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Since When Does Conflict Turn Off the Networks?

The Rev. Madison Shockley, minister of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, Calif., is a director of the Justice and Witness Ministries board of the Cleveland-based United Church of Christ.

For the season of Advent, the United Church of Christ had planned a nationwide television ad campaign extending an open welcome to all people, especially gays and lesbians. The message was simple: “Jesus didn’t turn people away; neither do we, the United Church of Christ.” The visuals dramatized people, including two men holding hands, being turned away by bouncers at the door of a church.

But the major networks wouldn’t air the ad. ABC was at least consistent: It never airs religious ads. NBC and CBS, however, said no because the ad was “too controversial” or was “advocacy.”

CBS stated that its policy prohibited advocacy ads on any questions of public debate -- in this case, gay marriage. But the ad neither says nor implies anything about gay marriage, only that “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome.” It cannot be that gay people attending church is a question of debate.

If advocacy is truly the objection, then ads from the armed services should also be banned because recruitment of soldiers is clearly advocacy for war.

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NBC, for its part, simply stated that the ad was too controversial. If so, then the news department should cover the story. We have been welcoming and ordaining gays and lesbians for decades, yet when we request coverage, the networks skip it because it’s not news. So, either let us buy the time to welcome people who feel excluded from some Christian churches or send news crews to our 6,000 churches. To neither cover us as news nor allow us to buy time because we’re too controversial is to deny us our freedom of speech and our freedom of religion.

Right-wing/fundamentalist Christianity has so dominated the media that many Americans don’t believe liberal/progressive Christianity even exists. The fundamentalist message is the de facto Christian message because such groups have the money to not only buy airtime but to have their own shows. And every time Jerry Falwell blames gays or feminists for society’s ills, he shows up on the news.

Some have suggested that the ad was inappropriate because it proselytizes. But we liberals don’t do evangelism. I like to call it “invitationalism.” It is simply our way of saying who we are and extending an invitation to anyone who has felt unwelcome in the Christian community.

Some TV network executives have alluded to the notion that the ad implies that other churches exclude some people. That is simply the plain history of Christian churches in our country. The commercial does not name names. But I will. Jimmy Carter resigned from his Southern Baptist church in 1976 because its constitution prohibited membership to blacks. It is a fact that gays have experienced rejection, exclusion and condemnation in a broad variety of “Christian” congregations. And Thursday, the Methodists “convicted” the Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud of being a lesbian; she faces defrocking.

This ad is our small effort to deliver a message of “extravagant welcome” to all people.


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