The highways leading to Atlantic City, New Jersey are lined with billboards advertising the city’s many gambling establishments. But one billboard advertising “world peace” stands out. The way to achieve it, the billboard proclaims, is to join the Baha’i Faith.
While not many sects lease billboards alongside major highways to attract new converts, many have more subtle ways of getting the public’s attention. The new religions and cults are increasingly using the media to promote their causes and bolster their ranks.
In recent months on various cable television stations — including Ted Turner’s WTBS, TNT, CNN, and Headline News — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) has been buying commercial time for what they consider to be “straight-forward” messages, according to the July 28, 1990 issue of the weekly Church News supplement of the Mormon-owned Deseret News.
For years the Mormons have bought advertisements in publications like Reader’s Digest and TV Guide to carefully cultivate a wholesome, all-American image for church members, concentrating on their apparent clean lifestyle instead of their belief system.
In one of the new Mormon commercials, an attractive female librarian is pictured saying that of all the great books written by great authors, she prefers to read about the Savior. She then explains that, besides the Bible, there’s another testament of Jesus Christ — the Book of Mormon.
Jesus is pictured in another major Mormon commercial. It portrays Christ as a baby and then continues with His life until the crucifixion. It concludes that after Christ’s resurrection His ministry continued, and it didn’t end with the Bible — it ended with the Book of Mormon.
Both commercials give toll-free numbers viewers can call to receive a free copy of the Book of Mormon.
Have these commercials been successful? According to the previously mentioned Church News article, the results have been “impressive.”
In addition to these new commercials, the Mormon church is underwriting a film called “Legacy,” according to a recent Associated Press story, The film will be shown to Salt Lake City visitors and Utahans in the Fall of 991, and is set to focus on the history of the Mormon church.
The Christmas season is a time when the Mormon church tries to make inroads through its television Christmas specials, according to Watchman Fellowship’s Rick Branch. Branch, writing in mid-1990 in the Watchman Expositor (Vol. 7), noted that the church claimed that more than 250 million people worldwide tuned in to their Christmas specials in 1987.
The Church of Scientology is another group that has stepped up its television advertising in recent months. Like the Mormons, Scientology has tapped in to Turner’s powerful cable network, and became one of 12 worldwide sponsors of last years’ (1990) Goodwill Games at a cost of $4 million. This allowed the church through its related corporation, Bridge Publications, to aggressively sell founder L. Ron Hubbard’s books during the games’ commercial breaks seen on TBS, the cable “superstation.”
Scientology buys commercial time on dozens of television stations nationwide to promote Hubbard’s book, Dianetics, as the answer to human problems. The church is also promoting the book through the print media — including a full-page ad in the August 24, 1990 issue of USA Today.
Critics have charged that the Dianetics book is a “recruitment tool for [Scientology] which they contend manipulates and intimidates people and can break up families” (Gwinnett [Georgia] Daily News, August 4,1990).
Like Mormonism, however, Scientology concentrates on promoting a positive image of itself to outsiders. Bridge Publications recently sponsored the visit of a Soviet musician to entertain patients at Children’s Hospital in Seattle. And in late September, Scientology-linked organizations (The Concerned Businessmen’s Association of America and The Way to Happiness Foundation) joined in a celebrity-studded gala to promote The Way to Happiness in schools and businesses around the world, according to a recent issue of the Watchman Fellowship’s mini-Expositor.
And now, as many cults have done, Scientology is moving into the newspaper business. According to the October 1990 Cult Awareness Network News, Scientology has begun putting out a weekly newspaper in Clearwater, Florida, called the Clearwater Gazette. They are also a moving force behind a monthly newspaper called The Crusader that focuses on religious liberty issues,
New religious movements have long made use of the media to promote their messages and gain credibility. Herbert W. Armstrong, the founder of the Worldwide Church of God, began preaching on a small radio station in Oregon in 1934. He quickly expanded through his The World Tomorrow radio and television shows, and added magazines such as The Plain Truth. By 1985 the church’s annual income exceeded $140 million, according to the February 1986 issue of Christianity Today.
Although the Christian Science Monitor is a well-respected daily newspaper that seldom promotes the Christian Science belief system, it has helped build a positive image for the church. Recently in Massachusetts, however, the church had to bolster its image by waging an expensive media campaign to defend its beliefs during the trial of David and Ginger Twitchell in Boston. The Twitchell’s were convicted of manslaughter for their role in allowing their 2-year-old son to die of a bowel obstruction in 1986. (See page five in the Winter/Spring 1989 CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL.)
The Unification church utilizes “front groups” to improve its image, and has been involved in a number of “good works” projects for the same purpose, according to critics. They’ve also been heavily involved in publishing — their most famous American venture being the daily newspaper, the Washington Times, Mike Warder, a former Unification church member who was the president and publisher of the Moon-owned News World, said that the media serves four main purposes for cults. “It provides a new audience for the message; it legitimizes the cult’s theological position; it reinforces the belief system of the core members; and it helps avoid the ghettoization of the cult,” Warder said.