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Communication and Religion

Paul A. Soukup, SJ - La Ciciltà Cattolica - Thu, Aug 3rd 2023

religion - Pope Pius XI and Guglielmo Marconi inaugurate Vatican Radio in 1931

Over the last 40 years, communication research has paid increasing attention to religion. Early research in this area – in the 1980s in the United States – focused on the then new phenomenon of the “electronic church” (or television evangelism) as more and more preachers, mostly evangelical, took to the increasingly available cable television channels to provide religious services. In fact, Churches and other religious groups had employed broadcasting from early on: in the 1930s the BBC and other national broadcasters produced Sunday religious programs; the Vatican launched Vatican Radio under the supervision of Guglielmo Marconi; the U.S. Federal Communication Commission required stations to provide free airtime to Churches; preachers like Bishop Fulton Sheen and Dwight Moody achieved national prominence in the U.S. However, these efforts attracted little interest in the early days of communication research.

Things changed with the electronic church. Several factors help to explain the interest. First, a somewhat controversial religious movement, one not aligned with the major religious groups in the United States and regarded negatively by many, became a very public participant in the entertainment and political worlds. Second, the growing academic area of communication studies saw religious audiences as a key research interest. Third, encouragement and funding for research came both from established Churches debating whether they should pursue similar ministries and from an American research tradition looking for new audiences who could provide more evidence of audience motivation. Finally, individual scholars helped to establish individual research and teams with publications on the electronic church (Robert Ableman, Stewart Hoover, and Peter Horsfield), religious journalism (Mark Silk and Yoel Cohen), the youth religious audience (Lynn Schofield Clark), and online religion (Chris Helland).[1]

The researchers, mostly a younger group, organized themselves through various scholarly associations, with the National Communication Association and the International Association for Mass Communication Research offering organizational support through interest groups. Over time a number of scholars created other institutional support networks for researchers. For example, Stewart Hoover at the University of Colorado established the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture; Jolyon Mitchell at the University of Edinburgh directed the Centre for Theology and Public Issues; and, more recently, Heidi Campbell at Texas A & M University established the Network for New Media, Religion, and Digital Culture Studies.[2]

Approaches to studying religion and communication include focusing on the communication produced by religious groups, on groups and communication professionals focusing on religion and on ways to categorize knowledge about religious communication.


Religions Communicating

First, the work of religious groups themselves forms part of the study of communication and religion and includes evaluative statements, policy papers, evaluation of communication efforts, and communication production itself. Throughout the 20th century, many Churches and religious authorities issued statements about communication, ranging from the condemnation of certain content to cautious approval of the use of media. Among the more prolific groups were the Catholic Church with regular statements on communication (papal encyclicals, statements for World Communication Day, documents issued by the Pontifical Council for Social Communication, and statements from bishops’ conferences or religious institutes); various Protestant churches and religious organizations like the World Association for Christian Communication; rabbis giving opinions about the use of communication; and imams offering judgments about similar topics.

Religious groups also established policy through statements shaping how the agencies of a given church or religious group could or should use communication media. Often, religious groups took inspiration from their theological understanding as to how communication fitted into their particular understanding of God and the world. In a religion like Christianity, which espouses a mission to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth, many Churches find a justification for the use of mass media in Matthew 28:19–20. On the other hand, some religious groups like Islam restrict the use of communication (notably images) based on their reading of the Koran and various hadiths of the Prophet. Judaism also restricts some use of imagery while Hinduism does not. In fact, Indian cinema (operating apart from any religious authority) has created a number of devotional films featuring the Hindu pantheon, which evoke religious responses even in movie theaters. Communication research has followed, studying these materials, examining the theological positions of the different religious groups to better understand their attitudes toward communication and their willingness to use different communication media for a variety of purposes.

With an area of study as broad as religion, researchers have also studied communication in non-Christian religions, addressing the practices of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism and African traditional religions. Some comparative studies use the contrasting practices of religious groups as a way to understand their attitudes to communication itself.

Within each of the groups, the research typically focuses on particular media. Christianity, for example, has employed almost every communication medium: writing, the spoken word, homiletics, art, music, radio, television, film, and social media, with each medium anchoring a distinctive approach to communication study. Similar broad uses of communication hold for other religious groups as well, with more recent media (web pages, for example) showing more instances of innovation and greater similarity. Some studies of particular communication media overlap with other academic areas like art history (examining religious expression), rhetoric (comparing modes of religious persuasion and instruction), ritual studies, and musicology, for example. More typical approaches in communication studies trace the history of religious newspapers or the characteristics of the religious audience engaged by the mass media.

Others study the attempts of religious groups to create their own communication. For example, religious groups and churches engage in different forms of religious broadcasting beyond “televangelism.” Many sponsor radio programs, television programs, or online audio and video programs. Some religious groups have produced their own films or have tried to influence the communication industry through festivals and prizes. Religious groups practice public relations and advertising, sometimes connected to fundraising for particular causes and at other times to engage in more evangelical pursuits. For example, some dioceses of the Catholic Church in the United States conducted holiday advertising campaigns to invite people to come to church for religious holidays. In the more recent past, many religious groups expanded their online presence across the board: webpages for religious groups, denominations, or local churches; digital film efforts; information pages; spirituality guides and podcasts.

A more specialized area of religious communication falls under the heading of crisis communication. In this instance, religious groups find themselves thrust into public debates where some external crisis has occurred. The best known and saddest example has to do with the abuse of children. Communication researchers have explored how different religious groups use a variety of communication strategies and media types, either by comparing groups or by putting them into a theoretical context.

In addition to examining these communication efforts, scholars have explored how religious groups engage in interpersonal communication, with efforts best categorized as forms of pastoral ministry and education. The former includes religious counseling, comforting, spiritual direction, pastoral visits, and social outreach. The latter focuses on religious education, both the Sunday school variety for children and adult education efforts.

Scholars also identify other ways in which people experience communication in the religious context. These include expressions of piety or socialization into a religious identity. While these have traditionally occurred in interpersonal or group settings, scholars note that today it more and more includes mediated experience through online chat rooms, YouTube videos, and social media groups. While communication experts study these from a number of different perspectives, they have noted that activities of religious piety and socialization occur in almost every religious tradition. They also occur in many forms and so research includes religious activities, pilgrimages, and even religious theme parks.

The best known case study of commonalities across religious traditions comes from one of the longest studied areas of religious communication. Using a descriptive approach to the communication of religion, some have explored in depth the phenomenon of television evangelism. The terms “televangelist” and “televangelism” entered into the English language in the 1970s, and from there passed to other languages as a portmanteau word combining “television” and “evangelism,” to create an apt description for television programming based on religious services. Now it has become a generic term for almost any religious broadcasting. Communication historians have examined how this religious format has spread throughout the world and to different religious groups. Beginning in the United States, the format of a television preacher moved first from the revival meeting style of evangelical Christian groups to other Christian traditions in the United States and then on to Central and South America with U.S. churches translating their programming into Spanish and later training local clergy in this form of ministry.

Today the format exists widely in the United States, in Central America, in Brazil, and in Africa, mostly among evangelical and Pentecostal churches, led by a charismatic minister and accompanied by choirs and dancers. A number of Islamic preachers, sometimes directly inspired by Christian programs, have copied the format. The earliest Islamic televangelists began in Egypt and then spread to different parts of Africa and then moved to the United States and into England, with the help of online distribution that enabled them to reach Islamic communities around the world, even where governments or economics limited access to broadcasting. Islamic groups seemed particularly open to this because the form could be regarded as a development of the recorded Islamic preaching earlier spread by means of audio cassettes.

Judaism also claims a number of television preachers, with programs distributed either on cable television or on Internet channels. Similarly Hinduism has a growing number of evangelists who combine different aspects of Hindu practice with teachings and entertainment. Across the board all of these examples of television evangelism have similar features, which they combine in various measures for generic televangelist programming. They include preaching, religious music, instruction, liturgical expression, personal testimonies, entertainment (which can take the forms of talk-show interviews, light humor, or religious drama), prayer, and often fund raising.

Outside Groups Communicating about Religion

Second, beyond the study of communication practices initiated by religious groups, another component of communication and study of religion involves the ways in which religion appears in the media, that is, how outside groups see religion. Religion forms an ongoing news focus for newspapers and broadcast news, and this has attracted a great deal of academic attention. In many cases reporters specializing in religion shed light on the activities of churches and religious figures, with some religious leaders themselves serving as sources of news, including the Pope, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran, the Dalai Lama, and other leading figures in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. Reporters have also covered the persecution of religion in many parts of the world. Researchers focus on how news organizations frame religious news, possible sources of bias, and the range of topics presented.

Entertainment programming also contains a great deal of religious content. Some programming focuses specifically on religion, narrating the life of a religious figure or of people facing religious challenges. Under this topic, the most widely studied materials are religious films. Scholars have divided films according to their approaches: films leading to religious experience, films capable of religious interpretation, “Christ films” (those in which the leading character enacts the life of Christ), demonic films that address the challenges of evil, films that narrate a quest for meaning, and films that offer an insight into a society’s religious orientation. Within these studies of film, a smaller more specialized area examines documentary films on religious subjects. Fewer studies of religion in film address non-Christian themes.

Other entertainment programming (whether in film, television, or online media) that has attracted the attention of those involved in communication studies simply features religion appearing in a supporting role. Here religion provides a backdrop for other aspects of the entertainment, as for example, characters marrying in a church, sitting shiva (mourning) for a family member, or performing a puja in a Hindu temple. Given the wide scope of religion and the growing diversity of societies and of the entertainment business, communication scholars often compare how various media portray different religious groups, or even non-religious groups. A relatively new area for the study of communication and religion examines the portrayal of atheism. A few studies also review the ways that atheists present themselves, especially on websites or online channels.

A number of studies, particularly those of past years, examine how broadcasters in state-sponsored media, for example, present religion. Many countries with public service broadcasting systems or public service mandates produce religious radio or television. While few programs in the West feature religious services, many western public service broadcasters do offer a “Sunday morning hour” that carries ceremonies, religious discussions or documentaries on religious groups in a given country. In religious majority countries, particularly in the Islamic world, the state broadcaster may include prayer services.

The relationship between the media and religion involves varying degrees of complexity. Recent communication study has advanced more detailed theoretical models of the interaction between media and other social institutions and activities. One fairly well established theory, mediatization, holds that people experience reality and social institutions through the media (originally broadcast media but now more often social media). In the perspective of communication industries, religion appears as another social aspect that competes for people’s attention. At the same time, other social institutions have begun to take on the sociological functions of mediatized religion.

Apart from broadcasting and social media, other forms of religious practice involve communication, as for example, activities like rituals, pilgrimages, or festivals mentioned above. Each of these involves multiple kinds of communication (mostly face-to-face, but can involve religious artifacts) and each has attracted study. These studies have looked at more specialized topics such as how religious people create meaning or how people communicate and develop their spirituality, notably in the face of death. Every religious group wrestles with the experience of death but they communicate this in different ways.

Similarly every religious group deals with the physical aspects of religion. This expanding area of study examines the aspects of religious practice, as expressed in cult objects and religious sites. While many find these in specifically religious areas like churches or temples or keep them at home in shrines more and more museums collect religious artifacts and display them. Those involved in religious communication have begun to consider the status of these religious objects that function either as objects of religious practice or, losing their religious function, as items for display or study. They and museum workers have begun to debate what obligations museum curators have toward these once religious objects. What obligations do they have to preserve the religious character of these items?

Communication Research Categories Applied to Religion

Third, religion and communication is examined from the perspective of categories established for other topics, applying existing criteria from communication studies in addition to those already mentioned. A classic communication studies approach focuses on the audience and audience activities. Who makes up the audience for religious communication? It is often older viewers and those who develop a parasocial relationship with a given religious figure. What are the characteristics of audience members, particularly those who choose, for example, televangelism over other programming? Sometimes it is those who find religious programming less objectionable than other media fare. These audience members view religious television ecumenically, having no hesitation in viewing ministers outside of their own traditions. Why do people choose viewing at home rather than attending religious services in person? Often this is for health or mobility reasons and for convenience. Why do people choose online religion? Sometimes it is for the diversity of opinion they find; sometimes because they can contribute to the online exchanges; and again because they are freer from institutional constraints. Are there differences between the audiences for different media within religious communication, that is for television or radio, print or online? Another audience question raised during the time of the Covid-19 pandemic involved making a choice to return to attending religious services in person.

Just as communication study has become more sensitive to race, gender and sexuality, so have these concerns entered into the study of religion and communication. Religious groups obviously have teaching to guide people about sexuality or gender relationships, but they also manifest these positively or negatively in their own structures. How do they communicate this teaching? From a critical communications standpoint, researchers also ask how religions and religious groups incorporate or overlook bias and prejudice in their own practices and how they counter them. These topics, which many regard as culturally influenced, in some ways touch on the authority of religious communication. Every religious group identifies a function for authoritative teaching and vests it in different kinds of leadership. These in turn affect their communication and those whom they allow to speak for the religious group.

In addition to these more specialized communication approaches, non-religious ethical norms have also been applied to religious communication. These ethical studies of religious communication draw on a different rationale from the theological ones religions employ, studies rooted in philosophical ethics, but often in the ethical traditions of the West. These independent ethical approaches pose interesting challenges for religion. When most religious groups try to address audiences outside of their own particular group for non-evangelical reasons, they do so with a position based on ethical arguments about the media. Again, this raises the question, which has come more to the forefront in the last 10 years and is already seen in terms of race, gender and sexuality, about the authority with which religious groups speak to the world. Can they speak with authority about communication practices if they speak only from their own traditions? How do communication practices affect the perception of authority of the religious groups? The mediatization of communication places authority in the media world not in religion but in the gatekeepers of the media. What constitutes authority in a world in which media appearance itself seems to bestow legitimacy?

Many of these questions received new impetus with the appearance of religion online. The nature of the online world has lowered barriers and cost of access and has widened the scope of materials, content producers and audiences. It has also freed people to seek out information that appeals to them, without any kind of guidance or vetting. While religious groups produce their own web-based content, it varies in “production quality” and may not appeal to casual users.

Some researchers, following Christopher Helland, make a distinction between online religion and religion online; the former refers to religious activity taking place online (like the live streaming of Masses or prayer groups), while the latter refers to using the Internet to support “real world” activities (as occurs, for example, in publishing parish bulletins or schedules). As a still somewhat new and constantly changing area, this would seem to create a rich source for future communication research.


Interest in religion has grown much stronger in communication research, fueled by the expansion of the online world and by the growing recognition of the presence of non-western and non-Christian groups in this world. This has forced researchers to acknowledge their own religious biases as well as those inherent in the media itself. Many have limited their explorations of religion and communication to a kind of “neutral” sociological approach; others have argued that a religious commitment makes it easier for them to understand the world of communication and religion “from the inside.” Perhaps the greatest impetus to the growth of this area of communication research lies in the willingness of more and more researchers to work together across national and religious boundaries.[3]


[1].  Cf. R. Abelman – S. M. Hoover (eds), Religious Television: Controversy and Conclusions, Norwood, Ablex Publishing Corporation 1990; Y. Cohen, Spiritual News: Reporting Religion around the World. New York, Peter Lang, 2018; C. Helland, “Online Religion as Lived Religion: Methodological Issues in the Study of Religious Participation on the Internet”, in Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 1 (2005) 1-16; P. G. Horsfield, Religious Television: The American Experience, New York, Longman, 1984; L. Schofield Clark, From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural, New York, Oxford University Press, 2003; M. Silk, Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America, University of Illinois Press, 1995.

[2]. Cf. Center for Media, Religion and Culture (; Centre for Theology and Public Issues (; Network for New Media, Religion, and Digital Cultural Studies (

[3]. For more detail on the topics mentioned here, see Y. Cohen – P. Soukup (eds), The Handbook on Communication and Religion, New York, Wiley, 2023.

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