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Christianity and the Mass Media in America: Toward a Democratic Accommodation

Christianity and the Mass Media in America: Toward a Democratic Accommodation

by Quentin J. Schultze

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The mass media and religious groups in America regularly argue about news bias, sex and violence on television, movie censorship, advertiser boycotts, broadcast and film content rating systems, government regulation of the media, the role of mass evangelism in a democracy, and many other issues. In the United States the major disputes between religion and the media


The mass media and religious groups in America regularly argue about news bias, sex and violence on television, movie censorship, advertiser boycotts, broadcast and film content rating systems, government regulation of the media, the role of mass evangelism in a democracy, and many other issues. In the United States the major disputes between religion and the media usually have involved Christian churches or parachurch ministries, on the one hand, and the so-called secular media, on the other. Often the Christian Right locks horns with supposedly liberal Eastern media elite and Hollywood entertainment companies. When a major Protestant denomination calls for an economic boycott of Disney, the resulting news reports suggest business as usual in the tensions between faith groups and media empires.
    Schultze demonstrates how religion and the media in America have borrowed each other’s rhetoric. In the process, they have also helped to keep each other honest, pointing out respective foibles and pretensions. Christian media have offered the public as well as religious tribes some of the best media criticism— better than most of the media criticism produced by mainstream media themselves. Meanwhile, mainstream media have rightly taken particular churches to task for misdeeds as well as offered some surprisingly good depictions of religious life.
     The tension between Christian groups and the media in America ultimately is a good thing that can serve the interest of democratic life. As Alexis de Tocqueville discovered in the 1830s, American Christianity can foster the “habits of the heart” that ward off the antisocial acids of radical individualism. And, as John Dewey argued a century later, the media offer some of our best hopes for maintaining a public life in the face of the religious tribalism that can erode democracy from within. Mainstream media and Christianity will always be at odds in a democracy. That is exactly the way it should be for the good of each one.

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Michigan State University Press
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Rhetoric & Public Affairs
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Christianity and the Mass Media in America Toward a Democratic Accommodation

By Quentin J. Schultze Michigan State University Press Copyright © 2003 Quentin J. Schultze
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87013-696-2

Chapter One Conversing about Faith and Media in America

* * *

Alexis de Tocqueville recalled reading a news story during his visit to the United States in the 1830s about a court in New York where a witness declared that he did not believe in the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. As a result of the witness's confession, the judge refused "to accept his oath, given, he said, that the witness had destroyed in advance all the faith that could have been put in his words." Apparently astonished by the story, Tocqueville added to his report the fact that the newspaper offered no commentary about the judge's decision. Tocqueville wondered how a witness's account of an event could be disregarded simply because the witness did not believe in God. The whole matter astonished Tocqueville but apparently caused little amazement to the reporter who covered the trial.

American democracy depends on religion, but not on any particular religious institutions. Religion in the United States is not fundamentally about church-building programs and theological education, although it certainly includes these kinds of endeavors. Nor is religion largely the pronouncements of Rome, the synodical meetings of Presbyterians, or the conventions of Baptists. As Tocqueville concludes, religion in America includes dynamic cultural activities anchored deeply in the practices of the people. New World Christianity, writes Tocqueville, is "democratic and republican."

Each sect, he observes, "adores God in its manner, but all sects preach the same morality in the name of God." As a result, Tocqueville concludes, "America is ... the place in the world where the Christian religion has most preserved genuine powers over souls; and nothing shows better how useful and natural to man it is in our day, since the country in which it exercises the greatest empire is at the same time the most enlightened and most free."

American religious life is like an ongoing discussion, intimate but open-ended and regulated by social propriety. Sharing what Tocqueville calls "an ostensible respect for Christian morality and equity," Americans join together in religious conversations about who they are and where they are headed as a nation. The American future is wide open, just like the outcome of a rich and meaningful conversation among friends. Without the burden of the particularity of one tradition, Americans are nor inclined to pay full obeisance to the past. Instead they imagine together a future that is possible, even if not probable. Sometimes such imagining is deeply religious, as within a tribe, whereas other times it is more broadly nonsectarian. In both cases Americans frequently have perceived the hoped-for future in religious metaphors and language. Americans have always seen their collective future partly in the sermons and postworship discussions across the land, in the daily prayer of millions of individuals, and especially in the heart-felt religious enthusiasms of citizens. Religion is still a major part of the unregulated conversation that makes America democratic and republican.

American Christianity, too, is not like a scripted sermon or carefully crafted lecture but rather like a conversation played out on the public stages of porch, pew, and religious periodical. The conversation occurs in all types of media, from pulpits to newspapers and from electronic media to cyberspace. Whereas in many countries peoples' religious life is purely personal, private, and traditional-anchored largely in the ossified rituals of the past-in the United States matters of faith have always been part of the ongoing discourse of public as well as private life. James W. Carey, one of the most astute communication theorists and historians in America, argues that the freedoms mentioned in the First Amendment-religion, speech, press, and assembly-are together a "compact way of describing a political economy." The amendment, according to Carey, says "that people are free to gather together without the intrusion of the state or its representatives. Once gathered, they are free to speak openly and fully. They are further free to write down what they have to say and to share it beyond the immediate place of utterance." Freedom of religion, he adds, was absolutely crucial for maintaining this open process of organizing, speaking, and recording Americans' thoughts: "Of all the freedoms of public life in the eighteenth century, freedom of religion was, perhaps, the most difficult liberty for Americans to adjust to.... No one could be excluded from the public realm on the basis of religion, the one basis upon which people were likely to exclude one another." If Carey is correct, the founders built religious conversation into the symbolic fabric of American society. America's freedom of religion is nothing short of the liberty to gather religiously, to talk religiously, and to publicize religiously.

This chapter describes the major rhetorical topoi that Americans use to interpret the relationships between mass media and Christianity. Along the way, it also accomplishes four purposes behind the entire volume: (1) to offer a rationale for documenting American religious history culturally in the mediated conversations of the people rather than institutionally in the official documents of churches, denominations, and parachurch organizations; (2) to reconstruct some of these American conversations about Christianity and the media as Christians and the general public have expressed them in and through the mass media primarily during the twentieth century; (3) to use the theory of communication developed by the Chicago School of Social Thought to illuminate the dynamic interplay of religion and the media in American life; and (4) to establish the importance of rhetorical imagination in the history of the relationship of media and Christianity in America. This history, representing national as well as local and parochial conversations, occurs as an ongoing dialogue about Americans' hopes and fears, not just about the media and religion.

The main focus of this chapter, however, is to describe the five major rhetorical topoi that serve as doors to the public arenas in which Americans imaginatively discussed the media and faith. These rhetorical topoi are conversion, discernment, communion, exile, and praise. Each of the subsequent chapters examines how the media and Christian tribes used the topoi in particular contexts. By "rhetoric" I do not mean empty verbiage or purely self-interested persuasion; nor do I mean false talk or ideological jargon. I simply mean the ways that people used meaningful verbal and nonverbal symbols to interpret their world, to build and share those interpretations with others, and sometimes to persuade outsiders to agree with tribal or mainstream beliefs. In this sense, rhetoric is essentially an intentional form of persuasive communication in which participants pay attention to their public discourse, including how that discourse relates to their own self-identities, to others' identities, and to their private as well as other public interests. As Martin J. Medhurst and Thomas W. Benson suggest, the study and practice of rhetoric have a long and distinguished history in Western culture and certainly include the study of mass-mediated forms of communication. As a land of ongoing conversations, America is a lively symbolic arena in which tribal and mainstream rhetorics interact partly in and through the media.

The Rhetoric of Conversion

During the twentieth century mainstream American media and the church-by "church" I mean all Christian groups-created contrasting versions of the same vocational rhetoric: a calling to build media organizations that would attract, engage, and convert people to faith. As strange as it might seem today, the mass media in America were grounded in the particularly Protestant notion that communication, including the press, had the power to change people, to beneficially alter their perspective, and to usher them into a new community of shared hope. Tocqueville was amazed at the fact that in America "there is almost no small town that does not have its own newspaper." He was also surprised at the amount of space in the press allocated to advertising, probably the most characteristically American form of public communication. The press, he recognized, extended to "all opinions of men. It modifies not only laws, but mores." Americans negotiated and maintained culture partly through innovative public media, not just through ritualistic obedience to tradition. In other words, the constant process of cultural conversion, of cultural movement toward something new and potentially better, kept America afloat in the turbulent seas caused by the ongoing arrival of new and different people to the land of opportunity. As Alvin W. Gouldner points out, American Puritanism largely replaced the ritual of the Mass with the exhortation of the sermon. "In the sermon," he writes, "the age of ideology could find a paradigm of righteous and energetic persuasion, the paradigm of a rhetoric that could mobilize men to deeds." The advertiser and the preacher were two sides of the same rhetorical strategy-conversion. No matter how much they disagreed about the message, they shared a rhetoric of conversion. By the time of Tocqueville's arrival in the 1830s, America was a land of open persuasion, propaganda, and presentations of all kinds-a country of largely unrestricted attempts and wide-open means to convert others to one cause or another. Born out of hope in the future, America embraced a rhetoric of conversion that included both faith and commerce. Modern advertising, which is essentially an American invention, is particularly important as a form of nonreligious conversion. Indeed consumerism itself is a type of evangelization, a means of transforming people into dedicated buyers and then encouraging them to live faithfully in what Daniel Boorstin calls "consumption communities." The ways that Americans imaginatively think of the media as means for improving society-whether through public-service campaigns, regulating media content, or winning the nation to Jesus Christ-are formed out of the nation's strongly Protestant and deeply evangelical roots in a sermonic rhetoric of conversion. Some American Christians complain about the ways that the media try to entertain, inform, and persuade, but they rarely question whether the media should even try to influence citizens; the presumed propaganda function of the media is an accepted part of the mass-media's evangelistic calling in the United States. Even national disasters become special media events in which Americans claim shared sentiments and call the country to become more of what it claims to be, a place of happiness and compassion, justice and peace. Governmental regulators believe that by shaping how the media are used they can socially engineer a better society-just as their opponents plead persuasively that the free market of unbridled liberty will create a better nation.

The rhetoric of conversion is a crucial aspect of the Protestant impulse in American culture, partly an outgrowth of the country's legacy of revivalism. Television, of all of the mass media, has most captured the imaginations of Protestants who eagerly hope to use it to ameliorate social and psychological ills. Religious television is largely the product of conversionary-minded American Protestantism. Roman Catholic television, apart from the amazing popularity of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen in the 1950s, is largely imitative and derivative of Protestant programming. Even the satellite network of Mother Angelica, one of the most striking Catholic television personalities, is grounded in a tribal call for conversion that beckons Catholic Christians back to the one true faith. Judaism has produced only one moderately popular television celebrity, Jan Bresky; even he shares the conversionary rhetoric. American Protestants created a powerful rhetoric of conversion that shapes practically every excursion into religious broadcasting. Protestants have long imagined mass-media technologies as powerful tools for transforming culture, building churches, and teaching society moral lessons. American media endeavors almost inevitably take on a sermonic quality.

Historically speaking, this Protestant enthusiasm for religious television in the United States is hardly surprising. From the printing press to early radio and eventually satellites, Protestants dominated religious mass communication in America. American Catholics and Jews were less interested in evangelization and far more preoccupied with maintaining their religioethnic identities across generations or simply assimilating into the largely Protestant nation. In other words, Protestant communication tended toward cultural conversion, while Catholic and Jewish communication tended toward cultural conservation. Of course there have been Protestant pockets of resistance, such as some North American Anabaptist communities and Midwestern enclaves of ethnic Lutheranism and Calvinism. In spite of such countervailing religious sentiments, however, the rhetoric of conversion is so strong in American Protestantism and so deeply entrenched in the public imagination that few religious groups are able to resist the lure of the imagery or to deny the aesthetic delight that such rhetoric elicits. The overall exploitation of mass communication by Americans is stunning. But the story of religious media in the United States is unparalleled around the world. Beginning with Puritan book publishing, continuing with the Bible and tract societies' revolution in mass printing and distribution during the 1830s, and culminating today in Protestant excursions into cyberspace, Protestant mass communication is a crucial element in the story of American cultural history, not just religious history. American history is partly the tale of a heterogeneous people balancing their conversionary desires to change each other with their communal hope to be a cohesive nation. To be American has meant to be both tribal and American, to pursue tribal interests but also those of the public good-both with conversionary zeal.

The history of American media reflects the myriad ways that the nation and especially its Protestant tribes have tried to grow through conversion. Historians Harry S. Stout and Nathan O. Hatch address the significance of Protestant communication in early America. Stout's work on early American preaching documents the influential role of the sermon as a public act of cultural formation, not just religious expression. Hatch shows how preaching, music, and later printing generated a multimedia explosion of popular Protestantism. Long before the rise of American fundamentalism and well before the development of broadcast evangelism, American Protestantism was anchored in public persuasion as much as in personal piety. In this sense, American Protestant culture has always had its evangelistic impulses, and the distinctions between evangelical and mainline groups have often reflected contrasting rhetoric about conversion more than widely different commitments to conversion.

As Perry Miller argued, nineteenth-century Protestant thought about the predicted benefits of mass communication largely drove the nation's rapid industrial expansion and paved the way for the twentieth-century explosion in religious media in America. From the mid-nineteenth century to the present, American Protestants became the champions of religiously inspired technological rhetoric. Their evangelistic hopes blended powerfully with the nation's technological dreams and its ongoing industrial progress. Faith and technology became faith in technology, and eventually it was hard to distinguish between missionary activity and technological innovation. Missionary endeavors, more than other religious activities, became matters of technique and causes for technological development and celebration. American Protestants did not just use technology; they thought in terms of technology. In Jacques Ellul's language, they became "technologically minded" religious entrepreneurs. The rhetoric of conversion drove America's technological imagination.


Excerpted from Christianity and the Mass Media in America by Quentin J. Schultze Copyright © 2003 by Quentin J. Schultze. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Quentin J. Schultze is Professor of Communication Arts and Sciencs at Calvin College. He has published a number of books about media and Christianity, including Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Age of Information.

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