Good works versus grace

Great Christmas War eSome local ads here in Washington by a national humanist group have been causing quite a stir. Which is precisely what advocacy groups -- and businesses, for that matter -- want when launching an ad campaign. So kudos to them for getting some solid earned media with that ad buy. For background, let's look at the Associated Press story about the ad buy:

You better watch out. There is a new combatant in the Christmas wars.

Ads proclaiming, "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake," will appear on Washington, D.C., through December, part of a $40,000 holiday campaign by The American Humanist Association.

In lifting lyrics from Santa Claus is Coming to Town, the Washington-based group is wading into what has become a perennial debate over commercialism, religion in the public square and the meaning of Christmas.

"We are trying to reach our audience, and sometimes in order to reach an audience, everybody has to hear you," said Fred Edwords, spokesman for the humanist group. "Our reason for doing it during the holidays is there are an awful lot of agnostics, atheists and other types of non-theists who feel a little alone during the holidays because of its association with traditional religion."

The story is trademark Eric Gorski. It's thorough, packed with actual reportage of hard numbers and lots of quotes from various interested parties. It covers details of the ad campaign, details about humanism and details about similar ad campaigns. It also notes the campaign's place in the larger Christmas Wars (the wars that occur during Advent, that is). We learn about the efforts of the American Family Association and the Catholic League to, basically, keep the Christ in Christmas. (My pastor, for what it's worth, just launched a campaign to 'keep the Mass in Christmas'.) The AP story ran as the campaign was rolling out.

Among some DC residents, they're going over like a lead balloon. The Washington Examiner has the details:

Hundreds of people have fired off complaints to Metro for running an ad campaign on its buses that questions the belief in God.

The transit system said the controversial ads have solicited just one compliment, while receiving 251 complaints. . . .

The ads have sparked more ire than usual for Metro, said agency spokeswoman Candace Smith, even though advertising on buses and in stations has long been a legal morass for transit systems nationwide.

"As a public agency, Metro must observe the First Amendment with respect to the acceptance of commercial advertising," Smith said. "Although we understand that feelings and perceptions will vary among individuals within the community, we cannot reject advertising because an individual, or group, finds it inappropriate or offensive."

So what's missing from these stories? Well, there's no real engagement of the humanists' question, is there? Is religion all just one big competition to see who can be the most moral? Is morality the most important thing in religion? It's not the most important thing in my confession of faith. We certainly do believe in being moral -- for God's sake and for goodness' sake. But personal and social morality is not the focus of confessional Lutheranism, not by a long shot. We are focused on Christ, his suffering and death and salvation he won for us. We believe that God loves us even though we are not moral people.

So while I'm in no way offended by the humanists' question (and, in fact, think it's a good one), I have noticed that many media outlets tend to boil religious doctrine -- all religious doctrine -- down to morality discussions. Perhaps this is because all religions have something to say about morality. Perhaps it's because journalists don't know enough about actual religious creeds, rites and doctrines. But whatever the cause, it's a horrible disservice to religions, particularly those that do believe there are things more important than personal and social morality.

When stories about this campaign get responses for balance, perhaps they could actually have someone engage the question rather than just quote other interest groups who are also War on Christmas combatants.

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