Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
At least five conservative radio hosts who warned their audiences against the vaccine have died of Covid in recent months. But the death of Marcus Lamb this week highlights a different network of misinformation that has nearly as broad a reach in conservative circles but receives far less attention in political media: conservative Christian broadcasters.
Marcus Lamb, a televangelist who founded the Daystar network and was a major source of Covid-19 misinformation, died after being hospitalized with the disease. Lamb’s son, Jonathan, described his father’s diagnosis as “a spiritual attack from the enemy… As much as my parents have gone on here to kind of inform everyone about everything going on in the pandemic and some of the ways to treat Covid, there’s no doubt that the enemy is not happy about that, and he’s doing everything he can to take down my dad.” A statement from Daystar Television Network said in part, “The family asks at this time that their privacy be respected as they grieve this difficult loss, and they wish to express their deep love and gratitude for all those who prayed during Marcus’s health battle. Continue to lift them up in prayer in the days ahead.”
Those concerned about the effects of misinformation and disinformation have devoted a great deal of attention over the past two years to addressing the problem, especially as it relates to the pandemic and Covid vaccine: their focus tends to be on outlets like Fox News, Newsmax and One America News, as well as the right-wing talk radio shows that clog the nation’s airwaves.
This parallel network of media is both popular and profitable. Daystar, the network Lamb co-founded in 1993, claimed $233 million in assets in 2011, and is carried on nearly every major satellite and cable provider in the US. Among peer outlets, it was not alone in its reach: Trinity Broadcasting Network is even larger, and Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network produces some of the most well-known Christian shows in the country, including The 700 Club. Add to that a cohort of national and local radio programs dedicated to conservative Christian broadcasting, and you have a network of media outlets that enormous audiences of Americans consume on a regular basis, and that most political outlets tend to ignore.
There are reasons that this sector of conservative media gets overlooked. The first is historical: conservative Christian broadcasts with a political bent have been around for nearly a century, with roots in the radio show of Father Charles Coughlin, who moved across the political spectrum before settling on a vitriolic anti-New Deal, antisemitic politics by the late 1930s. In the 1950s and 1960s, a new generation of hardline anti-communist radio preachers emerged, with programs like Billy James Hargis’s Christian Crusade and Carl McIntire’s 20th Century Reformation Hour.
Those shows arose alongside more traditional right-wing radio that focused more tightly on politics, shows like The Manion Forum and The Dan Smoot Report that launched in the early 1950s and grew in influence throughout the 1960s. But while the ideas and audiences of the religious and political shows overlapped – they all warned about the twin evils of Soviet communism and US liberalism – the institutions they built with the influence they wielded were distinctly separate. The religious broadcasters were embedded with churches and conservative evangelical organizations, while the political shows developed ties with the Republican Party and more secular operations.
They also relied on different forms of authority. Political shows often rooted their arguments in ideological frameworks rooted in assumptions about the benefits of traditional hierarchies, conservative interpretations of founding documents and ideas, and the fundamental correctness of Christian and western values. For religious shows, the appeals were more spiritual: preachers claimed to have spiritual gifts and a direct connection to God.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the rise of an organized and active religious right in the Republican Party began blurring the lines between religious and secular broadcasters on the right. No one embodied that gray area more than Pat Robertson, whose Christian Broadcasting Network represented one of the earliest and most successful forms of televangelism in the US. Making inroads into cable broadcasting in the 1960s, Robertson created a televangelist empire, one that made him wealthy, famous, and politically powerful.
The son of one of Virginia’s staunch segregationist senators, Robertson was no stranger to politics. Still, his decision in 1987 to run for the Republican nomination for president had the potential to demolish the walls between televangelism and Republican Party politics.
But voters – even the increasingly evangelical Republican base – did not buy the argument that preaching was a path to the presidency. He had a hard time overcoming what TV host John McLaughlin called the “wacko factor,” the mix of unusual religious practices and outrageous political statements Robertson had engaged in over the years. In addition to speaking in tongues and engaging in faith healings, he had recently called non-Christians “termites” and said only Christians and Jews should be eligible to hold office in the US. Add to that a series of televangelist scandals in the 1980s that didn’t implicate Robertson but did tarnish his profession – and both Robertson and religious broadcasting slipped out of the mainstream and into a subculture largely invisible to nonevangelicals.
Yet just because few people were paying attention to religious broadcasters did not mean they lost their influence – or their interest in politics. The Christian Broadcasting Network received White House press credentials in the 1980s, and officials from the George W. Bush, Obama and Trump administrations appeared on its shows. In fact, for all the focus on the cozy relationship between Donald Trump and Fox News, he and his team fostered close ties with the Christian Broadcasting Network well before he ran for president. In his first year in office, Trump sat for more interviews with the network than with CNN, ABC or CBS.
The Trump administration regularly turned to media personalities like Christian broadcasters who embraced Trump’s message while relying on a different kind of authority than mainstream journalism or, during the pandemic, credible scientists. Conservative religious broadcasters were perfect for this: because viewers often understood this programming as an extension of worship practices, they trusted the preachers as a matter of faith and divine intercession..
That was true both when preachers like Marcus Lamb encouraged his viewers to vote for Donald Trump (citing Trump’s willingness to appoint conservative judges who might overturn abortion rights and same-sex marriage laws) and when he began telling them in the summer of 2020 to be suspicious of any Covid-19 vaccinations. Over the course of the next year, the network developed a significant archive of Covid misinformation, not only airing anti-vaccination misinformation but promoting unproven prophylactics like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin as replacements for the vaccines.
Conspiratorial misinformation has long been part of radio and television preaching, from Coughlin’s false rantings about a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to McIntire’s opposition to water fluoridation to Pat Robertson’s bizarre warnings of a “new world order” run by the Illuminati and the Freemasons under directions from Satan. In that context, Lamb’s pandemic misinformation seems predictable, even mild. But for him, it came at a much higher price: a life that ended at age 64 from the disease he convinced himself – and many of his followers – could not harm him as much as the vaccine that likely could have saved his life.