Televangelists Tune Into the End
Originally appeared in The Village Voice, February 19, 1991
Washington, D.C. Peter Warren III, a short, round Texan with lizard eyes and slicked back, thinning hair, shuffled around the showroom floor of the National Religious Broadcasters Convention. As head of El Paso’s nonprofit STC Broadcast Consultants, Warren spoke for many here at the Sheraton hotel when he asserted that communications technology is part of the divine plan. “The angels in Revelation? Well, I think they’re broadcasting satellites spreading television and radio signals over the earth. Technology is advancing unbelievably. Last night I went up and watched CNN at 2 a.m., and seven more Scuds were knocked down by the Patriots. It’s a high-tech war, and all this here is the same high-tech type of technology. Except our warfare is spiritual.”
The nation’s capital has been visited by many holy spirits these last few weeks. Just nine days before the NRB Convention began, after his own Episcopal bishop had preached peace, George Bush scraped knees with Billy Graham in the White House and unleashed his storm of death angels on the cradle of civilization. Then, on the 26th, the antiwar march on Washington found Methodists, Quakers, and members of the Churches of the Savior and SubGenius seamlessly mixed in with the usual crowd of punkers, scruffies, radicals, and lesbians. Signs like “Jesus Prince of Peace,” “Matt. 5:9” and “Bush Is Satan” bobbed along with “Fuck War” and broccoli jokes.
Peacenik sentiments, however, were not prevalent among the group of mostly white men that make up the National Religious Broadcasters, men with hard clean faces and bland suits. Founded by a handful of broadcasters in 1944, the NRB is now a collection of a thousand or so radio and television stations united in their commitment to disseminate biblical Christianity. These folks are revival-minded fundamentalists, the hardcore bands of the rock of Christ. As their first statement of faith has it: “We believe the Bible to be inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God,” which means that Adam and Eve, Apocalypse, and Satan have no less reality to these people than the Super Bowl or the Six Day War.
Though the televangelists were hurt deeply by the Jim Bakker/Jimmy Swaggart revelationswith most ministries seeing their contributions cut in halftoday’s shadows of Depression and showdown in the gulf have stoked the fires of religious yearning across the nation. Some of the NRB are stone-cold isolationists, and others have too much of the love of Jesus to desire blood, but no one can deny that the war’s good for the Lord’s business: faith is up, the right wing is swooping across the sky, and prophecy is in the air. Times that look like end times are good times for merchants of the Word.
So, mixed in with the TV tech that crowded the showroom floorholy satellite nets, Kingdom Technology hardware, phone systems (“Uniting the Power of Faith With the Power of 900”)were more specific signs of the war and the Apocalypse that lurked somewhere behind. Across from the booth for Little Folk Visuals, which offered felt cutouts of Caucasian Biblical characters, a couple of blue-jeaned, blond hunks from Phoenix peddled Glory to God T-shirts, including the concise “Jesus or Hell,” and “Get Ready for the Big One.” The Three Arches Co., recently fled from Bethlehem, was selling contemporary artifacts and Desert Shield watches, while some guy from a Southern ministry handed out sugar-coated Atomic Fire Balls. Books like The Persian Gulf Crisis and the Final Fall of Babylon and Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis were being snatched up, as conventioneers succumbed to the pornography of eschatology. A tall bearded guy dressed in desert fatigues was doing a brisk trade in The Ultimate Shield, a camouflaged prayer book that broke down the beautiful Psalm 91, a current fave in the gulf. (No doubt for reassuring lines like “A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.”) The guy admitted that they were selling like hotcakes.
Like most of the folks I spoke to, my camouflaged buddy didn’t believe the war was quite the beginning of the end. “Well, scripturally, the word has to reach every nation before the end comes, and we’re not quite there yet. They’re talking about the year 2000 as the target now for worldwide saturation.” He was referring to Matthew 24:12, where Jesus promises that the end will come only when the gospel has been “preached in all the world for a witness to all nations”that is, when the televangelists and radio missionaries have done their jobs worldwide.
This technological millennialism is born of the evangelical Christian notion that the “good news” of the Gospel is salvational information, not only hooking new believers but fulfilling the divine plan. Langston Leslie, a precocious 16-year-old with a hip fade who’s helped set up the computer and phone systems for his folks’ Christian radio station, described electronics as “energy, databases, and math. All these entities run through Eternity.” Langston’s line echoes the words of holy folk artist Reverend Howard Finster, who once said that whenever people wondered how God could be in more than one place at one time, he’d just show them the TV sets he’d planted in his garden and say television was already doing the same thing.
Standing by a booth selling his book Apocalypse Next, William Goetz, a very kind, mustached minister from Canada, whipped out a pocket, leather-bound Bible and pointed out Revelation chapter 11, where the Beats kills the “two witnesses” and displays their corpses to all the world. “You couldn’t do that without TV,” he said. Goetz insisted that he doesn’t like to spend too much time doing prophecy, because “my ministry is my first concern.” So it was with some reserve that he cited Daniel 12:4:
But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.
“Now that’s probably the computer age,” Goetz said. “People can’t even keep up with one field any more, especially technology.” And what do you do when you seal the book? Watch TV.
Which is what we’ve all been doing the last few weeks. But for these guys, video images of tracer missiles lighting up the Baghdad sky, Jews wearing gas masks, and Arab masses pumped for jihad aren’t that much of a changethey see spiritual warfare every time they turn on the tube. Ted Baehr, media watchdog and author of a Christian movie guide, even sees Mr. Satan in kiddie cartoons. Baehr’s fears are understandableoccult and New Age motifs are rife in cartoons today (check out Masters of the Universe, He-Man, or Captain Planet). Baehr was quite pleased to tell the attendees at his “Capturing Your Audience” seminar that he hadn’t had to resort to that ol’ mainstay, corporal punishment, to get his kid to realize that Masters was full of “witches and demons and gives you nightmares.” Good job, Ted.
Baehr went on to speak in Cold War terms about the need to penetrate mainstream media, bragging about Christians at Disney and ABC and some rep at Turner broadcasting who had recently “renounced New Ageism and Universalism.” For media spymasters like Baehr, who want to do “theology in the marketplace of ideas,” spreading the Word is like pirate-broadcasting divine data into a spectrum saturated with Satan. As Pete Warren put it, “Churches don’t have any other way of invading people’s homes.”
Seeing yourself as part of a tiny saved remnant in a sea of Satan-suckers tends to produce a rather rabid political worldview. While the NRBer’s paranoid distrust of monopoly capitalism, credit economy, and the IRS was enjoyable, as was some ministries’ paradoxical embrace of the First Amendment, everything else was pure wooze: Accuracy in Media, Fetal Teaching Systems, and wandering robots of fun like Ollie North and a red-dressed Anita Bryant. Joanne Highley, a “reformed homosexual” and a very tough cookie who “saves” gays through her LIFE ministry on Manhattan cable, lit into me when I told her I was from the Voice, challenging me to defend Queer Nation’s tactics. She started raving about her ovaries and the sanctity of her “husband’s seed,” so I started raving about DNA and the political construction of Nature, and we left it at that. But the loopy prize went to Phoenix’s juicy, fact-filled McAlvany Intelligence Advisor, in which Donald McAlvany accuses Bush of colluding with the Russians to form a socialist world governmentbacked of course by that archevil secret society, the Illuminati. McAlvany suggests his reads heed the four G’s of survival: God, Groceries, Gold, and Guns.
Even if these fringe theorists smell a devilish Russkie rat in Bush’s “new world order,” the prez couldn’t have picked a better locale to elevate the Persian Gulf war into a moral conflict worthy of big thumbs-up from God. Given the plenitude of flag pins, jar-head haircuts (often coupled with sneers for your humble long-haired one), and the way that half the crowd watching the Super Bowl on the lobby’s big screen TV stood up solemnly when Whitney Houston sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it was a safe bet that Bush was before a crowd of enthusiastic “100 percenters.” After all, believing that utopia comes about only after everyone else is blasted away in an orgy of fire and destruction makes for a guaranteed, if fatalistic, militarism.
So Monday morning, after a marine band blasted yahoo tunes and FCC chairman Alfred Sikes rambled, Bush ‘n’ Barbara took the stage, in from of an NRB banner and two small GE logos off to the side. After cowering all protest-weekend long, Bush was ready to drop some just-war science and God-talk into his obviously anxious justifications for war. Bush needs the NRBthough he is too left-wing for a lot of these folks, it is from their all-too-pervasive worldview that he can construct his grand moral narrative of war. Bush said that the conflict was being “fought for moral, not selfish, reasons,” that it was about “good versus evil.” As he spoke, his face became warped and blurry. Maybe it was the early hour, or the bad coffee, or the company I’d been keeping at the Sheraton, but for a moment George was transformed into the Great Satan. The two GE logos began to glow and pulsate, ceasing to merely signify the multinational corporation that made faulty transmissions for the Bradley tanks men my age may die inside. No, it was the Illuminatithat great Satanic worldwide conspiracyup to their old tricks, making sick electro-Luciferian jokes while the president of the United States trampled on the sweet spirit that Jesus willed in Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”