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COLUMN RIGHT/ GEORGE WEIGEL : KCET’s Action: the Antithesis of Freedom : ‘Stop the Church’ aimed to intimidate and silence the civil discourse essential to democracy.

<i> George Weigel is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, and the author of "Freedom and Its Discontents: Catholicism Confronts It Modernity."</i>

Civil conversation is the lifeblood of democracy. Civility is not mere politeness. Rather, civility is born of a commitment to engage our deepest differences through the arts of persuasion. When civility breaks down, the democratic bloodstream is poisoned and the democratic experiment in self-governance is threatened. Those who do not understand the fragility of democracy, and the importance of civility in a democracy, need only reflect on what happened when civil conversation died in Weimar, Germany, in the late 1920s.

“Stop the Church,” the film shown Sept. 8 on KCET television, is thus far more, and far worse, than a vicious attack on the Catholic Church, although it is indisputably that. “Stop the Church” is an attack on the American democratic experiment because it is an attempt to stop the conversation--the ongoing conversation about the ordering of our lives, loves and loyalties that is the democratic process at its most basic level.

Perhaps it will be thought that I exaggerate. Why should this 28-minute film, with its crude camera work and repetitive script, pose such a threat? But this is far more, and far worse, than a bad film. “Stop the Church” is an exercise in demagogy and intimidation. Its aim is not to persuade. Its aim is to wound and to maim, and in so doing, to frighten.

Whom does it try to frighten? Those who might want to engage in a serious conversation about private and public morality. Fear, it is assumed, will stop the conversation before it gets started. Fear will open up the public space on which raw power in its basest form--the capacity to inflict pain and thus to compel acquiescence--can work its will.

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“Stop the Church” tries to do this through four of the classic tactics of the demagogue:

-- It uses ridicule--not humor, but ridicule--to mock the central act of Catholic worship, the Mass, and forms of Catholic piety such as the rosary, as absurdly medieval superstitions by which Catholic minds are warped and Catholic hearts hardened against human suffering.

-- It demonizes those with whom the producer disagrees. Cardinal John O’Connor of New York is denounced as a “fat cannibal” whose obsession is to “exterminate” homosexuals, and indeed anyone who is in opposition to the moral teaching of the Catholic Church. (In comparison to Cardinal O’Connor’s portrayal in “Stop the Church,” Barry Goldwater’s treatment by Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 TV ads was the quintessence of charity.)

-- It falsifies the empirical facts and it falsifies history. Its distortions of current Catholic pastoral practice and its abuse of religious art to suggest that homophobia is the core of Catholic self-understanding and Catholic moral teaching might be dismissed as so much ignorance, were they not driven home with such palpable rage and hatred, and with such an obvious attempt to cripple.

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-- Finally, “Stop the Church” is, in the strict sense of the term, an act of sacrilege. It celebrates the desecration of a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, perhaps the single most blatant act of anti-Catholic violence in modern American history. Every showing of the film continues that act of contempt over time.

Ridicule, demonology, deliberate falsification and desecration are inimical to democracy. They are inimical to real art. “Stop the Church” is not art. It is trash, and anti-democratic trash at that. If the word fascist had not been so abused by overuse, it would not be misplaced in this context.

KCET’s decision to air “Stop the Church” displayed not simply a regrettable boorishness about television-production values, but a disturbing disregard for civility and for the democratic discourse that only civility makes possible. Cardinal Roger Mahony’s protest against KCET’s decision was a protest on behalf of democratic civility. The support the cardinal has received from many Protestant and Jewish leaders happily illustrates one reassuring fact in this otherwise depressing episode: Care of the common good, care for civil discourse and care for democracy are thoroughly ecumenical and inter-religious in America today.

Perhaps the management of KCET (and that of its sister PBS affiliates in Boston, New York and San Francisco, which, alone among 321 such stations, aired this nasty piece of bigotry) might wish to spend some time reflecting on that--and on their own understanding of the decencies that make American pluralism, and American democracy, possible.

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