Jonathan Walton, assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside, has just published Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism with NYU Press.
Through their constant television broadcasts, mass video distributions, and printed publications, African American religious broadcasters have a seemingly ubiquitous presence in popular culture. They are on par with popular entertainers and athletes in the African American community as cultural icons even as they are criticized by others for taking advantage of the devout in order to subsidize their lavish lifestyles.
For these reasons questions abound. Do televangelists proclaim the message of the gospel or a message of greed? Do they represent the “authentic” voice of the black church or the Christian Right in blackface? Does the phenomenon reflect orthodox “Christianity” or ethnocentric “Americaninity” wrapped in religious language?
Watch This! seeks to move beyond such polarizing debates by critically delving into the dominant messages and aesthetic styles of African American televangelists and evaluating their ethical implications.
With an early focus on Rev. Ike and initial versions of the prosperity message, Walton places the contemporary phenomenon of black religious broadcasting in historical perspective, demonstrating that the types of syncretic and sensational black Christian practices witnessed on today's airwaves have been brewing within African American storefronts and on black religious radio for the majority of the twentieth century. He goes on to illumine the diversity of theology and social thought among popular black religious broadcasters in order to delineate the differences among figures often lumped together as monolithic.
In so doing, Watch This! provides a principled ethical analysis that situates televangelists against a larger cultural backdrop, evaluating them according to their own self-understandings and ecclesial agendas. From T.D. Jakes to Bishop Eddie Long to Pastor Creflo Dollar, Walton argues that despite their emphasis on social and economic advancement in the African American community, these leaders ministries frustrate their own liberatory aims and unwittingly reinforce class, racial, and gender injustices in America.
Such a nuanced examination of black religious broadcasting is certain to enrich our understanding of this prevalent and pervasive form of popular and political culture.
A regular writer for Religion Dispatches, you should check out his blog as well.
In other news, Billy Graham is the subjct of a new book by Steven P. Miller. Published by University of Pennsylvania Press, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South situates the noted evangelist in the South in order to explore his role in the politics of the region and the nation as a whole.
While spreading the gospel around the world through his signature crusades, internationally renowned evangelist Billy Graham maintained a visible and controversial presence in his native South, a region that underwent substantial political and economic change in the latter half of the twentieth century. In this period Graham was alternately a desegregating crusader in Alabama, Sunbelt booster in Atlanta, regional apologist in the national press, and southern strategist in the Nixon administration.Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South considers the critical but underappreciated role of the noted evangelist in the creation of the modern American South. The region experienced two significant related shifts away from its status as what observers and critics called the "Solid South": the end of legalized Jim Crow and the end of Democratic Party dominance. Author Steven P. Miller treats Graham as a serious actor and a powerful symbol in this transition—an evangelist first and foremost, but also a profoundly political figure. In his roles as the nation's most visible evangelist, adviser to political leaders, and a regional spokesperson, Graham influenced many of the developments that drove celebrants and detractors alike to place the South at the vanguard of political, religious, and cultural trends. He forged a path on which white southern moderates could retreat from Jim Crow, while his evangelical critique of white supremacy portended the emergence of "color blind" rhetoric within mainstream conservatism. Through his involvement in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations, as well as his deep social ties in the South, the evangelist influenced the decades-long process of political realignment.
Graham's public life sheds new light on recent southern history in all of its ambiguities, and his social and political ethics complicate conventional understandings of evangelical Christianity in postwar America. Miller's book seeks to reintroduce a familiar figure to the narrative of southern history and, in the process, examine the political and social transitions constitutive of the modern South.