914 Issue; 1914; Periodical
Roads, Steve, “Churches Misusing the Pulpit”, The Star Online, April 25th 2012, Star Publications, thestar.com, viewed 4/30/12, online publication,
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Karl Marx; Stanford University; stanford.edu; published 8/26/03; revised 6/14/10; viewed 5/4/12;
Time Magazine; “Protestant Clergy vs The Catholic Candidate JFK; Time Frame; web-zine; 9/19/60; 5/2/12;
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