Between the Lines: Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, 1 April 1987
Marx once called religion the opium of the people. In the late 1980s it could be argued that TV is the opium of the people. In the USA the synthesis has been achieved: religious TV is the opium of the people. Heroin would be a better metaphor, but whereas the latter is illegal, religious TV is available on tap and in doses of hugely mind-numbing proportions. You have to see TV religion in the USA — “televangelism” they call it — to appreciate just how easy it is to vomit without sticking your fingers down your throat. This morning I watched Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, a show watched daily by 468,000 viewers. Robertson is the sort of man who vacillates with ease between praying for people’s souls and preying on their gullibility. When he is doing the former he aids the vomiting process, looking straight at you with the sincerity of a man who is convinced that sincerity is a good investment (and it is: Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network raked in $129 million last year); when he is preying on the ignorance of his audience Robertson shows himself to be a manipulator of the mind with an immunity to vertigo when it comes to the heights of audacity. “We are living in a greedy, lustful world” says Robertson, looking into the camera behind which one imagines a team of accountants to be standing: “Let me tell you, our society is too full of sinners asking, ‘Hey, what ‘s in it for me?’ Isn’t it about time that we all just got on our knees and asked, what can we do for God? How can we be better people in the eyes of the one who made us?” Robertson’s contribution to paying off the debt to god is to accept the nomination for Republican Presidential candidate in the next election. He is all in favour of nuclear weapons.
According to research carried out at the University of Pennsylvania. 13.3 million Americans regularly watch religious TV shows. There are now 221 evangelical TV shows on US TV and these collect well in excess of one billion dollars per year from subscribers who, conned by what they see, send in money to the TV tricksters in order to assist them in doing Christ’s work. All too often this money is won from workers who can ill afford it, such as the 67-year-old widow in Altoona. Pennsylvania, who was threatened with having her heating cut off because she donated the social security money sent to her to pay the gas bill to Oral Roberts who had persuaded her that he needed it more (reported in Newsweek, 6.4.87). Roberts (not to be confused with Robertson who is another trickster working the same market) has a weekly broadcast which reaches 1.1 million households. He obtains annual donations of $58 million. In 1980 Oral tried to win the evangelical ratings war by claiming that he had seen a vision of Jesus 900 feet in height (everything in the US is bigger than life, and in this case even bigger than the fiction of the Bible). Money came flooding in to Roberts after this whopper penetrated the minds of the most stupid of the Americans: he was even sent $1.3 million by a 79-year-old greyhound track owner from Florida. But the proceeds of the 900-foot lie were not enough for our Oral, so earlier this year he announced on his show that unless the punters paid in 8 million dollars the Lord would take him away from them. You might have thought that this would be a good reason for writing out an immediate cheque for 8 million dollars to the Lord’s bank account in appreciation of his intention (for a few million more could he take the rest of them?), but no. the suckers paid up and Oral is thinking of a new scheme at this very moment. The TV preachers are doing quite a bit of thinking right now, because at this moment there is a war of unprecedented ferocity going on as to who will win the largest number of viewers and. more importantly. saved souls, for which read four-figure donations. The war turned vicious when Jimmy Swaggart (would you be spiritually uplifted by a guy called Jimmy Swaggart who looks like a boxing promoter?) whose show is watched weekly by over 2 million Americans announced that Jim and Tammy Bakker (a husband and wife con-act, watched by millions weekly, pulling in a divine $129 million in 1986) were getting up to naughty things. Tammy was a drug addict and Jim had seduced a prostitute called Jessica Hahn after drugging her wine. Both have since confessed to the minor transgressions from the path of self-righteousness. Hahn received $265,000 from Bakker’s lawyers in compensation for the ordeal — a fact which has led reporters to suggest that he did more than make neighbourly love to her. Now the evangelists are throwing more than pious comments at one another: a religious TV war has broken out. Richard Gaylord Briley, who has worked as a freelance fundraiser for several of the TV evangelists, describes the war thus: “This is hamburger wars. Wendy’s fighting McDonald’s. They are trying to maintain income and market shares in a declining market “. Or, to quote Bakker’s lawyer, speaking in anger at Swaggart’s revelations about his client. “Swaggart wants to be the only spokesman for God. the only one who receives the tithes for God”. The shows themselves are hideously creepy, like allowing rapists to come on our screens to publicise country rambles for women. Would anyone buy a second-hand ideology from these fakers? The answer is yes, millions do, but the good news is that millions more are being emphatically turned off of the all-too-trans- parent madness of religion during the process.
What else have I seen on American telly? An ad for insurance which shows a man dying in a car accident because he didn’t have the right piece of paper in his top pocket; a cartoon series for children featuring a goody called Rambo; and a soap opera in which a man with a patch on one eye tells the woman who runs the aerobics class that he doesn’t see life the same way as her. Neither do I. The USA spends billions of dollars each year on nuclear weapons. I have seen no reference to that on TV. But then, why waste time on the ultimate madness of social reality when studio-directed good-for-the-soul madness abounds?