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Preachers and the Presidency

TV evangelists must tread lightly when discussing candidates 2/08/2008 07:00:00 PM Eastern

In the last two decades, religion—in particular the evangelical right—has played a pivotal role in politics. Even in this year's primary battles, religion has been an issue. But televangelists such as megastar Joel Osteen and TV ministries like Crystal Cathedral's Hour of Power are careful not to endorse any candidate or party.

Ministries that qualify as 501(c)(3) non-profits can't endorse candidates. Gordon Robertson, son of famed evangelist Pat Robertson and now the CEO of CBN and host of its powerful 700 Club, says the Internal Revenue Service gets rough when non-profit religious groups spout anything political, especially endorsements or commentary that overtly promotes one candidate or political party over the other.

Instead, most TV ministries like Christian Broadcasting Network's 700 Club, and faith-based networks like Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) and INSP—The Inspiration Network, are reminding their viewers of the values they hold dear and then presenting each candidate's position.

“We absolutely do that,” says John Roos, SVP of communications and research at INSP. “We have a show called Inspiration Today. We'll talk about issues like morality, war and justice, the homeless and unemployed. And we talk about [candidates'] beliefs. These are subjects important to us and our audience.”

But Pat Robertson surprisingly did endorse a presidential candidate. The staunchly conservative CBN patriarch threw his support to former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, whom many Republicans viewed with some suspicion because of liberal policies, his seeming lack of judgment about gay lifestyles, and his checkered marital history. That endorsement was personal, not connected to the 700 Club, and surprised son Gordon.

“Categorically, we don't endorse candidates,” he says. “But we can talk about candidates. We can review their positions. We just have to make sure that, on balance, the coverage is fair and not tilted toward one candidate.”

There's a more practical reason for TV ministries to bypass ardent political talk, however. It can turn off viewers—potential donors—notes Ben Rhodes, spokesman for Crystal Cathedral's Hour of Power.

Still, many TV ministries are getting their political messages out to a legion of faithful viewers. Most often, these messages come in the form of relatively straightforward news, with televangelists reporting on each candidate's views on dicey issues like gay rights, abortion and the sanctity of marriage.

“We were the first televised church service in 1970,” Rhodes says. “At that point, Dr. Robert Schuller made a point not to get into politics because once you get into politics, you turn off whoever has a different viewpoint. The wave now among larger ministries is to veer away from politics.” On the other hand, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who started Moral Majority 25 years ago, became a huge political power and had a huge following, too.

“There's generally a reluctance to mix it up politically for these folks during a primary,” says Mark Silk, director of the study of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. “To be overtly partisan in favor of one candidate is tricky.”

For TV ministries, however, the medium is the message. And the message, whichever direction it leans, is a powerful one.

There's a big audience watching. More than 75 million people tune into Christian programming each month, according to the National Religious Broadcasters, the trade group that represents member ministries.

In a separate study, 26 million adults say they enjoy watching TV ministries, according the spring 2007 Simmons National Consumer Survey. Latinos, African Americans, and people living in the South and in rural areas are disproportionately represented in this group.

TBN is seen in more than 5 million homes each week, according to that network's analysis of Nielsen ratings. And 700 Club has nearly 1 million viewers every day, says Robertson.

Candidates keep the faith

While televangelists may be taking a subtle approach to sharing political preferences with these viewers, the presidential candidates are seriously courting people of faith. Republican longshot Mike Huckabee rarely fails to include a quote from the Bible, or an allusion to it, in his speeches. The GOP's Mitt Romney, who withdrew last week, felt compelled to defend his Mormon faith to answer some evangelicals' claims that the religion is a cult.

Democratic candidate and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton—and her husband, former President Bill Clinton—have been popping up for church services around the country, including Bill's well-timed attendance at four Los Angeles churches the Sunday before last week's Super Tuesday slugfest. TV news networks were in tow, of course. Hillary Clinton was seen carrying around a Bible and made a not-so-subtle reference to Jesus Christ in a televised Democratic debate on Jan. 31.

Her opponent, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, has been the subject of a sleaze e-mail rumor about being Muslim, and he had to deflect the rumor by declaring his Christianity in countless TV speeches.

The idea is to get the word out where televangelists are falling short. Presidential candidates are shouting to believers, in essence, that “I'm one of you. I believe, too.”

“You have to go after the church market,” says INSP's Roos. “A lot of people think the reason President Bush was elected twice was because of his strong statements about his belief. If you're a wise politician, you take notice of that.”

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