Marla Frederick on Race, Gender, Religious Broadcasting and Social Media

Nyasha Junior talks with Marla F. Frederick

Marla FrederickDr. Marla Frederick is Professor of African and African American Studies and the Study of Religion in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Frederick’s research interests include questions emerging from the intersections of religion, race, gender, media, politics, and economics. She is the author of Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith (University of California Press) and most recently Colored Television: American Religion Gone Global (Stanford University Press).

In this conversation, we discuss her new book Colored Television and the connections she makes between race, gender, religious broadcasting, and contemporary social media.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your book is entitled Colored Television. How are you using the term “colored” here? 

“Colored television” is a play on words. I’m using “colored television” as a way of talking about the dynamic ways in which religious broadcasting has changed over the last thirty years. In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the primary televangelists on the air were white men. Sometimes there were white women, but in general, televangelists were white men who often preached what we call “prosperity gospel.”

Colored TelevisionOver the last several decades, we have seen an increase in the number of African Americans, Asians, Latinos, and people of African descent who have a large presence in religious broadcasting. Also, there are more women who have religious television programs that are aired throughout the world. In Colored Television I talk about how the people have changed and how the energy has changed.

Religious broadcasting started in the 1940s, but in the 1940s the primary people who were on were mainliners such as Baptists and Methodists. By the 1960s there was a shift. The FCC [Federal Communications Commission] changed how television was regulated. They went from what they called “sustaining time” to “paid time” broadcasting. Sustaining time was primarily donated time. So, television stations would donate airtime to local churches, often mainline churches, and they would broadcast their church services. When the switch to pay time television came about, the people who could actually pay for the airtime were the people who had dynamic, energetic, engaging, personal kinds of messages. So, the people who began to dominate the airwaves were Word of Faith, charismatic, and Pentecostal ministers who had a message that could relate to everyday people. Because television is a medium that requires some level of entertainment, mainliners couldn’t really keep up with that shift. The people who could afford to be on television were the people who had a message they could sell, and they could get people excited about buying their product.

Also, Colored Television is about the medium of television itself. So it’s no longer black-and-white television sets since people have large, colored television sets. And it’s about the ways in which television has often, has now, kind of morphed into social media.

And then finally Colored Television is about competing interests. It’s difficult to analyze and understand any television program without appreciating the producers, the consumers and the distributors. Colored Television tries to put into conversation those who are responsible for the making and the sustaining of religious broadcasting.

The subtitle of your book is American Religion Gone Global. What do you mean by “American religion” and how has it gone global?

American religion, one could argue, has always been global. American religion today is much more pluralistic, but historically, the primary tradition in the U.S. has been American Protestantism. The missionary efforts that started in the 1700s and 1800s have taken the gospel to other parts of the world. But in Colored Television I focus on the hyper-mediated forms of this message that have gone from the U.S. to the other parts of the world. For example, one of the televangelists that I talk about, Joyce Meyer, claims on her website that her broadcast is available to about 4.5 billion homes around the world. American televangelists dominate the airwaves, and the book talks about why that is, what the relationship is between the distributors, and what it means to have satellite broadcasts and the enormous capabilities of American satellite broadcasting.

In chapter two you connect prosperity gospel with the figure of the religious dandy. Can you give us some examples of this religious dandyism and explain its role as a symbol of racial uplift? 

I came up with the idea of a religious dandy from reading an article from Rick Powell who is an art historian at Duke. It’s a wonderful article on what he calls Black dandies. These characters from the 1800s and early 1900s often dressed up in elaborate outfits and were known on street corners and in communities as a kind of “dandy.” While social perceptions of Black people were that Black people were poor and did not have adequate clothing and could not adequately care for themselves, these dandy figures were a kind of hyper-rejection of that notion, because they had such elaborate and colorful outfits. They stood in stark contrast to social expectations.

In religious broadcasting you could see pastors on television wearing loud suits and wearing big diamond rings. A shining example is Reverend Frederick Eikerenkoetter also known as Reverend Ike. Before he passed a few years ago, I had an opportunity to interview him. He believed that his role in religion was to convince Black people that they could be somebody, that they could do something in the world, and that they could look spectacular. He said, “Black people, many of the masses of colored people, also did not believe that they should be anything, or do anything, or have anything– God forbid, money. Money was evil.” The Bible says that the love of money is the root of all evil. This Reverend Ike comes along and gets right into peoples’ faces on radio and television and in these big meetings and says, “No. It’s not the love of money that’s the root of all evil. It’s the lack of money that’s the root of all evil. I begin my radio broadcasting saying ‘You can be what you want to be, you can do what you want to do, you can have what you want to have, if you believe in the God in you.’”

So in the early days of Black televangelism Reverend Ike becomes a central figure of this kind of religious dandy. He believes that his wealth and riches are sent from God. He believes that it’s important to demonstrate the flashiness of it all, to demonstrate to Black people that they can have nice cars, nice clothes, and nice jewels. And he suggests that not only are these gifts from God but that he needs to tell his personal story. He needs to convince you that you too can live like he lives. The notion of the religious dandy continues over the next several decades as the prosperity gospel began to grow. Prosperity gospel, in its shrewdest forms, is a gospel of health and wealth where one is taught that if you sow seeds into a ministry or financial resources into a ministry, then God will bless you back with health and with wealth. That is part of the teaching, certainly, of Reverend Ike but also of a growing number of religious broadcasters.

As you mentioned, there have been an increasing number of women televangelists. How do these women challenge traditional notions of respectability? 

I love what historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham does in her work on African American women of the nineteenth century, particularly those who were involved in the Black Baptist church. One of the things she talks about is respectability, and how respectability politics were so central to their work of advocating for political and economic change for African Americans. It was about proper dress and proper education. It involved how one cleaned one’s home and raised one’s children to behave with manners. It wasn’t only about a kind of personal piety, but it was also, and more importantly Higginbotham would argue, about forcing political change. So respectability politics has something to do with proper decorum, including what one says in public and what one doesn’t say in public. Often, it’s about policing boundaries around sexuality and proper sexual relations. It involves making sure that one is married and that one’s children come out of the marriage and that they become respectable citizens.

With female televangelists, respectability politics are turned on their heads, because they tell narratives about their lives and their histories, that historically people haven’t really told in public. And so, one of the things I say is that they tell ALL of their business. Someone like Juanita Bynum comes on the scene. She preaches this sermon called “No More Sheets” that goes viral. She talks about her many different sexual escapades with various men over the course of her life, and the reasons why she was engaged in those relationships, which often was as a means of economic exchange. She talks about sleeping with different men. One would help her pay her light bill. Another would help to furnish her apartment or help her pay her rent. She’s telling so much about herself, and everyone is shocked and surprised because she’s on stage before thousands of people. This is being videotaped, and then it’s being broadcast around the world.

Also, Joyce Meyers has told this heart wrenching narrative about incest and how her father raped her over a period of many years. Similarly, Paula White tells a story about rape and abuse. These women tell these stories that I call them narratives of sexual redemption. How they’ve lived these painful sexual experiences in the past, and how they understand God to have redeemed their lives. Now, part of their work is to go to different audiences and to tell their story to encourage other people. They claim that if God has brought them through this, then certainly God is able to bring someone else through a similar situation. Female televangelists have completely shifted part of the discourse of the church in that they’ve brought to the center many of the issues that have long been silenced that women have been dealing with.

What are some of the key differences between the Black church in its many manifestations, and Black televangelism? 

One of the key differences is between the Black church and Black televangelism is in some part centered on the money and the profit motive. That is because televangelism is clearly a business, even as it is a ministry, and the church is not necessarily a business in the same way. In order to be on television you have to be a money raiser. You have to be able to raise significant amounts of money in order to stay on the air. For example, a broadcast of thirty minutes on prime time slot may cost $20,000. If you have that one slot four times a month, that’s $80,000. If you come on twice a week, you have to double these numbers. If you’re on three different stations, you’re exponentially increasing the amount of money that you spend on broadcasting.

I interviewed someone who worked early on in the ministry of Creflo Dollar and he indicated that his monthly budget, as media director, was about $1 million. He had to raise $1 million a month to pay for airtime. So, those are letters that had to go out and products that need to be sold. Religion on television is, in part, a business. Carlton Pearson says it’s like a wild animal park. You have to feed the animal, right?

The church is a voluntary organization, and people give out of the generosity of their hearts. Although many people tithe, it doesn’t have the same kind of demand for money. Although there are people who are salaried, it’s a different kind of engagement. The church is local, and it can focus more on the service and the needs of individual parishioners. A televangelist is someone who is distant from you. They’re not immediately involved in your local life. A televangelist is not there to bury a parent when he or she may pass or to help welcome a child into the world. That’s what the local church does. Local pastors have a greater capacity to be engaged in that kind of work than someone who is on national television trying to make sure that they are able to pay their bills at the end of every month.

You’ve mentioned some of the financial issues related to Black televangelism. How have social media and reality TV shows also affected Black televangelism?

In Colored Television, I talk about the ministry of Pastor E. Dewey Smith at the House of Hope in Atlanta. One of the things that’s striking about his ministry is how grew it. He was on television, but due to the cost, he began to focus almost exclusively on broadcasting on the Internet. He can reach far more people on the Internet than he would have reached preaching on television. So, we see a kind of democratization of religion. Anybody can have a website and put their message up, and it’s not cost prohibitive. If you want to be on the Internet and you want to have a dynamic kind of presence, the audience expects a kind of high quality product. So production costs are involved, but once you are on the Internet, it doesn’t require the same kind of monthly fees that a television station would require.

Colored Television is out now. Are you working on any new projects yet? 

I am just finishing up another project that I’m very excited about. It’s called Televised Redemption, and it’s a joint project with two anthropologist friends of mine, Carolyn Rouse and John Jackson. The book looks at how Black Christians, Black Muslims, and Black Hebrew Israelites have used media as a means of “redeeming the race.” It considers how these religious communities have used media as a way of communicating to the race a narrative of racial uplift. It should be out in November from NYU Press.