The three major broadcast TV networks stepped in a deep cowpie by turning away a witty ad from the United Church of Christ, and the UCC likely will gain more attention through news reports than it would have through the ad. News reports in three major dailies -- The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle (where it appeared on the front page, below the fold) -- focus on different finer points of the story.
The 30-second ad makes a favored point among liberal Christians: that some churches, by stressing Christianity's historic teachings on homosexuality, are being exclusive, turning people away or otherwise being spiteful. The ad takes that idea up a notch by depicting a church as excluding a gay couple, a young Latino man and an African American girl.
The ad's humorous genius is in how it illustrates the concept: two muscular, bald, black-clad bouncers stand outside a church and behind a proverbial velvet rope. One says in a voice of deadpan contempt: "Step aside, please," "No way, not you" and "I don't think so." What American who loves fair play and underdogs could watch this commercial and feel anything other than revulsion for these goons (or the one white married couple they let through the rope)? Is this a church, or Studio 54?
In Michael Paulson's report for the Globe, one striking detail is that UCC officials did not expect that the commercial could be taken as criticizing any other church:
[The Rev. Nancy S.] Taylor [president of the UCC's Massachusetts Conference] said the ad is not intended to criticize other denominations. She said she showed the ad to members of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, an umbrella organization of Protestant and Orthodox churches, where it drew no criticism.
That detail may say more about the goo-goo atmosphere in councils of churches, even at the state level, than it does about the ad's content.
Another striking detail from Paulson's report: Although NBC and CBS have taken the bulk of criticism for flatly rejecting the ad, ABC got off the hook by accepting the ad on its ABC Family cable channel. Otherwise, in the chirpy and conflict-averse spirit of Disney, its parent company, ABC rejects ads from all religious bodies. (One irony here: ABC Family began its life as the 24-hour channel for Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, became Fox Family for a time, and still broadcasts The 700 Club a few times a day.)
In the Chronicle, arts and culture critic Steve Winn quotes a UCC minister who sees the long and theocratic arm of the Bush administration yanking the networks' chains:
"It's ironic that after a political season awash in commercials based on fear and deception by both parties seen on all the major networks, an ad with a message of welcome and inclusion would be deemed too controversial," said the Rev. John Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, in a statement. "What's going on here?"
The Rev. Kyle Lovett, pastor of St. John's United Church of Christ in San Francisco, proposed an answer. On the eve of President Bush's second term, she said, the networks "can't afford to go against the administration's version of Christianity and what counts as moral values and what doesn't count as moral values."
In fairness to Lovett, GetReligion is baffled by this explanation from a CBS official mentioned in Paulson's story: "Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations, and the fact that the Executive Branch [the Bush administration] has recently proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast." Since when should legislative actions of the executive branch determine whether a network accepts an ad that violates no decency standards of the FCC?
In the Tribune's story, religion professor Alan Wolfe of Boston College raises a concern that we're likely to hear many times during the next four years:
"CBS and NBC seem to be afraid, not of stirring controversy, but of alienating potential viewers, the kind, moreover, that like to organize boycotts and write letters," Wolfe said. "There may be a new form of political correctness arising in America, one in which attempts are made to avoid violating the sensibilities, not of women or racial minorities, but of conservative Christians."
The Tribune also managed to find two conservative Christians who approved of the networks' decision:
Peter LaBarbera, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, gave a strong thumbs up to the networks' decision.
He said that in the late 1990s, conservative groups wanted to run a commercial featuring "ex-homosexuals who had been converted back to being heterosexuals." Under pressure from gay-rights groups, the networks refused to accept the spots.
"At least they're being consistent," LaBarbera said.
Karl Maurer, vice president of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, also endorsed the networks' stand, calling the commercials "false advertising."
"When the Roman soldiers in the Gospel came to Jesus and said, 'How can I be saved?' Jesus did not respond, 'Be inclusive.' Jesus responded, "Follow the commandments.'"
LaBarbera has a point: When networks reserve the right to turn away any ads they deem too controversial, that sword can cut conservatives as much as liberals.
Nevertheless, the networks would show more integrity -- and provide more interesting broadcasts -- if they were less skittish about a 30-second ad from the UCC than they are about the Coors twins.