What do Jim and Tammy and John Paul II have in common? Actually, very little. But the Pope, the Bakkers, and for that matter Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and other prime-time preachers, have been an integral part of the collective American conscience for much of this year—for good and ill.
Of course, the events bringing this select group to our attention are as different as the theologies they espouse. The televangelists bristled at hints of moral and ethical hypocrisy while the Pope basked in the glow of an admiring public.
But they are all vocal proponents of Christianity—a fairly conservative Christianity at that. And curiously, in a society thought to be highly secular, religious faith (and the inability of some to practice the faith they profess) gave “Nightline” its highest ratings and Time magazine no fewer than five cover stories. At this pace, the religion beat may become the most coveted assignment in media circles.
This is almost incredible, when one considers the scarcity of hard news in either the PTL scandal or the Pope’s visit. Were he not a popular preacher, Jim Bakker’s story would have had a hard time making even the supermarket tabloids. And the Pope’s popularity comes not so much from what he did on his visit but from who he is: the head of the largest Christian body in the world.
To be sure, it is always more pleasant to read headlines praising a church leader than to suffer through an embarrassing exposé of dishonesty and fraud. Yet both the Pope and Jim Bakker got what they deserved from the media, and the American people got what they deserved: an honest look at religious events.
That is as it should be, and the networks must admit it did not hurt them ...1
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