In 1992, Patrick Buchanan, in his infamous speech at the Republican National Convention, said our country was engaged in a "culture war." Nowhere was the truth of that statement more evident than at the 1997 convention of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), held this past January in Anaheim, California.
The NRB membership is comprised of Christian TV and radio station owners, as well as groups such as Focus on the Family and the Christian Broadcasting Network. These are the front line soldiers in the cultural battle for the hearts and minds of our citizens, if not the world.
Recent regulatory changes by the Federal Communications Commission have resulted in a buying frenzy in both secular and religious broadcasting markets, which, in turn, has caused a dramatic increase in the number of member radio and TV stations belonging to the NRB.
The 1995 NRB directory listed 1,328 affiliated radio and 163 affiliated TV stations. The 1997 directory lists 1,648 radio and 257 TV stations. This dramatic growth in just two years is a 24% increase in Christian radio stations and a whopping 57% increase in Christian TV stations.
Annual awards were presented to various organizations and individuals at the opening session of the conference. Promise Keepers received the Radio Program Producer of the Year Award. Promise Keepers, whose influence was apparent at this religious gathering, maintained a hospitality room throughout the conference to promote its agenda.
Although the January 25-28, 1997 convention, with over 5000 people in attendance, was not as overtly political as those of previous years, there was still plenty of political discourse. In particular, the commercial (for profit) Christian station owners are concerned about several proposed pieces of legislation to be decided at the federal and state levels.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), for instance, would add sexual orientation to the list of areas in which employers may not discriminate in hiring or in job promotion. (Nonprofit religious organizations would be exempt.) The commercial broadcasters worry that they might be "forced" to hire gay people if ENDA is passed. And, of course, as same-sex unions work their way through the courts in Hawaii and perhaps other state legislatures, religious broadcasters are increasingly concerned about how these unions will affect them.
Politics aside, the most impressive part of the convention, as always, was the 100,000 square foot exhibit area filled with fascinating displays. One could see and hear much about how the "Christian" side of the culture war is being waged.
This year there were nearly a dozen firms offering internet services, compared to last year where only two or three firms exhibited. All pitched the idea of twenty-four hour Internet access as a way to promote the conservative Christian agenda, and the use audio to bolster the message of the text.
Leading the field in internet activities is the Gospel Communication Network (http://www.gospelcom.net) which is the gateway to over fifty websites, including The Navigators, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Youth for Christ, and Luis Palau Evangelistic Association.
Rich DeVos, of Amway, and former president of the Council for National Policy, is the chairman of the board of the Gospel Communications Network. Until his death a year ago, Michigan billionaire, Edward Prince, another CNP member, also sat on the board.
One of the largest displays at the convention was that of LifeLines, the long distance telephone carrier which contributes 10% of its income to groups chosen by its conservative Christian subscribers. The booth was staffed on Super Bowl Sunday by such notables as Operation Rescue founder, Randall Terry (LifeLine is a major sponsor of Terry's radio program), and the Rev. Billy Falling, of the Christian Voters League.
Much of the talk in last year's workshops centered around how broadcasters should prepare for a future with 500 TV channels entering homes via phone lines. This year the hot topic was how Christians could exert more influence on Hollywood in terms of program content.
To that extent, several workshops were conducted by Council for National Policy member Ted Baehr, chair of NRB's Christian Film and TV Commission, and publisher of Movieguide Magazine. Probably the most well-known participant was Howard Kazanjian, a producer of the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films. Much of the discussion centered around trying to create a television network uniting all the NRB member stations.
According to figures presented, if the 257 NRB television stations started their own network, it would be much larger than the Fox, Paramount, or Warner Bros. networks when they began operation. Their idea is to follow the example of established networks and begin by broadcasting "family programming" one night a week. As the network demonstrated that it could attract an audience, it would be able to lure advertisers, which would then enable the network to expand to seven day-a-week programming. For such a venture to be successful the programming would have to be 97% entertainment and 3% religious.
Celebrities seen around the conference included former PTL TV host Jim Bakker, who autographed free copies of his new book, "I Was Wrong"; Pat "God's into leather" Boone, sans his leather vest and collar; Grant Goodeve, an actor of "Eight is Enough" fame; Beverly LaHaye, of Concerned Women for America; Bill Bright, of Campus Crusade for Christ; Charles Stanley, of First Baptist in Atlanta; evangelist Benny Hinn; and Lou Sheldon, of the Traditional Values Coalition.
Well-organized, well-financed, and politically connected, the National Religious Broadcasters will no doubt continue to be in the forefront of the culture wars.
Jerry Sloan, a frequent contributor to Freedom Writer, heads Project Tocsin, a California-based watchdog group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 1997 by Jerry Sloan.