Are Christians Being Silenced? How about the United Church of Christ?
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Mar 28, 2006 at 03:30:35 AM EST
Are Christians being silenced?

The question sounds like the perennial complaint from members of the Christian Right. But in fact, as specious as the Christian Right's complaints along these lines usually are, this one is different. Not only does the complaint originate elsewhere -- but the Christian Right is the beneficiary of the apparent silencing of fellow Christians.  

When the Sunday morning public affairs talk shows think about getting a Christian view on public affairs who do they call? According to Rev. Robert Chase, Director of Communications for the 1.3 million member United Church of Christ, over the past 8 years the Sunday network public affairs shows have interviewed political leaders of the religious right 36 times, and leaders of mainline Christian denominations such as the United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), American Baptist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Reformed Church in America, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, among others -- exactly zero times.  

"Increasingly," Chase added at a national news conference, "millions of U.S. Christians have grown weary of having their more-inclusive, more-progressive values silenced." Chase bases his comments on a survey of the three network programs over the past 8 years, conducted by Media Matters for America. Chase now operates a web site, Accessible Airwaves, to urge the networks to include more mainstream religious views.  

The UCC's complaint that the networks are silencing mainstream religious voices does not stop there. They are also having trouble with the advertising departments of the networks. The church is currently engaged in a multiyear outreach campaign that includes television advertising. But unless you have cable you won't get to see their new ad -- because the networks won't run them. The ads are part of a $1.5 ad buy that begins on April 3 on a dozen cable networks including CNN, A&E and the Discovery Channel, and in Spanish on the Teledmundo and Univision networks. But ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX, reports Religion News Service, deemed them "too controversial."

"The 30-second "Ejector" ad features several people -- a black woman, a gay couple, a Middle Eastern man, an elderly man in a walker -- who are ejected from their church pews. "God doesn't reject people," the ad says. "Neither do we." The new ad, which cost about $1.5 million to make, will debut on April 3, but not on ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox. The three networks rejected the commercial as an inappropriate "advocacy" ad because of its references to homosexuality, race and ethnicity. Last year, the networks rejected a similar ad featuring bouncers behind a velvet rope keeping various people out of a church. "The message of the commercial is simple," the Rev. John Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, said Monday (March 27). "No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here at the United Church of Christ." Thomas said he found it "odd and bewildering" that the ads would be rejected.

Chase says that the exclusion of mainstream religious perspectives in the news media is a "trend we have been witnessing for decades."

When the UCC first sought to buy TV ad time at CBS in 2004 in the run up to Christmas, the network claimed that they could not run the ad because it conflicted with the White House view on same sex marriage. As Pastordan recounts at Street Prophets, the official CBS statement on the rejection read in part:

"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 has recently proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast..."

I suppose this kind of calculus may go on all the time behind the scenes -- but I had never before heard of a broadcast television network publicly stating that they make their advertising decisions in deference to what the current occupants of the White House might think.

Meanwhile ABC, citing a policy of not accepting religious ads in response to the UCC's first ad buy, then turned around and accepted ads from James Dobson's Focus on the Family. At same time, ABC was incorporating also Focus on the Family's child-rearing dogma into a major network program. "The show was all about Focus on the Family principles," according to Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family regarding the prime time ABC feature "Supernanny."

Max Blumenthal told the whole sorry saga of Supernananny at his blog. Meanwhile the United Church News reported that

"In an Associated Press story (May 2), Focus on the Family's president and CEO, Jim Daly, said the spots were an attempt by his organization to offer 'faith-based' advice on parenting, despite the fact that ABC executives have twice denied recent similar requests by the UCC to purchase network time as part of its national advertising campaign."

"Focus on the Family is clearly a religious organization," Chase told United Church News at the time. 'Here's yet another illustration of how a particular narrow agenda makes up the rules as they go along, while another religious viewpoint cannot even purchase time on the people's airwaves to proclaim an all-inclusive message."

ABC spokeswoman Susan Sewall told Kevin Eckstrom of Religion News Service:

"The network doesn't take advertising from religious groups. It's a long-standing policy."
Apparently Ms. Sewall and the rigorous enforcers of ABC's ad policy didn't read -- or simply ignored -- the Focus on the Family "Mission Statement" -- conveniently located at the top of their web site:

"To cooperate with the Holy Spirit in disseminating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible, and, specifically, to accomplish that objective by helping to preserve traditional values and the institution of the family."

But just in case anyone thinks they didn't really mean it, the next item is Focus on the Family's "Guiding Principles." The first sentence states:

"Since Focus on the Family's primary reason for existence is to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ through a practical outreach to homes, we have firm beliefs about both the Christian faith and the importance of the family."

Here is the first sentence of what the UCC web site has "About the United Church of Christ":

"Welcome to the United Church of Christ -- a community of faith that seeks to respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed."

If we compare the statements of the two groups, would we say that either of them is not a religious organization? By the standards of the ABC advertising department, if Focus on the Family is not a religious organization, then the United Church of Christ is not a religious organization either.

But on on Sunday, on the same network's public affairs show, This Week with George Stephanopolis, if you want a religious point of view on news and public affairs you are far more likely to hear from James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who has appeared three times (and who by the way, is a psychologist), than Rev. John Thomas, President of the United Church of Christ who has never appeared.

Go figure.

Didn't ABC also show an ad by the Southern Baptist Convention during this year's Super Bowl?

by Carlos on Tue Mar 28, 2006 at 10:29:25 AM EST
if anyone gets to the bottom of that one, I'll update this post to reflect that info.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Mar 28, 2006 at 04:04:54 PM EST

Thanks. We hear a lot from folk like Bill O'Reilly and  Rush Limbaugh that the media is so left-wing biased (ironic in that those statements are made across air-waves beamed into every television and radio in America). But progressives experience things very differently, and to have hard numbers like these to back up our 'impressions' is critical. The media - in religious arenas- has a very comfortable alliance with the right wing and an almost knee-jerk reflex to the right every time they go looking for a religious perspective.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Tue Mar 28, 2006 at 04:49:47 PM EST

We all know one reason the networks turn to the Falwells, Robersons, et.,al., is they are colorful characters who will speak about any subject regardless of their knowledge of the subject.

But seriously, it has been my experience in the last 30 years most mainline ministers AND denominations have not wanted to get involved in controversial subjects. Until recently they have shyed away from standing up for the G/L/B/T communities, a woman's right to choose, immigrants, etc.

The denominations have been too busy trying to placate the fundamentalists among them and to keep the unity of the denomination when they, and their communicants, would be better served to split and move on.

During the period that Rev. Chase is complaining about, how many press releases about gays women, etc., or how many times did he contact the networks to express a different view than the talking heads from the right?

I recall as a young theolog, hearing much the same complaint coming from the conservative peoples whom I grew up. The only ones the networks wanted to talk to was the pinko/commie/fellow travler types from the National Council of Churches.

To be heard one must have something to say and as far as I'm concerned for the last 30 years the mainline churches have not had must to say.

by JerrySloan on Tue Mar 28, 2006 at 05:13:29 PM EST


I partly agree and partly disagree.

A large swath of the mainline churches grew comfortable and complacent in recent decades. But not all by any stretch. I can recall many efforts on the part of church leaders to speak out on matters of social concern. I recall the many efforts, for example, of Joan Brown Campbell, then the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches to lend support for reproductive rights, including participating in huge interfaith service in New York during the period I worked at PPFA.

The mainline churches have been slow to recognize the organized rightwing attacks on their own institutions, and that is one of the reasons this site exists. And I agree with you that there has been an empty headed and sometimes confused or cowardly approach to accomodation with fundamentalists and other conservative factions.

But the United Church of Christ in particular has been in the forefront of the mainline churches on the issues nearest and dearest to you, for example, -- as the first denomination to ordain a gay man as clergy -- in 1972.  The UCC's list of UCC "Firsts" on its web site includes:  

"The UCC's Golden Gate Association ordains the first openly gay person as a minister in a mainline Protestant denomination: the Rev. William R. Johnson. In the following three decades, General Synod urges equal rights for homosexual citizens and calls on congregations to welcome gay, lesbian and bisexual members."

As you know, more recently it was the first denomination to endorse marriage equality.

The UCC has many such firsts and is the denominaiton that is the direct decendant of the Massachusetss Bay Colony. It is one of the foundational churches in America, and I think that not only should we offer credit where credit is due, but to acknowlege that its voice has been excluded from the news media.  

When Rev. John Thomas personally supported the marriage equality resolution (or perhaps even more famously, Rev. Andrew Young) I don't think he was on any national network news programs. I know for a fact that they issued press releases, and indeed it was widely covered in the print media. But on the Sunday news shows?  Heh. Not a chance. Not then, not since.

There are many factors that have gone into the current situation. Willful suppression of mainstream religious points of view certainly seems to be part of it -- not because lots of mainstream religious leaders don't have something important to say, or the interest and ability to say it well, but because of stupid, rancid, and politically and commercially influenced decisions, suchas the corrupt decisions on the UCC "bouncer" ad by CBS and ABC.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Mar 28, 2006 at 07:19:20 PM EST

The General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which shares historic roots with the UCC, publicly endorsed same-sex marriage years before the UCC did. But because orthodox denominations no longer regard the UUA as a Christian denomination, the UCC has ended up claiming to be the "first Christian denomination" on a variety of positions that the UUA actually led on -- including women's ordination and gay rights. But the first Protestant denomination to formally adopt these positions is the the Unitarian Universalist denomination.

I know it's a weird point, and it's hard to grasp that a Protestant denomination might not be considered Christian anymore, and the UCC is careful not to step on our UU toes too much in how they tell their history, but I hate to see the UUs lost in these stories about progressive religious traditions.

by Philocrites on Tue Mar 28, 2006 at 08:09:25 PM EST

I for one, am well aware of the UU, but not every point in its history.  It's historic splits with "trinitarian" Christianity and the merger with Universalism certainly makes it a special case.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Mar 28, 2006 at 08:21:55 PM EST

As a non-Christian UU, I am not offended by the UCC's claims, but I appreciate your effort to set the record straight.  And I believe that we UU's should join with those of other faiths (and those of none) to support the UCC's attempt to end its exclusion from broadcast media.  I note that this site has a link (at the top right of the home page as of early Wednesday, March 29) to a page that allows for an email message to be sent to ABC.  I am going to use it unless I decide that I can draft a better personal message (on the theory that personal messages are given more weight than mass-produced messages) to send on my own.

P.S.  I just got back from a 3-day trip to Disneyland!  Forgive me.  I didn't know. . . .

by Theovanna on Wed Mar 29, 2006 at 05:11:32 AM EST

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