Year of Publication

2013

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

College

Arts and Sciences

Department

English

First Advisor

Dr. Roxanne Mountford

Abstract

From the distribution of religious tracts at Ellis Island and Billy Sunday’s radio messages to televised recordings of the Billy Graham Crusade and Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, American evangelicals have long made a practice of utilizing mass media to spread the Gospel. Most recently, these Christian evangelists have gone online. As a contribution to scholarship in religious rhetoric and media studies, this dissertation offers evangelistic websites as a case study into the ways persuasion is carried out on the Internet. Through an analysis of digital texts—including several evangelical home pages, a chat room, discussion forums, and a virtual church—I investigate how conversion is encouraged via web design and virtual community as well as how the Internet medium impacts the theology and rhetorical strategies of web evangelists. I argue for “persuasive architecture” and “persuasive communities”—web design on the fundamental level of interface layout and tightly-controlled restrictions on discourse and community membership—as key components of this strategy. In addition, I argue that evangelical ideology has been influenced by the web medium and that a “digital reformation” is taking place in the church, one centered on a move away from the Prosperity Gospel of televangelism to a Gospel focused on God as divine problem-solver and salvation as an uncomplicated, individualized, and instantaneously-rewarding experience, mimicking Web 2.0 users’ desire for quick, timely, and effective answers to all queries. This study simultaneously illuminates the structural and fundamental levels of design through which the web persuades as well as how—as rhetoricians from Plato’s King Thamus to Marshall McLuhan have recognized—media inevitably shapes the message and culture of its users.