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Religious Nets Strive To Maintain Delicate Balance

4/06/2008 3:36 AM Eastern

Social Security may be the “third rail” of politics, but religion remains a sensitive and sometimes hot topic. Last month, Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign announced that his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., had left its spiritual advisory committee after pundits accused Wright of advocating racism. And Republican candidate Sen. John McCain was under similar pressure for remarks by one of his supporters, Rev. John Hagee, a San Antonio pastor and televangelist.

Although the intersection of politics and religion can be highly charged, some politicians continue to see value in appearing on religious networks. Recently, Jotham Stein, who ran as a Democrat for former U.S. Rep. Dennis Hastert’s (R.-Ill.) seat, and three other candidates appeared in a debate carried by Total Living Network earlier this year.

“I’m not sure that it benefited me per vote, but it certainly benefited our political process,” Stein said. “I went because I believe you should debate everywhere, and they held a debate.”

Similarly, TLN isn’t the only network sponsoring debates and inviting candidates for one-on-one interviews. The Inspiration Networks plans upcoming programming centered around presidential candidates — something it has done during previous elections.

“The plan is to produce several programs dedicated to these subjects, for which we will invite various candidates to answer questions and give their perspectives on moral, spiritual and religious issues,” said Kristina Hill, media relations manager.

Not all the challenges faced by religious networks’ programming around political candidates are unique to the faith-based market. Scheduling a debate, for instance, can be especially difficult early on in an election cycle, when there are more candidates and thus more schedules to coordinate.

“That was the biggest obstacle,” said Ron Klamert, TLN’s vice president. “We were going to go live with it, but we ended up taping it on a Saturday afternoon and then airing it in [primetime] the following Monday because of the difficulty of getting everyone together.”

Even one-on-one interviews, particularly at the presidential-bid level, pose logistical problems. “In the last few months, we’ve had on Mitt Romney, Duncan Hunter and John McCain,” said Paul Crouch Jr., chief of staff at Trinity Broadcasting Network. On the other hand, he added, “Hillary Clinton is interested but could not free up her schedule.”

Some suggest that religious programmers face a tougher time attracting candidates as a particular race, especially the presidential race, gets further along.

“Once you get out of the primary season, it seems that it will be even less likely that the uniquely religious issues will be brought to the forefront, at least the way that the way that the [Values Voter Presidential Debate] was done during the Republican primary,” said Colby May, senior counsel at the American Center for Law & Justice, who frequently advises religious networks. “That doesn’t mean [networks] are not going to try. All of my clients have issued a number of open invitations for all federal candidates to participate in programming where they would make themselves available for significant segments — 15 minutes, a half-hour — to address issues that faith and values voters have.”

STRIKING A BALANCE



Another challenge is the apparent perception among some candidates that appearing on a faith-based network will prompt some voters to view them as the religious community’s candidate.

“I think they’re afraid of what appears to be religious branding,” May said.

But some candidates say that they go where the public forums are, whether that’s a speech before a local Rotary Club chapter or a debate on a national religious network.

Stein, a Democrat, said he had no problem appearing in TLN’s debate or, for that matter, before the Aurora Sportsmen’s Club, on a podium bearing the National Rifle Association emblem.

“I believe that every voter is important,” Stein said. “I actually believe in the separation of church and state — and said so in response to the questions. I’m also pro-choice and said so. I would speak in front of any group as long as I could [put] it in my schedule. My positions didn’t change because I was on TLN.”

ELECTRONIC BULLY PULPIT



Religious programmers have grown more vocal on politics as ministries bought TV stations and launched their own cable networks.

“Before the 1980s, TV ministries were not overtly political,” said John Ferré, a University of Louisville professor who studies religious history. “Their ostensible purpose was evangelism, and they didn’t want to jeopardize their relationship with the stations from which they bought time.

“And deregulation meant that the [Federal Communications Commission] had little to say about the messages that television ministries broadcast,” Ferré added. “It was an opportune time for television ministries to exercise influence over the country’s politics, and they did. Jerry Falwell capitalized on this opportunity by leading the Moral Majority in the 1980s, followed by Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition in the 1990s.”

Nonetheless, these networks have to walk a fine line.

“As a 501(c)(3) [tax-exempt, non-profit organization], we’re not allowed to back a particular candidate, but we view it as our responsibility to get both sides of the issue out to the public,” said Klamert, whose network agreed to broadcast the debate after being approached by its organizer, First Presbyterian Church of Aurora, Ill.

TBN takes a similar approach.

“Over the years, TBN has pretty much avoided politics,” said Bob Higley, vice president of affiliate sales and marketing at TBN Networks. “[When candidates and elected officials have appeared], it’s usually asking about their faith and doesn’t get into political issues.”

Although some religious organizations are turning to the Web to address political issues, programmers remain wary.

“The Interfaith Alliance has been doing some things on the Internet,” said Edward Murray, president and CEO of Faith & Values Media. “A variety of faith-based advocacy groups are active online — Sojourners, among many others. But faith communications people are raised on, for the most part, a sense of 'no trespassing’ in partisan politics.”

Some programmers that do venture into political programming see it as an opportunity to demonstrate that they are not partisan.

“We invite all of the candidates to be on, and we do not endorse any of them,” said TBN’s Crouch. “We simply tell our viewers to pray about it and then vote their conscience.”

That’s how Marcus Lamb, founder and president of Daystar Television Network, also sees it.

“Whatever influences any of our guests or programs may have on politics would be strictly coincidental in nature,” said Lamb, whose network has hosted Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. “Daystar encourages viewers to vote but does not endorse a particular candidate.”

Some networks are promoting voting — for any candidate — across a variety of programming.

“TBN, for example, has developed programming for teens and adolescents that includes segments on the role of citizenship, the value of participation [and] what’s going on in the election,” said attorney May.

Other networks use a variety of guests to cover issues important to members of their particular faith. Shalom TV in recent months has brought in U.S. News & World Report editor Mort Zuckerman and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz to evaluate presidential hopefuls, as well as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

“Shalom TV has been extremely active in providing the American Jewish perspective on primary campaigns, both in relation to the candidate’s stand on Jewish issues such as the State of Israel, and their choice of advisors and potential cabinet officials,” said Rabbi Mark Golub, president and CEO. “Invitations have been extended to Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and we are looking to televise a portion of [presumptive] Republican Presidential nominee Sen. John McCain’s visit to Israel.”

Regardless of how religious networks choose to tackle or avoid politics on screen, they will be following this year’s presidential election with an eye on how its outcome could impact the future of programming.

“A major concern of Christian broadcasters is a reimposition of the Fairness Doctrine,” said Jim West, president of Faith TV. “While we don’t think that is imminent, a greater concern is the hate crimes legislation that passed the House and Senate but was vetoed by the president. We believe a hate crime law could be used against religious broadcasters and their programmers whose position on moral issues might be construed by some viewers as hate speech.”

“We pray the new Fairness Doctrine does not come back,” said TBN’s Crouch. “It’s outdated legislation that would burden TBN with thousands of additional man hours to maintain compliance. We understand government oversight, but less is more.”

Another potential issue is the à la carte model of pricing programming.

“I don’t believe all Christian broadcasters are together on this one,” West said. “The NRB has not supported it in the past believing religious channels would suffer, and they’d be left 'preaching to the choir.’”

Still, most programmers say there are not too concerned at this point about the future under a new administration.

“Daystar had an exhibit as well as a hospitality suite at the National Religious Broadcasters [conference in March], and no one discussed scenarios and/or impact of either potential administration,” Lamb said.

John Roos, INSP’s senior vice president for corporate communications and research, pointed to the fact that the Bush administration has been bookended by Michael Powell and Kevin Martin, two FCC chairmen hardly cut from the same philosophical cloth.

“You can’t have too many more contrasts in philosophy [than Powell and Martin],” Roos said “Just because Bush was elected, you couldn’t have said eight years ago, 'We’re going to get a chairman who’s [this way].’ ”

Similarly, Daystar’s Lamb is confident that it will be business as usual with a Democratic or Republican White House.

“A Democratic administration would appoint commissioners who lean towards regulation versus a Republican administration, which would lean towards a free market business approach,” Lamb said. “Daystar could work well under either scenario.”

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