This blog frequently criticizes the religious right, that group of cultural conservatives and fundamentalists who use Christianity to justify their bigoted, theocratic and anti-humanist views. But this group is so often in the news pushing its agenda, it is sometimes easy to forget that they do not speak for all believers in America. There is a religious left that advocates social justice, equality under the law, and civil rights for all people.
Although these views are praiseworthy, one might say that the religious left deserves criticism for its mere absence. And there is merit to this charge. The religious right could never have gained as much power as it did if progressive and liberal believers had not failed to speak out and challenge them over the past few decades, allowing the fundamentalists to speak for all theists by default and set the tone and the agenda of the national discourse. Thankfully, there are at last signs that a counterrevolution of true religious progressives is taking shape, and one of the denominations leading this effort is the United Church of Christ. The difficulties they have so far faced in getting their message out illustrate how thoroughly the religious right has poisoned the atmosphere of American politics.
In late 2004, the UCC produced a commercial showing a bouncer standing at a church's door turning would-be parishioners away, followed by text reading, "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we." As reported by Media Matters, two of America's three major broadcast networks, CBS and NBC, both refused to sell airtime to the UCC to air this commercial on the grounds that it was "too controversial". CBS' explanation for its refusal was especially appalling:
"Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations," reads an explanation from CBS, "and the fact the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the [CBS and UPN] networks."
Apparently, CBS executives consider it their obligation to be censors acting on behalf of the President, preemptively silencing any view they fear he might disagree with. (How far this network has fallen since the days of Edward R. Murrow!) To judge by this decision, the message that a church does not discriminate is too controversial to convey to the public; the logical inference to be drawn from this is that church policies discriminating against gays, minorities and the disabled are not controversial. Neither CBS nor NBC has ever apologized for this outrage.
And now, it seems, this pattern has repeated. The UCC has produced a new commercial, again conveying a message of inclusion through humor. The commercial, titled "Ejector Pew", shows a church where parishioners press a button to activate spring-loaded ejector seats that send undesirables flying, again followed by the message, "God doesn't reject people. Neither do we." This time, the ad was rejected by all three broadcast networks, as well as Fox and many other cable television channels. Some networks, such as ABC, explained that their guidelines prohibit commercials containing religious themes - this despite the fact that ABC has previously run religiously themed commercials produced by James Dobson's ultra-right-wing group Focus on the Family. Others, such as NBC, simply appealed to policies that prohibit commercials addressing "controversial issues". (Has NBC ever run ads produced by political candidates?)
The abject and craven cowardice shown by these networks is a sad commentary on the influence of the religious right in our society. It seems that their message of bigotry and exclusion has become so pervasive in the media that it has taken on a kind of inertia, becoming the default perception which progressive viewpoints must struggle to overcome merely to make themselves heard. (The rejection of the UCC ad is also a textbook example of why the continued consolidation of American media under the aegis of a few large corporations is a bad thing - granting just a few individuals the terrifying power to shut out a viewpoint which they disapprove of from virtually all corners of society. But that is a topic for another post.)
Happily, the UCC has not taken this defeat lying down, forming campaigns such as Accessible Airwaves to pressure the networks to air their ads. The UCC's Ron Buford laid the hypocrisy bare:
"This is 'sorry, cable trouble' all over again," said Buford, who is African American, harkening back to the 1950s when some television stations refused to run network news that positively portrayed the Civil Rights Movement.
The point cannot be made too strongly that the broadcast networks are not merely private organizations which may deny airtime to anyone at whim. They are using a public resource, a section of the spectrum licensed for their use by the government. As such, they have a Constitutional obligation to treat differing viewpoints in an even-handed manner. (The Supreme Court upheld this argument in the 1969 case Red Lion Broadcasting v. F.C.C.) By denying a platform to the UCC, the networks are not just showing a political bias in favor of the right wing - a case could be made that they are violating the First Amendment.
Policies prohibiting "controversial issue" advertising in general, even if consistently applied, do not solve this problem, and may even make it worse. This is because such a policy would simply have the effect of silencing both sides of an issue, rather than just one. "Equal protection of the laws is not achieved through indiscriminate imposition of inequalities," as the Supreme Court held in the 1948 case Shelley v. Kraemer. In my opinion, whenever there is a controversial issue, any responsible media organization has the duty to allow the public to be exposed to all sides so that they can make an informed choice. It is a betrayal of the public trust for a media group to attempt to keep the public ignorant of any information that might actually have an effect on their thinking. Such enforced blandness of information may increase the profits of corporate titans by ensuring that no viewer is offended enough by anything they see to turn off their television, but it is morally reprehensible in that it contributes to creating an ignorant, apathetic public, a state of affairs that is poisonous to any democracy.
For all these reasons, I wish the UCC all success in their campaign to gain access to the airwaves, and to promote a healthy, progressive religious view in general as an alternative to the toxic politics of the right. I intend to do whatever I can to help them, and I encourage my readers to do so as well, via a feedback form on the Accessible Airwaves website. A commitment to free speech demands no less.
This is not to say I consider the religious left's beliefs to be any more valid or better supported by evidence than those of the religious right. On the contrary, as an atheist I reject all supernatural beliefs alike. Nevertheless, for the time being we are on the same side, and it serves little purpose to critique them. If and when the religious right is defeated, then we can go at it hammer and tongs and see whose beliefs are better grounded in evidence. In the meantime, we should support attempts by the religious left to regain their voice in our society's discourse. Though we may not agree with them in all areas, they are our natural allies against a far worse system of beliefs.