In the past year, National Religious Broadcasters has played a lead role in some very earthly matters. It has lobbied hard on some divisive issues—cable carriage of DTV signals, Webcasting royalties, funding noncommercial TV stations' conversion to digital—and has been largely responsible for swaying key lawmakers to the broadcasting industry's side.
"We have a lot of similar interests and concerns of mainstream broadcasters," says NRB President Frank Wright. The organization boasts 1,600 members from all over the world. Members must be evangelical Christians dedicated to using radio, television and the Internet to spread the Christian Gospel.
The group was behind then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's October 2002 endorsement of cable multicasting rights for broadcasters and, a month later, Sen. Jesse Helms's decision to block a vote on Webcasting royalties until the bill included acceptable terms for broadcasters' streaming operations, not just Internet-only operators'.
Amazingly, these victories came just a few months after NRB fell into turmoil after the death of long time president Brandt Gustavson. Board members blocked installation of Gustavson's successor Wayne Pederson, who wanted to move the group away from conservative political activism. After a year, Wright, with no operational experience as a broadcaster, was plucked to fill the post from the Center for Christian Statesmanship, a Capitol Hill ministry he had directed for eight years. He guesses his nomination was acceptable to both the activist camp and Pederson's supporters because his conservative evangelical leanings are unchallenged yet the Center shunned endorsement of legislation "like the plague."
The Center, which holds weekly Bible studies for lawmakers and staffers, refused to take positions on legislation. "We didn't want to be seen as having two agendas," Wright explains.
NRB, of course, endorses legislation, especially as it affects religious broadcasters. Apparently worldly issues like must-carry rules and Webcasting royalties, Wright insists, are essential to helping evangelical broadcasters reach as broad an audience as possible—a divine mission in the view of his members.
Some of NRB's battles are more clearly parochial. The organization won a fight to eliminate an FCC rule limiting the amount of airtime noncommercial licensees could devote to "proselytizing" and has endorsed a bill that would protect the tax-exempt status of religious organizations that speak out on "political issues."
Wright, who is not a minister but rather has a PhD in finance, founded the Center for Christian Statesmanship at the urging of his pastor, Rev. D. James Kennedy, head of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Wright had aimed to become an academic researcher, but Kennedy urged him to go to Washington. Wright was dumbfounded. "I just spent five years of blood, sweat, toil and tears earning a doctorate in finance, and you want me to chuck all that?" he asked his mentor. After praying over the request, he moved his family to Reston, Va. It was a homecoming of sorts: He had been born and reared in Washington's Maryland suburbs.
That background gives him a political savvy that prevents him from taking the attention of politicians too much to heart. President Bush, perhaps the first president who would describe himself as an evangelical Christian, is much admired among NRB members for speaking to the group's convention in February, but Wright notes that nearly every president since Nixon has made an appearance.
None are immune from using NRB to advance their political platforms, he says. "We don't kid ourselves. They clearly see these visits as a chance to advance an agenda. We're not trying to claim otherwise."