Regent and the Politics of Entertainment

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Anyone seeking Middle America's true marketplace of ideas need only click on a television.

Thus, one political cartoonist summed up the '92 White House race by having a husband study the TV listings and then tell his wife: "We can watch Clinton on MTV, Bush on `Letterman,' Perot on `Arsenio' ... or Madonna on `Meet the Press.'"

That's entertainment and, today, that's politics. Many of America's hottest debates about morality and public life are staged in sitcoms, movies, music videos and talk shows. Reaching the masses means finding niches in pop culture.

Ponder this question: How should strategists at the Christian Coalition respond if President Clinton shows up on "Friends"?

It could happen. Meanwhile, this is precisely the kind of laugh-to-keep-from-crying question that film scholar Terry Lindvall keeps asking at Regent University, a graduate school founded in 1978 by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

Obviously, millions of religious conservatives have shed decades of inhibitions and waded into politics, said Lindvall. However, many continue to have trouble acknowledging the major role that mass media and entertainment play in American life.

"It's all about telling a story, isn't it? ... You have to capture people's imaginations," said Lindvall, who, to the shock of many, was named Regent's president in 1993. "When you shape someone's imagination, you eventually shape their actions. That's the power of media and the arts -- they seduce imaginations. ... No one has ever won a debate that really matters through an argument. Arguments only polarize people and make them hang on to what they already believe."

In the months ahead, President Clinton and Sen. Bob Dole will spend millions trying to tell their stories. Dole's is a story of war, sacrifice, courage and service. This will be a tough sell, because so few Americans identify with this story and because Dole isn't a good storyteller. Meanwhile, Bill and Hillary Clinton have become the Jim and Tammy Bakker of American politics.

"The president's story may be a soap opera, but, hey, at least people are watching," said Lindvall. "The problem for Dole is that many people are simply going to turn him off. End of story."

This tension between politics and entertainment, between the systems of government and the symbols of mass media, is very much in evidence at Regent, a stately, neocolonial campus that critics and supporters alike often call the "Harvard of the Religious Right." It would be impossible, with Robertson as chancellor, to hide the ties that bind the school to the Christian Coalition and to the conservative powers that be in Washington, D.C.

Yes, students from Regent's school of government help draft legislation and work on congressional staffs and campaign teams, said Lindvall. But it's also important that Regent graduates are working on projects for HBO and PBS, for Disney and Fox.

"You have to do both, today. ... Of course, it says a lot that most people around here feel more comfortable talking about working in the government than they do working in the media," he said. "Most Christians have always considered the arts and entertainment to be out there on the edge. It's the artists who want to color outside the lines and break the rules."

Thus, most conservative attempts to compete in the media marketplace produce what Lindvall called "happy little Christian films" that bore most Americans -- including believers. Others cling to the belief that they can cause sweeping moral changes by winning a few elections or creating a few evangelical films or television shows. If only things were that simple.

"Laws will not change people's hearts when you're talking about issues like abortion. Now, I'm not saying that laws aren't important. I am saying that even more important changes have to occur elsewhere," he said. "Laws can't change the fact that people's imaginations have been shaped by millions of images and stories. ... We have to create new images that will haunt people and seduce their imaginations. We have to tell some new stories."