Who Speaks for the Evangelicals?
She offers a long list of prominent spokesmen who are much more representative of modern Evangelical thought than Robertson or Jerry Falwell and then writes,
As for Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, their heyday was twenty years ago; the only reason they’re still booked as talking heads is that most producers don’t know these two men no longer have any power. But more than that, they’re just not representative of today’s evangelicals. Robertson is a Pentecostal and Falwell is a fundamentalist, and while you could broadly say that most Pentecostals and fundamentalists are evangelicals, not all evangelicals are Pentecostals or fundamentalists. That’s why some of the more extreme theological statements you hear from those two (God let 9/11 happen because of gays and women and the ACLU) aren’t shared by a lot of evangelicals. That’s not to say that many evangelicals (and some of the names I mentioned) don’t hold intolerant, troubling views. But when we criticize them, we should be able to distinguish between widely-held beliefs and the wacked-out positions of a couple of has-beens.
That’s reasonable enough. As to why they’re nonethless always chosen as the spokesmen for the Christian Right on television, there are two rather obvious reasons.
First, I have only heard of a handful of the people she listed. Given that I’ve lived most of my life in the South and around Evangelicals, it’s a sure bet that most television bookers are even less familiar with these people than I am. Calling up the usual suspects on one’s Rolodex is SOP.
Second, television bookers are looking to draw and keep an audience. Robertson and Falwell are not only more famous than any of the more reasonable people on Sullivan’s list but they’re much more likely to say something incredibly stupid and controversial. That doesn’t make for the most informative discussion of issues but it’s much better entertainment. The latter is the goal.
Both of those points apply pretty much across the board. There are a handful of people who are always on when a topic is in the news. Church and state separation? Barry Lind. American politics? Larry Sabato? Black issues? Jesse Jackson. Women’s issues? Gloria Allred. Sports? John Feinstein. Values? Bill Bennett. Blogging? Ana Marie Cox.
Part of it is that these people are what Dan Drezner dubs “quote whores.” People who are willing to spend three or four hours any time–day, night, weekend, holiday–to get five minutes on television are highly valued by producers. Further, they’re a much easier sell to the audience than someone with genuine expertise on a specific topic but less recognizability, less experience on camera, and less willingness to make bold, black-and-white pronouncements.
As an aside, while Sullivan’s expertise on the issue outstrips mine, I nonetheless question her assertion that Robertson and Falwell “no longer have any power.” I agree that they speak for only a minority of Christian Conservatives and that they are less powerful than they were in their heyday. But they’re not exactly marginal figures. As Byron York wrote back in August,
Robertson is not quite as marginalized a figure as conservatives would like to believe. His main forum, the television program The 700 Club, is available in nearly all of the country on the ABC Family Channel, FamilyNet, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and some broadcast stations. According to Nielsen Media Research, The 700 Club, aired each weekday, has averaged 863,000 viewers in the last year. While that is not enough to call it a popular program, it is still a significant audience. It is, for example, more than the average primetime audience for CNN last month Ã¢€” 713,000 viewers Ã¢€” or MSNBC, which averaged 280,000 viewers in prime time. It is also greater than the viewership of CNBC and Headline News.
That’s some power, anyway.