Who Speaks for the Evangelicals?

Amy Sullivan offers an informative follow-up to the WM/Atrios/OTB crosstalk on Pat Robertson’s latest idiocy.

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 — 713,000 viewers — 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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. bryan says:

    Robertson is also president and chancellor of Regent University, a pretty large religious institution with a law school and doctoral programs in several disciplines, including communication.

    c.f. http://www.regent.edu/general/about_us/leadership.cfm

  2. James Joyner says:

    Yep, good point. Of course, I’d guess most people with hiring authority know what Regent is and discount it accordingly.

  3. John Raynes says:

    I’m a life-long conservative protestant Christian, and I want absolutely, positively nothing to do with Pat Robertson. I feel he’s a grotesque embarrassment to Christianity.

    When Robertson is making these types of statements, he (usually, I believe) is claiming to speak prophetically, that is, as a direct oracle of God. (It’s hard to tell when he’s claiming the prophetic mantle, and when he’s just spouting off his own version of political analysis, and frankly, most of us don’t care.)

    It should be noted that only a minority of Christians (mostly Pentecostals) accept that there are such prophets alive in this time to begin with. And of that minority that do, only a minority of them would accept that Robertson qualifies as a prophet. He fails the simple Biblical prophetic test in flames.

    Another thing that I’m starting to wonder: Robertson is 75 years old. And his outrageous off-the-cuff remarks seem to be getting more frequent and more bizarre all the time. Is there any possibility that he’s in the early stages of Alheimer’s or general dementia? I think that people need to start asking.

  4. bryan says:

    Yep, good point. Of course, I’d guess most people with hiring authority know what Regent is and discount it accordingly.

    But only in secular institutions. In Christian colleges and universities, sometimes a degree from Regent is seen as a plus.

    OTOH, I wouldn’t suggest that all of Regent’s faculty and students agree with Robertson’s views, any more than Harvard’s agree with Sumner’s.

  5. James Joyner says:

    True on both counts, I guess.

    I’d view someone with a Regent or Liberty degree with incredible skepticism, I’m afraid. Even if they don’t agree–and why go there, then? I understand going to Harvard if you’re a conservative but not those schools if you’re sane–their “education” has been mostly tripe.

  6. floyd says:

    sorta’ like blogging, if you don’t say something outrageous, nobody pays any attention[lol] i’m a christian, and the few nationally known figures that i would [maybe] allow to speak for me,are ignored by the media “religiously”.

  7. floyd says:

    james, i think a “BS” degree is somewhat “downstream” of the tripe[lol],don’t you?anyway isn’t “MS” more of the same? and “PHD” piled higher and deeper?

  8. floyd says:

    cud you “stomach” my last comment? ruminate on it for a while,would some grass help?hope this doesn’t get “pasture” humor tolerance.i could keep this up ’til [you guessed it]THE COWS COME HOME! sorry ,i’ll stop now

  9. Just Me says:

    I am a Christian, and would probably be considered “evangelical” by todays standards. I can’t say that I have ever liked Robertson or Falwell and I can’t say that they either speak for me or represent me.

    I also don’t know too many people who watch or listen to Robertson.

    I think they mostly get called on, because they can be counted on to give some outrageous quote that can be beat upon for weeks, so that one story can generate a larger one.

    I also don’t think either man has much political power anymore. The evangelical with political clout is probably Dobson (who at times isn’t much better in the outrageous comments department)-he doesn’t seem as willing to grant the interviews though (which should probably be a number 3, since it is always possible a producer has called one of those other guys listed, but that guy chose to take a pass on an interview).

  10. McGehee says:

    I think they mostly get called on, because they can be counted on to give some outrageous quote that can be beat upon for weeks, so that one story can generate a larger one.

    Robertson has that rep because he spouts outrageous quotes on his own, even without prompting. He perfectly illustrates the old saying about remaining silent and being thought a fool, as opposed to speaking and removing all doubt.

  11. RJN says:

    Mr. Joyner: Do you know that Regent University teaches tripe? Your remarks seem far more egregious than Pat Robertson’s.

    I notice that you did not give a link to the actual words of Mr. Robertson, but to other people’s cut and paste versions of what he said. Robertson was speculating; he was assuming that God has some power, and might use it on occasion.

  12. A Voice says:

    Can’t we just all get along LOL