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Air Jesus

Over the air and under the radar, Christian broadcasting has created an alternative universe of faith-based news.
 
 
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It's the first Tuesday of April. In Washington, D.C., the magnolia trees are blooming, tourists crowd the sidewalk cafés, and Congress has just returned from its spring recess. CBN News has chosen this time to unveil its new and greatly expanded Washington bureau in the Dupont Circle area, where many major networks have their local headquarters; the three-story brick fortress that houses the Washington operations of CBS News is less than a block away.

CBN's new digs are abuzz with activity. The Republican Sen. Trent Lott came by for an interview earlier in the day, as did Jim Towey, who directs the White House office of faith-based initiatives. Now Lee Webb, the CBN anchor in from Virginia, sits behind the desk in one of the studios preparing to deliver the network's first half-hour nightly newscast from this gleaming set. Behind him is a floor-to-ceiling world map illuminated in violet and indigo and a screen emblazoned with CBN's logo. At his side, just beyond the camera's view, sits a squat pedestal that holds a battered American Standard Bible. Webb lowers his head and folds his hands. "Father, we are grateful for today's program," he says. "We pray for your blessing. We ask that what we're about to do will bring honor to you." Then the cameras roll.

To many people -- especially in blue-state America -- God, news, and politics may seem an odd cocktail. But it's this mix that fuels much of CBN's programming.

CBN's flagship program, the "700 Club" with Pat Robertson, is familiar to many Americans. But few outside the evangelical community know how large the network is -- it employs more than 1,000 people and has facilities in three U.S. cities as well as Ukraine, the Philippines, India, and Israel -- or how diverse its programming. And CBN, or Christian Broadcasting Network, is just one star in a vast and growing Christian media universe, which has sprung up largely under the mainstream's radar. Conservative evangelicals control at least six national television networks, each reaching tens of millions of homes, and virtually all of the nation's more than 2,000 religious radio stations. Thanks to Christian radio's rapid growth, religious stations now outnumber every other format except country music and news-talk. If they want to dwell solely in this alternative universe, believers can now choose to have only Christian programs piped into their homes. Sky Angel, one of the nation's three direct-broadcast satellite networks, carries 36 channels of Christian radio and television -- and nothing else.

As Christian broadcasting has grown, pulpit-based ministries have largely given way to a robust programming mix that includes music, movies, sitcoms, reality shows, and cartoons. But the largest constellation may be news and talk shows. Christian public affairs programming exploded after Sept. 11, and again in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. And this growth shows no signs of flagging.

Evangelical news looks and sounds much like its secular counterpart, but it homes in on issues of concern to believers and filters events through a conservative lens. In some cases this simply means giving greater weight to the conservative side of the ledger than most media do. In other instances, it amounts to disguising a partisan agenda as news. Likewise, most guests on Christian political talk shows are drawn from a fixed pool of culture warriors and Republican politicians. Even those shows that focus on non-political topics -- such as finance, health, or family issues -- often weave in political messages. Many evangelical programs and networks are, in fact, linked to conservative Christian political or legal organizations, which use broadcasts to help generate funding and mobilize their base supporters, who are tuning in en masse. Ninety-six percent of evangelicals consume some form of Christian media each month, according to the Barna Research Group.

Given their content and their reach, it's likely that Christian broadcasters have helped drive phenomena that have recently confounded much of the public and the mainstream media -- including the surge in "value voters" and the drive to sustain Terri Schiavo's life, a story that was incubated in evangelical media three years before it hit the mainstream. Nor has evangelical media's influence escaped the notice of those who stroll the halls of power. They've been courted by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Mel Gibson, and George W. Bush. All the while, they've remained hidden in plain sight -- a powerful but largely unnoticed force shaping American politics and culture.

***

Christians have been flocking to broadcasting ever since the first radio programs began crackling across the airwaves in the early 1900s. By the 1930s, evangelicals were lobbying for policies that would ensure their dominance in the religious broadcasting realm. Their activism was catalyzed by the fact that early on, the big-three networks donated rather than sold airtime to religious organizations. The Federal Council of Churches, which represented the more liberal mainline denominations, favored this system, which it believed would help keep the religious message from getting corrupted. But evangelicals worried that networks would lavish mainline churches with free airtime while giving their own ministries short shrift. In 1944, they formed the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), and that organization lobbied federal regulators. The strategy worked; the government eventually decided to let religious organizations purchase as much airtime as they could afford. Evangelical preachers were soon flooding the airwaves, while mainline broadcast ministries all but vanished from the radio dial.

In the 61 years since its founding, the NRB has grown to represent 1,600 broadcasters with billions of dollars in media holdings and staggering political clout. Its aggressive political maneuverings have helped shape federal policy, further easing the evangelical networks' rapid growth. In 2000, for instance, the Federal Communications Commission issued guidelines that would have barred religious broadcasters from taking over frequencies designated for educational programming. The NRB lobbied Congress to intervene, at one point delivering a petition signed by nearly half a million people. Legislators, in turn, bore down on the FCC, and the agency relented.

At least one mainstream media mogul has taken note of religious broadcasters' political might. In 2002, Rupert Murdoch met with NRB leaders and urged them to oppose a proposed Echostar-DirecTV merger, which they did. After the FCC nixed the deal, Murdoch's News Corporation bought DirecTV and gave the NRB a channel on it.

The NRB has taken a number of steps to ensure it remains a political player. The most dramatic came in 2002, after Wayne Pederson was tapped to replace the network's longtime president, Brandt Gustavson. He quickly ignited internal controversy by telling a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter that he intended to shift the organization's focus away from politics. "We get associated with the far Christian right and marginalized," Pederson lamented. "To me the important thing is to keep the focus on what's important to us spiritually."That didn't sit well. Soon members of the executive committee were clamoring for his ouster. Within weeks, he was forced to step down.

Frank Wright was eventually chosen to replace Pederson. He had spent the previous eight years serving as the executive director of the Center for Christian Statesmanship, a Capitol Hill ministry that conducts training for politicians on how to "think biblically about their role in government." Wright acknowledges that he was chosen for his deep political connections. "I came here to re-engage the political culture on issues relating to broadcasting," he says. "The rest is up to individual broadcasters."

As the NRB has grown larger and more powerful, so have the broadcasters it represents. Over the last decade, Christian TV networks have added tens of millions of homes to their distribution lists by leaping onto satellite and cable systems. The number of religious radio stations -- the vast majority of which are evangelical -- has grown by about 85 percent since 1998 alone. They now outnumber rock, classical, hip-hop, R&B, soul, and jazz stations combined.

Despite their growing reach, Christian networks still lag behind many secular heavyweights when it comes to audience size. About a million U.S. households tune in daily to each of the most popular Christian television shows; about 20 times that number watch CBS's top-rated program, "CSI." Likewise, Christian radio stations draw about five percent market share, on average, while regular news and talk stations attract triple that percentage. But more and more people are tuning into Christian networks. Christian radio's audience, in particular, has climbed 33 percent over the last five years, thanks in large part to the emergence of contemporary Christian music. No other English-language format can boast that kind of growth.

The goal of a more diverse program lineup is to attract larger audiences. CBN's founder, Pat Robertson, who started this trend in the late 1970s by converting the "700 Club" into a "60 Minutes"-style magazine, says he originally considered making it a music showcase. But he decided news and talk would bring more viewers. "News provides the crossover between religious and secular, and it bridges the age gap," he explains. Robertson continues to see news and current affairs as a means to an end. "If you buy a diamond from Tiffany's the setting is very important," he says. "To us, the jewel is the message of Jesus Christ. We see news as a setting for what's most important."

After remaking the "700 Club," Robertson went on to launch the first Christian radio news network, called Standard News, in the early 1990s. It was later purchased by Salem Radio. Over the next several years, American Family Radio, USA Radio, and Information Radio Network unveiled news operations. All of them, except American Family Radio, syndicate their news programming. And they've been picking up affiliates at a lightning pace, even as regular news has been dropping off the radio dial. Salem Communications, which started with around 200 stations, now airs on 1,100 -- seven times as many as broadcast National Public Radio programs. USA Radio, which in the beginning had just a handful of news affiliates, now has more than 800. Its news also can be heard on two XM Satellite Radio stations and Armed Forces Radio. USA Radio's rapid growth is due, in part, to the fact that many mainstream stations are picking up its programming.

Christian radio news networks experienced their largest growth spurt in the months after Sept. 11. That was also when CBN launched NewsWatch, the first nightly Christian television news program. The show is on three of the six national evangelical television networks, as well as regional Christian networks and the ABC Family Channel. FamilyNet TV, part of the Southern Baptist Convention's media empire, followed suit in 2004 by hiring a news staff. And at the 2005 NRB convention, Christian television networks from around the world joined forces to form a news co-op. They intend to pool footage and other resources as a means of improving coverage and helping more Christian stations get into the news business.

Many Christian broadcasters attribute the success of their news operations to the biblical perspective that underpins their reporting in a world made wobbly by terrorist threats and moral relativism. "We don't just tell them what the news is," explains Wright of the NRB. "We tell them what it means. And that's appealing to people, especially in moments of cultural instability."

***

It's Good Friday. The "NewsWatch" anchor Lee Webb is sitting behind his desk in CBN's Virginia Beach headquarters, describing the events of the day to people across America. Webb -- a wiry man with dark eyes and a white kerchief peaking out of his breast pocket -- spent much of his career in local television. He delivers the news with an air of cultivated neutrality.

Today he begins with a story on Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose story not only riveted America, but was seized by Congress and the White House. Her feeding tube had been pulled a week earlier and, Webb tells his viewers, she's succumbed to the ravages of dehydration. He says she has "flaky skin," a parched mouth, and "sunken eyes," and now resembles "prisoners in concentration camps," according to her brother. Whether or not her lips and skin have actually dried out will become a matter of debate in the mainstream media, with Schiavo's parents contending that they have, and her husband's lawyer insisting that they haven't, and that she is not suffering. But this debate will never enter CBN's coverage.

Next, "NewsWatch" cuts to an interview with Joni Eareckson Tada, a wheelchair-bound woman whom Webb bills as a "disability rights advocate." She warns that the Schiavo case will "affect thousands of disabled people whose legal guardians may not have their best wishes at heart." Tada, in fact, runs an evangelical ministry and hosts a popular Christian radio show. Webb closes the segment on a revealing, if lopsided, note, announcing that "the pro-life community says the Terri Schiavo case is proof positive that the country has a problem when it comes to activist judges."

The CBN report echoes hundreds of others that have run on Christian radio and television networks. While Terri Schiavo's name appeared in the mainstream national media only sporadically before this year, her case has been a top story on Christian news and talk programs for much of the last three years, as it combines two issues that are of critical importance to religious conservatives -- the power of the courts and the "sanctity of life." Much of the coverage on Christian networks has distorted Schiavo's condition by indicating she retained the ability to think, feel, and function. Some newscasts reported as fact her parents' contested claim that she tried to utter the words "I want to live" before her feeding tube was pulled for the last time. Others, like Janet Folger, host of the radio and TV call-in show "Faith2Action," described Schiavo as actually sitting up and talking. Evangelical pundits also demonized Schiavo's husband, Michael, and the Florida judge George Greer, who presided over the case, referring to them as murderers and invoking holocaust rhetoric. Indeed, Christian broadcasters seemed to set the tone for the emotional language that would burst into the mainstream media and the halls of Congress during Schiavo's final days.

Schiavo's parents welcomed the Christian broadcasters' attention. Months before they became the stuff of nightly news they were blazing a trail through the Christian talk show circuit. They also attended the NRB's 2005 conference, held in mid-February, to help build momentum for a grass-roots campaign to keep their daughter alive. By then they had already seen proof of the Christian broadcasters' power. D. James Kennedy -- who, in addition to hosting several talk shows, heads a lobbying organization called the Center for Reclaiming America -- boasted at one point that he was collecting 5,000 signatures an hour for a "Petition to Save Terri Schiavo." Other leaders, including James Dobson, perhaps the most influential evangelical host, shut down phone lines within Gov. Jeb Bush's office by urging their millions of constituents to call.

***

After the Schiavo story, "NewsWatch" carries one about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to China. Rice is shown climbing off the plane in Beijing, posing for grip-and-grin shots with President Hu Jintao, and responding to a reporter's question about China's record on religious freedoms. Then the report veers into the plight of China's house churches. The narrator details how those "who worship in places other than state churches continue to suffer severe persecution." Images on the screen show people singing hymns in a dusty courtyard, then a man preaching to a crowd of people who sit huddled on a living room floor. The front door is flung open, and the light pouring in lends the scene an otherworldly glow.

Evangelical networks focus a great deal of attention on stories involving persecution of the faithful. They have, for instance, kept a close eye on the conflicts that have rocked Sudan, including its Darfur region. Government-backed militias there have been marauding villages, driving millions of black Africans, many of them Christians, from their homes. More than 200,000 people have died as a result. Mainstream coverage has been sparse, given the conflict's human toll.

Christian broadcasters also tend to home in on stateside skirmishes involving Christians that are off the mainstream media's radar. This includes the case of eleven evangelicals who were arrested in 2004 while picketing Outfest, an annual gay pride event that sprawls across eight Philadelphia city blocks. The protesters, led by Michael Marcavage, a confrontational evangelical crusader and founder of "Repent America," were told by the police to leave. When they refused, they were arrested. Four of the 11 were charged with, among other things, fomenting a riot, criminal conspiracy, and "ethnic intimidation" -- as Philadelphia calls hate crimes.

The story got virtually no mainstream national coverage. But Christian news networks picked up on it promptly, and a number of evangelical talk show hosts discussed it at length. Much of the conversation revolved around the potential pitfalls of hate-crime laws, which stiffen penalties for offenses that are motivated by race or sexual orientation. Evangelical pundits argued that such laws threaten to "criminalize" Christianity, especially when they're extended to speech.

***

After the segment on Chinese house churches comes a special Good Friday package. This includes a tour of Jerusalem and an interview with Mel Gibson, who released a less-bloody version of The Passion of The Christ several weeks earlier. Webb tells viewers, "In light of its re-release CBN News visited many of the places where The Passion actually took place." He then introduces the reporter Chris Mitchell, who works out of CBN's only international bureau, in Jerusalem. Mitchell -- perched on the Mount of Olives surrounded by sweeping views of the city -- invites viewers to tour the sites of "the biblical drama that changed the world." Soon he's strolling through the Garden of Gethsemane, the dense olive groves where Christ is said to have prayed on the night of his arrest, and touring the Sisters of Zion Convent, which houses the paving stones where some believe Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate. He continues on to the Via Dolorosa, down which Jesus carried the cross. The narrow street, which wends its way through the old Jerusalem, is now thronged with tourists. Mitchell interviews some of them about the "profound experience" of visiting Jerusalem after seeing The Passion . "When you see the movie, you internalize it," says one woman, who weeps as she speaks. "Then you come here and see the street where he walked, the place that he was, and you're just thankful. You're just so thankful for his grace and his mercy, his forgiveness and for the price that he paid."

Such intimate expressions of faith are scarce in mainstream media, even though faith underlies many global conflicts and guides the choices made by millions of Americans. Religion coverage tends either to focus on institutions or to reduce religious practice to a curious spectacle. This, Christian network executives say, is part of the reason they felt compelled to enter the news and public affairs arena. They also feel that their viewers needed a "family friendly" alternative to regular news, which sometimes leans on lurid descriptions of sex and violence. The Michael Jackson trial and other sordid stories get a bare-bones treatment on Christian networks.

***

Christian news networks devote an enormous amount of airtime to Israel, and their interest has theological underpinnings. In addition to being the place where many biblical events unfolded, Israel plays a pivotal role in biblical prophecy. Most evangelicals emphasize that God granted Israel to the Jews through a covenant with Abraham. They believe that the Jews' return to Israel was biblically foreordained, and that Jewish control over Israel will trigger a cascade of apocalyptic events that will culminate in Christ's second coming. Israel's strength is vital to their own redemption.

Such beliefs explain the unwavering support for Israel expressed by some evangelical talk show hosts. Among them is Kay Arthur, whose radio and TV program, "Precepts For Life," offers audiences biblical solutions to everyday dilemmas such as divorce and addictions. She took to the stage at the Israeli Ministry of Tourism Breakfast, held in conjunction with the 2005 NRB conference, and told the hundreds of broadcasters in the audience, "If it came to a choice between Israel and America, I would stand with Israel." Janet Parshall, host of a popular political program that also runs both on radio and TV, implored the Israelis in attendance, "Please, please, do not give up any more land." Lest anyone think her alone in her zeal, she urged all those who believed "in the sovereignty of Israel" to stand. Virtually everyone in the room got up.

Some influential evangelical hosts -- among them Arthur, Parshall, and Pat Robertson -- sometimes broadcast live from Israel and urge listeners and viewers to visit the country. Their pleas have helped persuade thousands of American Christians to brave the bloody intifada for a chance to savor the sights and smells of Christ's homeland, while supporting Israel's battered economy.

The Israeli government has responded with gratitude. Senior officials meet regularly with evangelical broadcasters. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent Pat Robertson a taped message for his 75th birthday, thanking him for his stalwart support. In addition to staging lavish events in the broadcasters' honor, the country's tourism ministry rents one of the largest booths at each year's NRB conference. This year's event also featured a number of other Israel-focused exhibits, including the burned-out hull of a Jerusalem city bus that was struck by a suicide bomber in January 2004. Part of the roof had been ripped off and all that was left of the rear seats was a jumble of twisted steel and charred upholstery. Near the bumper hung a poster with images of bomb-laden Palestinian boys. It read: "When Palestinians love their children more than they hate Israel, then there will be peace in Palestine."

The turmoil gripping the Middle East has proven to be a particularly appealing topic for shows like the International Intelligence Briefing and Prophecy in the News, which interpret world events -- be it the rise of the European Union or the Asian tsunami -- in light of biblical prophecy. This approach tends to cast events that flow from controversial human choices as the natural and inevitable march of destiny. Prophecy-focused shows suggest that the war in Iraq was foretold in the Bible, for instance.

Some political talk shows go even further out on the apocalyptic edge. Among them is the "700 Club," which airs on numerous mainstream stations and reaches about a million U.S. viewers each day. Its Feb. 25 edition featured an interview with a man named Glenn Miller, touted on the "700 Club" web site as a "proven prophet." A scholarly looking man, Miller sat nestled in an armchair, a faux-urban skyline glittering in the background, and explained why God had sent America to war with Iraq. "It has nothing to do with terrorism," he told Pat Robertson's son, Gordon. "It has nothing to do with oil. It has everything to do with that there's 1.2 million Muslims that have been deceived by the false God Allah, and that the God of heaven, Jehovah, is now in the process of doing war if you will against that spirit to ... break the power of deception so those people can be exposed to the gospel." As Miller spoke, Robertson nodded in sympathy. At one point, Robertson chimed in with the tale of a CBN reporter who was embedded with one of the first infantry divisions to march into Baghdad: "He said there was a sense among the troops -- and he had this personal sense as well -- that this was a spiritual victory, that this was a movement in the heavenlies."

Some evangelical talk show hosts see more conflict on the horizon in the Middle East. For instance, J.R. Church of "Prophecy in the News" recently predicted that the United States would attack Syria, probably with a nuclear bomb. As proof the host pointed to a passage from Isaiah, which warned that Damascus would be reduced to a "ruinous heap."

Once "NewsWatch"'s Jerusalem tour is over, Mel Gibson appears. He's sitting on a dimly lit sound stage opposite the reporter Scott Ross. The walls are covered with posters for The Passion , and throughout the interview images from the film flash across the screen. Gibson talks about the making of the movie, which he calls "the culmination of a 15-year journey of faith," and about how America "is a huge nation based on Christian principles from the Constitution."

Gibson began appearing regularly on Christian news and talk shows in the months leading up to the The Passion 's original release -- part of a well-coordinated marketing campaign that leaned heavily on Christian radio and TV. Christian networks ran hundreds of promotional spots and behind-the-scenes specials on the film. It was a fruitful partnership for Gibson, who has watched The Passion become the highest-grossing R-rated film in U.S. box office history. As he told those at the 2005 NRB conference, "It was largely because of the people in this broad organization that the film was able to get out there and be seen."

Gibson's words notwithstanding, it's difficult to know just how much of The Passion 's success can actually be attributed to Christian broadcasters, since it was also promoted through other channels. But the story of The Omega Code , a 1999 apocalyptic thriller, provides a clearer illustration of the broadcasters' power. The film's release wasn't accompanied by the standard flurry of marketing. No advance press screening, no reviews, and minimal advertising. But the family of one of its producers, Matthew Crouch, owns Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), the largest of the Christian TV networks, which promoted the film tirelessly. The result: The Omega Code was the tenth highest-grossing film on its opening weekend, with a per-screen average of nearly $8,000 -- higher than that of any other movie that weekend. The film's success stunned the mainstream media, Hollywood insiders, and even TBN executives. "We had no idea we had that power in America," says Robert Higley, the network's vice president for sales and affiliate relations.

***

In the years since The Omega Code 's release, Christian broadcasters have brought their power to bear in the political arena as never before. This began a few months after the 2000 presidential election, when President Bush invited the NRB's executive committee to join him and Attorney General John Ashcroft for a meeting in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. After the gathering the NRB's board chairman wrote an exuberant message to members, saying there was a "new wind blowing in Washington, D.C., and across the nation ... . The President has surrounded himself with a wonderful staff of people of faith. And it's obvious that people of faith are being welcomed back to the public square." The message also urged members to seize the opportunity to "make a difference in our culture" -- which in the parlance of religious conservatives generally means effecting political change.

In the months that followed the Roosevelt Room gathering, the NRB executive committee continued to meet periodically with senior White House staff members. On occasion, Bush himself attended. And monthly NRB-White House conference calls were established to give rank-and-file NRB members a direct line to the Oval Office.

George W. Bush also attended NRB's 2003 convention and gave a speech, much of it dedicated to promoting the looming war in Iraq. At the event, the NRB passed a resolution to "honor" the president. Though the NRB is a tax-exempt organization, and thus banned from backing a particular candidate, the document resembled an endorsement. The final line read, "We recognize in all of the above that God has appointed President George W. Bush to leadership at this critical period in our nation's history, and give Him thanks."

Many evangelical networks and program producers are also tax-exempt nonprofits. But while most were careful not to endorse candidates by name, they openly pushed the Republican ticket in the run-up to the 2004 election. During his last pre-election broadcast, the International Intelligence Briefing host Hal Lindsey told audiences that liberals were determined to "bring about our literal annihilation," and that "a vote for the conservative cause ... is a vote to ... reverse America's decline and restore her to the path of morality, conscience, and strength of character. It's a vote to continue America's return to her rightful place as the strongest beacon of hope in a terrified world." Other broadcasters went further, launching and promoting massive voter-registration drives with the apparent goal of helping Republicans clinch a victory. The host James Dobson held pro-Bush rallies that packed stadiums and told his seven million U.S. listeners that it was a sin not to vote.

During the pre-election frenzy FamilyNet, the television arm of the Southern Baptist Convention's media empire, added a political talk show to its formerly entertainment-heavy lineup. It was also during this period that it established its news department. The network, which reaches 30 million homes, reported live from both parties' conventions, and ran evening coverage on election day -- all of it salted with pro-Bush commentary. Several other Christian networks also ran continuous, live election coverage for the first time. Much of it carried a clear bias. USA Radio Network, for example, ran pieces produced to sound like news stories, but with a single conservative perspective. One segment, based solely on an interview with the former CIA analyst Wayne Simmons, reported that Osama bin Laden spent years laying plans to destroy America, only to have them thwarted by a tough-talking Texan. "He never planned on running into a president with the strength, character, and conviction of George W. Bush," Simmons said. "If George W. Bush wins the presidency, his fate -- meaning Osama bin Laden's fate -- is sealed. If John Kerry wins, he'll go back to business as usual because he knows he'll have another administration in there where he did nothing and let them plan attacks on us."

***

The role that evangelicals are credited with playing in the recent election seems only to have improved broadcasters' access to power. During the opening session of the 2005 NRB convention, Wright described a recent lobbying excursion to Capitol Hill. "We got into rooms we've never been in before," he said. "We got down on the floor of the Senate and prayed over Hillary Clinton's desk." He also explained that the NRB was lobbying to get its handpicked candidate appointed to the FCC -- although he refused to identify the person by name. At the convention, the NRB also unveiled its new "President's Council," a committee dedicated to strengthening "relationships with men and women in positions of influence and power," according to the glossy brochure. The council's next event, scheduled for September, is to include a private, after-hours tour of the U.S. Capitol, a special White House policy briefing, and a hobnobbing session with lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the broadcasters have turned their attention to what has become the front line of the culture wars: the courts. Conservative Christian pundits have long proclaimed that our nation is in moral tatters, and blamed a series of court decisions -- among them Roe v. Wade and the 1962 ban on school prayer -- for unraveling our mores. But the raging battle over President Bush's judicial nominees and the prospect of a Supreme Court vacancy have pushed the issue of the "out of control" judiciary to the top of their agenda.

In recent months, evangelical broadcasters have dedicated program after program to bemoaning "judicial tyranny," and urging audiences to agitate for the "nuclear option" -- changing Senate rules so Democrats can no longer filibuster and thereby block nominees they oppose. The judiciary was also front and center during opening week at the network's new Washington bureau. A parade of senators -- all of them Republican -- made their way into the studio, to go on camera advocating the nuclear option. During his interview, broadcast as part of "NewsWatch"'s inaugural Washington, D.C., program, Trent Lott stood with studio lights glinting off the American flag pin on his lapel, and held up a scrap of paper with a list of senators' names and how they intended to vote on the initiative. The tally seemed to be stacking up in his favor. Pat Robertson, who interviewed Lott, asked no tough questions and offered not even a passing nod to opposing viewpoints. Instead, Robertson scored Democrats for trying to "eliminate religious values from America" by blocking the appointment of conservative judges. All the while, the dizzying blend of God, news, and politics that he has crafted and honed was bouncing off satellites, winding through thousands of cable systems, rippling over the airwaves, and glowing on television screens across America.

Mariah Blake is an assistant editor at CJR.