Christians have long felt like pariahs in American culture, their preferences dismissed as prudish or quaint, their complaints about vulgar entertainment derided as pearl-clutching. With the steady erosion of church-going and a general decline in religiosity, it would seem reasonable to assume that their choices for entertainment would likewise shrink. Somewhat shockingly, that’s not the case.

The commercial success of religious-themed films and TV shows — think “The Chosen” and “Jesus Revolution” — has Hollywood rethinking its mistaken idea that spiritual themes belong on the fringe. Conservative media companies like The Daily Wire are publishing books and creating children’s shows. One of the most popular humor sites on the internet is The Babylon Bee, which serves up satire from a Christian perspective. (As CEO Seth Dillon quipped at a church a few years ago, “How did they let that happen?”)

But perhaps the most remarkable example of how Christianity has infiltrated the mainstream during a time of widespread “dechurching” is on the radio. As an article in Rolling Stone magazine recently detailed, Christian pop music — also known as contemporary Christian music — has been quietly surging on the airwaves, in part because of a fast-growing media company with an ambitious growth strategy, in part because people like it.

This being Rolling Stone, however, the news is not presented as a net positive for society. Noah Shachtman, the recently departed editor-in-chief, said in 2021, when he took over at the magazine, “The new Rolling Stone is going to confront monsters,” and from the tone of the recent article, contemporary Christian music is apparently one of them.

In the article, the writer mournfully described how a Christian radio station replaced one that played hard rock in Boston, and told how, in the last hours before the switch-over, a DJ by the name of “Mistress Carrie” vowed “to inject as much satanism in the airwaves as possible before we flipped the switch.”

Mistress Carrie is portrayed as the hero of the story; the new station and its owner, the villain, the music “generic” and “trite,” produced by mostly white males.

The article examines how a nonprofit media company called the Educational Media Foundation is expanding its collection of Christian music stations under the brands K-LOVE and Air1. The implication is that this is a bad thing because — wait for it — the “squeaky-clean jokes” and inspirational music “appear to be an inherently conservative project.”

Rolling Stone goes on to quote Leah Payne, an associate professor at Portland Seminary and the author of a new history on contemporary Christian music, on the differences between “the rage-inducing content” of Fox News and a typical Educational Media Foundation station: “K-LOVE is the softer side of that conservatism,” she said.

Payne also told Rolling Stone that contemporary Christian stations provide “suburban families with safe Christian listening experiences in the car.”

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One might think this is something to celebrate, if one is not Rolling Stone, which seems horrified that K-LOVE stations (which include six in Utah) and other EMF holdings are reaching an estimated 18 million Americans a week with music the article’s author describes as “bad” and “artistically regressive.” Not surprisingly, Mistress Carrie agreed, saying, “I’ve always said it’s my opinion that the devil writes better music than God.” 

The late Larry Norman, called the “father of Christian rock” in his New York Times obituary, said something similar in his 1972 song “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” These are catchy lines, if demonstrably untrue. (Johann Sebastian Bach, among others, would like a word.)

Still, Rolling Stone is fair in its critique of corporations knocking local players out of the game, even though this is happening across a spectrum of industries, including other forms of media and real estate. It’s also not unreasonable to question, as the magazine did, what advantages Educational Media Foundation might have over its competitors because of its nonprofit status, and even the quality of contemporary worship music (which Chris Pratt has enthusiastically endorsed).

But the framing of the promotion of contemporary Christian music as a way to “build a quietly conservative wing of modern life” seems as wacky as conspiracy theory as any posited about the Taylor Swift-Travis Kelce romance. Young Christians were getting inspiration from Phil Keaggy and the Second Chapter of Acts and the late Keith Greene decades before America fractured into troubling ideological camps. And the stations are clearly providing content that millions of Americans want. A two-day, multi-band event sponsored by K-LOVE in Colorado in August is already sold out. Tickets for the Rolling Stones’ tour in the U.S., however, remain widely available.

Fred Jacobs, a widely respected radio consultant and president of Jacobs Media, wrote about the growth and strength of Christian programming last year, saying, “As more and more people turn inward, concerned about their homes and families, Christian radio is providing more than just information or entertainment. Its faith-based programming content, its teachings, and its inspirational programming is filling an important need. And larger audiences are showing their satisfaction and loyalty.”

Jacobs noted the results of a 2023 survey that found while 89% of listeners to Christian music stations said they listen because they like or love the music, two-thirds said the stations are “safe for the whole family.” For parents, knowing that they can turn on a radio station with children in the car without fear of expletives and sexually explicit lyrics is no small thing. Not surprisingly, the listeners of Christian stations are also the most likely of all radio listeners to recommend their station to others.

There was an episode of “Seinfeld” in which Elaine bemoaned borrowing a car and finding all the pre-set buttons programmed for Christian music stations, to which George replied, “I like Christian rock. It’s very positive.” For those who prefer negativity, there’s still plenty of that on the air, too. Christian programming is on the rise, but by a slim margin. As Inside Radio reported last fall, “The number of contemporary Christian stations are up 2.5% versus a year ago, while religious talk and teaching formatted-stations have grown 1.6% year-to-year.”

So the pearl-clutching by Rolling Stone about a diabolical takeover of the airwaves by Christian artists and their enablers seems a bit premature. But parents looking for wholesome content for their families have a small win to celebrate.