The Rev. John Thomas, who serves as general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, is having a hard time figuring out why the same broadcasters that profited so handsomely from airing the vicious and divisive attack advertisements during the recent presidential election are now refusing to air an advertisement from his denomination that celebrates respect for one another and inclusiveness.
"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 Thomas. "What's going on here?"
The ad in question is part of an ambitious new national campaign by the UCC to appeal to Americans who feel alienated from religion and churches, and to equip the denomination's 6,000 congregations across the U.S. to welcome newcomers. In an effort to break through the commercial clutter that clogs the arteries of broadcast and cable television, the UCC ad features an arresting image: a pair of muscle-bound bouncers standing in front of a church and telling some people they can attend while turning others away.
After people of color, a disabled man and a pair of men who might be gay are turned away, the image dissolves to a text statement that: "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we."
Then, as images of diverse couples and families appear on screen, an announcer explains that, "No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here."
It is a graceful commercial, which delivers an important message gently yet effectively -- something that cannot be said of most television advertising these days. But viewers of the CBS and NBC television networks won't see it because, in this age of heightened focus on so-called "moral values," quoting Jesus on the issue of inclusion is deemed to be "too controversial."
What was controversial? Apparently, the networks don't like the ad's implication that the Nazarene's welcome to all people might actually include ALL people.
Noting that the image of one woman putting her arm around another was included in the ad, CBS announced, "Because the commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations, 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."
NBC was similarly concerned that the spot was "controversial." UCC leaders, pastors and congregation members are upset, and rightly so.
"It' seems incredible to me that CBS admits it is refusing to air the commercial because of something the Executive Branch, the Bush administration, is doing," says Dave Moyer, conference minister for the Wisconsin Conference of the UCC. "Since when is it unacceptable to offer a different perspective?"
Moyer says that people of all religious faiths and all ideological perspectives should be concerned that the major networks -- which dominate so much of the discourse in America -- are seeking to narrow the dialogue.
The Rev. Curt Anderson, the pastor of the First United Church of Christ in Madison, Wisconsin, says that people of good will should also be concerned about the message being sent to gays and lesbians in the aftermath of an election season that saw them targeted by the political right.
"I'm thinking of the LGBT folks in my church who felt so under attack after the election. They are getting hit again," explained the pastor. "This is another way where the culture, the media, makes them invisible. It is incredible that it is controversial for one woman to put her arm around another."
It is also bizarrely hypocritical. After all, the same NBC network that found the UCC ad "too controversial" airs programs such as "Will & Grace" that feature gay and lesbian characters. "We find it disturbing that the networks in question seem to have no problem exploiting gay persons through mindless comedies and titillating dramas, but when it comes to a church's loving welcome to committed gay couples, that's where they draw the line," explained the Rev. Bob Chase, director of the national UCC's communication ministry.
Chase has a point. CBS and NBC, networks that reap enormous profits from the public airwaves, are not serving the public interest. Rather, they are assaulting it by narrowing the dialogue and rejecting a message of inclusion that is sorely needed at this point in the American experiment.