Forget the Colts and the Saints.
The real struggle this Super Bowl season is between The Network and The Church.
This year's brawl involves a fight between CBS and the United Church of Christ, only by extension featuring Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and his mom Pam. Pam, as all of America is learning, was pregnant with her fifth child and advised to have an abortion. She refused -- giving birth to a man who went on to win one of college football's most prestigious awards, becoming in the process, in the eyes of many, a genuine celebration of life. David N. Bass outlined the fury in terms of the pro-choice movement yesterday.
But there is another problem here. It seems the ad, sponsored by Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family, was accepted by CBS -- when CBS, not all that long ago, rejected a fairly innocuous ad from the United Church of Christ proclaiming the denomination's inclusivity when it comes to gays.
The fair and balanced people at Fox ran it, many others as well, but not CBS (or even NBC!)
As always, a disclaimer that I serve as both the president of my local UCC church and a board member of the Penn Central Conference -- and do not speak for either in this space.
It may startle the liberal national hierarchy of my denomination to know I believe the UCC has a case. A very good case.
Yes, it must be acknowledged that CBS gets to set its standards for accepting advertising. That is its right. And at a time when Americans feel a move is on to strip them of their rights, most prominently by taking away control of their health care, a TV network's right to choose its advertisers is a freedom that should be noted. But having a right -- and this particular right is a right tempered by the fact of access to airwaves owned by the public -- is a very different thing from having credibility.
Plainly put, CBS has no credibility on this.
Here's the ad that CBS rejected from the UCC in 2004.
As you can see, it's a very vanilla take on what the liberals running the church see as the denomination's inclusiveness. Nothing over the top, nothing offensive. Just the straight (so to speak) message that the UCC is inclusive, that, in the words of the UCC, "all people, including gay and lesbian people, should be welcome in the church." It takes no stand on same-sex marriage (although the national church leadership famously did so -- in favor -- in 2005, causing an internal firestorm, but that's another story.). The ad, in other words, is hardly earthshaking.
Yet for some reason, CBS put this benign ad (not submitted for a Super Bowl time period) in the same category as those infamous banned Super Bowl ads of years past. Remember those?
Let's see. There was the Ashley Madison ad that was promoting extra-marital affairs with the tag line "Who are you doing after the game?" The ad from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) depicting lingerie-clad women, none of them ugly, getting…ahhhh… "intimate" with vegetables. Remember the 2005 ad from GoDaddy.com that mocked the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction episode with a busty woman testifying before Congress as her top keeps sliding off? Or the cold remedy ad showing a bare-chested, towel-wrapped Mickey Rooney (he's not a kid anymore) in a sauna? That gem was pulled because the towel dropped briefly (!) exposing America to the long-ago child star's, um, then almost 90-year old butt. Yikes. Mr. Rooney turned 90 recently. God bless him… here's to keeping his pants on during the Super Bowl. Then there was the Snickers ad from 2007, which showed two guys working on a car when one suddenly stops and pulls out a Snicker bar. The other starts chomping on the free end, leading to an accidental kiss and the declaration they needed to go do something "manly." Gay groups got that one banned. In 2008, it was sexy models driving up in cars to some fictional big media event with live beavers in their laps (meant to be a visual joke on celebs Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, who at the time were in the tabloids for emerging from cars with, quite visibly to the paparazzi, no underwear) only to be followed by race car driver Danica Patrick, who proclaimed this not necessary and began unzipping her sporty GoDaddy.com top for photographers.
So. The United Church of Christ ad is in this category? Really? It's ridiculous on its face.
CBS, in accepting the Tebow ad because it apparently needs the bucks, has quite vividly exposed what many people on all sides of the political spectrum have long suspected: that the networks in fact have no "guideline" for advocacy ads, they just have biases. Making money -- or not losing money -- is at the top of that list. Understandably, that may be the only thing on their list, which under most circumstances is a good thing because making money provides exactly what Americans say they want most -- jobs. And whatever else one can say about the people working at CBS, it's good news they have jobs.
Yet clearly, from a financial standpoint, CBS reads the polls. As a matter of fact, CBS as a news organization also reports the polls, as it did when it reported a January 7, 2010 Gallup Poll that says 40% of Americans identify themselves as conservatives, 36% as moderates and only a meager 20% identify as liberals. It takes very little in the way of imagination to conclude that CBS executives, hard pressed financially, took one look at the CBS News reporting here and quickly realized a pro-life ad from a conservative organization that featured a Heisman Trophy winner and his pro-life Mom who took pro-choicers at their word and celebrates her choice was itself a sure ratings winner during the Super Bowl.
What troubles is that it takes even less imagination to realize that if those poll numbers were exactly reversed, with 40% of Americans calling themselves liberals to only a 20% score for conservatives -- and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning were both gay and living with a guy he said he wanted to marry -- the UCC would have had itself a network begging to run their ad and the Tim Tebow ad would be out in the cold with the ads featuring beavers, come-ons, and Mickey Rooney's bare butt.
Says the UCC's spokesman, our old sparring partner the Rev. J. Bennett Guess:
While CBS is reportedly saying that a bad economy now necessitates changes in its policy on so-called advocacy ads, this decision only underscores the arbitrary way the networks approach these decisions and the result is a woeful lack of religious diversity in our nation's media.
Rev. Guess has it exactly right here. CBS is playing a game, it is being arbitrary -- and not just with the UCC but with Focus on the Family and all the rest of us. Is the Tebow ad a good idea? Of course. The fact that a pro-life ad features such a compelling story is terrific. Good for Dr. Dobson for illustrating an important point in the culture wars.
But the real point here, once again, is decidedly not about abortion or gay rights or the substance of any other issue. It has nothing to do with Dr. Dobson or the UCC. It is, in fact, about the right of free expression. Not agreement with this, that, or the other idea expressed -- but the right to free expression itself. Which is to say in this case, free speech. The right to speak for those who are strongly pro-life -- and for those who do not agree. The right to speak for those who have a pro-same-sex marriage stance -- and for those who do not agree. The right to free speech is not the same as agreement. But if we're waiting for that day when 100% of the American people will agree on 100% of the issues out there -- it will be a long, very silent wait. I'm on Tim Tebow's side. I believe in traditional marriage. But never for a moment should those who believe otherwise be shut out of the debate.
When it comes to the right to free speech, the national UCC has itself not done well recently. Its efforts to censor or intimidate the free speech of commentators Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs and Bill O'Reilly with its "So We Might See" campaign were reported in detail here, here, here, and here.
The National Organization for Women, NARAL, and the Women's Media Center have hopped on the censorship train this time, shockingly -- and correctly -- being called to account by no less than the New York Times editorial page. Calling these groups "would-be censors" the Times states what should be obvious:
Instead of trying to silence an opponent, advocates for allowing women to make their own decisions about whether to have a child should be using the Super Bowl spotlight to convey what their movement is all about: protecting the right of women like Pam Tebow to make their private reproductive choices.
To hold to the same kind of double standard on speech as CBS is the only thing that weakens the UCC's case here. This continues to be an unnecessary struggle for the church hierarchy at the national level, as witness this from the Reverend Guess, also taken from his statement on CBS:
The issue for all of us should be why one religious viewpoint is continually accommodated by the TV networks when there is a common misunderstanding in this country that all religious people hold a monolithic view on certain issues, such as reproductive choice, such as homosexuality, and this is not the case.
Reverend Guess is simultaneously correct if disingenuous. Yes, there may be a "common misunderstanding" that assumes a religious monolith out there across the land, with difficulty perceiving the differences between faiths. Yet Rev. Guess himself is trying to imply something here that is also just not true. The fact is that the United Church of Christ itself does "not hold a monolithic view on certain issues, such as reproductive choice, such as homosexuality…"
To indicate otherwise, as Rev. Guess is trying to do here, simply doesn't represent the facts on the ground. Side-by-side in the UCC pews sit members who are pro-choice and pro-life, pro-same sex marriage and pro-traditional marriage. We have Obama supporters and Bush voters, liberals and conservatives, moderates and those who simply don't care about politics much at all. There are those who favor ObamaCare and those who are strongly opposed, those who love Rush and those who can't abide him. Which is to say, they are the children of God exercising precisely the human qualities of independence of thought and free speech that, to borrow a phrase from the Declaration of Independence, has been "endowed by their Creator." And by the way, the famous lead signature on the Declaration belongs to one of the more notable of lay leaders in the UCC's history -- John Hancock.
Independence of thought and free speech are in fact highly valued traditions within the UCC, springing precisely from the history that had the church's earliest leaders sent to the gallows for dissent.
There are no gallows for dissent in America today, in considerable part thanks to the earliest members of this church like Hancock and his fellow UCC layman John Adams, who helped frame the basic documents that protect our human rights. But there is a disturbing tendency, ironically, that has surfaced in the UCC leadership that is unwelcoming to dissent, that tries to give the impression they speak for all members on any manner of issues like abortion when in fact they can speak for none.
It is the same reasoning that is, in addition to finances, surely at the core of the CBS decision not to show the UCC ad. CBS is manifestly uncomfortable showing even the mildest of ads that implies tolerance for gays in the same fashion that Rev. Guess leads people to believe the UCC is manifestly uncomfortable admitting its ranks are filled with pro-lifers. The same dynamic, the same impulse -- to repress the uncomfortable Other and simply deny its existence -- is ironically present in the hierarchies of both network and church. This hyper-political correctness is seen repeatedly all over America in incidents as varied as denying Rush Limbaugh a chance to buy an ownership role of an NFL team, (grossly slandering him with made-up comments that he never uttered), the recent banning of Webster's dictionary from the Menifee, California school district because it contained offensive words and for that matter the banning of all manner of other books ranging from the Harry Potter series to John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.
The United Church of Christ should never be on the side of book banners and burners, of those who wish to hush-Rush or Drop Dobbs. All too easily the tables can be turned, which is exactly the effect of the CBS decision to ban the UCC ad.
CBS should have one crystal clear standard for those advocacy groups -- be it Dr. Dobson's Focus on the Family or the United Church of Christ -- who wish to pony up the bucks to advertise on national television.
At the moment, what CBS has is a standard -- a double standard. It might begin to make amends by finally running that UCC ad.
During the Super Bowl.
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