Having grown up as a conservative evangelical in a small Texas town makes it difficult for me to take popular media coverage of evangelical culture very seriously. The outsize coverage given to prominent evangelicals like Jerry Falwell Jr.–subject of yet another in-depth interview in national newspapers this week–suggests that journalists honestly believe that the great mass of rank and file evangelicals take these public figures to be their supreme pontiffs without any critical reflection. It is almost as though journalists form their ideas about evangelicals based on the ones who rush to them the fastest to give a quote.
The invisible line undetected by media coverage of evangelicalism is the media itself. Sustained public attention and television appearances are not regarded as normal for most pastors and leaders. Most of the “evangelical leaders” with televised ministries and public ambitions were regarded as phony and untrustworthy by ordinary churchgoers. Even in their heyday, the great public evangelicals Jerry Falwell Sr., Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, and their ilk were regarded by ordinary churchgoers as remote and distant; having more in common with prosperity gospel preachers of the Trinity Broadcasting Network like Benny Hinn, The Bakkers, and John Hagee than with the local pastor of First Baptist.
Billy Graham, apparently a great exception, was not regarded as a “televangelist” but rather a missionary. A distinction exists between those sent *to* the public world and those who are *of* it. Evangelicals regarded Graham as one of their own who had been sent out from them into public life to evangelize, not as a televangelist, for whom a congregation is actually a TV audience.
These lines are blurring today as the new media redefines the channels of notoriety and public life, but the fact remains that the most direct line to the hearts and minds of rank and file evangelicals are typically not the voices and faces of those who have sought the spotlight. For ordinary evangelicals who attend church regularly, and are active members, national notoriety is not the norm, and those of their number who get too comfortable in the limelight are regarded with suspicion. Courting media attention has precious little to do with ordinary congregational life.
Of course, the media’s interest in covering evangelical opinions and attitudes is not to learn about their actual lives or thoughts, but to understand what drives their votes, and the fact that the rank-and-file evangelical’s political activity tends to align with the likes of Falwell seems enough for media elites to assign him and his ilk a responsible role. But correlation is not causation, as we are often reminded by the same “experts” who consistently fail to look past the most recognizable faces and the loudest voices, and so they miss the real story: the actual religion of the faithful; the doctrines that commit ordinary Christians to uncompromising positions on abortion, sexuality, and the free exercise of religion in schools and communities.
But religion as such can’t be reached for an easy quote, and it does not live in the airwaves or on social media. Religion is where the people are. Go and see.