Christian Right Advancing, Scholar Says
Fundamentalism and the so-called New Christian Right are destined to become the major social movement in America during the remaining years of this century, according to sociologist Jeffrey K. Hadden, immediate past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Hadden presented this thesis in his presidential address here last weekend at a joint congress of the 1,400-member society and a smaller scholarly organization, the Religious Research Assn.
Hadden, a professor at the University of Virginia, said a chief reason he believes the growth of the New Christian Right is not a passing fad is the dominance of fundamentalists and evangelicals in religious broadcasting.
Media Access Noted
“Media access is a critical resource in a social movement and . . . the ‘televangelists’ have greater unrestrained access to media than any other interest group in America,” he said in the paper, “Religious Broadcasting and the Mobilization of the New Christian Right.”
A new survey, released here during the conference, added weight to Hadden’s observations. A. C. Nielsen, the television ratings company, reported that many more Americans watch religious programming than most analysts had previously thought.
More than 61 million--representing 40% of all U.S. households with TV sets--watched one or more of the top 10 syndicated religious programs for at least six minutes during the survey period last February, according to the study.
The Rev. Pat Robertson’s “700 Club,” the flagship program on the Christian Broadcasting Network, based in Virginia Beach, Va., was in first place, the Nielsen statistics showed. CBN spokesmen projected that the program has 28.7 million viewers each month.
Considers Presidency in ’88
Robertson, who hosts the “700 Club,” has raised the possibility of running for President in 1988, stirring considerable media attention.
“Pat Robertson . . . has used his religious television role to demonstrate to the world his political acumen and to build a following for his political views,” Hadden said. “Whether or not he eventually chooses to run for political office, his blending of religion, politics and economic analysis on the ‘700 Club’ has elevated his personal status as a respected conservative spokesperson. His potential to capitalize upon this status is considerable.”
Hadden suggested that another reason fundamentalism and the New Christian Right are emerging as the nation’s major social movement is the legacy the “electronic church” has inherited from 19th- Century “urban revivalism.”
“At about the same time Billy Graham decided to go on television,” Hadden noted, “two itinerant evangelists from Oklahoma and Arkansas also recognized the potential of television for saving souls. Oral Roberts brought the television cameras into his revival tent; Rex Humbard sold his tent and built a cathedral especially equipped for broadcasting. A new era was born.”
The roles of these three paralleled the earlier work of evangelists Charles Finney, Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday in developing urban evangelism, Hadden said, echoing a view expressed in another paper presented at the congress of scholars here.
Sociologist Razelle Frankl of Glassboro State College in New Jersey said the legacies these three pioneer urban evangelists left to the electronic church “stimulate nostalgic responses, supply an audience and legitimate religious broadcasts as part of American cultural history.”
Revivalism is partly a religious movement, Hadden observed, but also a social one: “Those who fueled the (urban revivalism) movement were fundamentally committed to changing society through changing religious behavior. If more people were religious, then society would be more civilized and tolerable.”
Hadden also traced the role of fundamentalism in preserving the “dominion creation myth as the central motif in interpreting American history.”
“As the liberal dream seemed to be collapsing during the 1960s and ‘70s,” Hadden said, “the fundamentalists had an alternative vision of a better America, along with the motivation to press their grievances against what they saw as the causes of a failing social order.”
The rhetoric of the New Christian Right and its allied television preachers “resonates with an imagery of God’s dominion, man’s unfaithfulness to stewardship, the call for repentance and the promise of redemption,” Hadden said. “Their sermons intertwine the Old and New Testaments with American history and the contemporary malaise as if it were all a continuous experience.”
The main contours of this creation myth, as described by Hadden, have been a part of American history from almost the nation’s beginning. “The idea that this land and its people had a very special relationship to God was never very far from center stage,” he said.
But now, Hadden asserted, the fundamentalists have become the custodians of the dominion myth:
“For all (America’s) intentions at home and abroad, we seem to stumble. We have suffered the pain of assassination, the agony of defeat, the humiliation of impotence, the frustration of the inability to use strength, and the disgrace of failed leadership.
“Domestically, the evidence for our having made lasting progress in eliminating discrimination against minorities and women seems ambiguous, poverty stubbornly resists our prescriptions for eradication, drug use and crime seem out of control.”
But, in Hadden’s analysis of the dominion myth, liberal programs in America have done little to lift the nation from this perceived malaise.
Meanwhile, the New Christian Right offers “an old diagnosis--one that we have bought before. We must repent and make things right with our maker before we can resume our providential role in his divine plan.”
This renewed zeal in the fundamentalist social movement to return the nation to God’s dominion is gaining momentum, Hadden said.
“More and more people are shifting from indifferent bystanders to the category of adherents, and from adherents to constituents.” He added that the number of New Christian Right organizations have increased greatly this decade.
At the same time that the movement’s support base among conservative Christians is broadening, Hadden said.