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December 6, 2004

Today Sunday Morning — Tomorrow, The World!

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Isn’t it just like (us) progressives to defend an advocacy ad embracing non-discrimination toward church-going gays and minorities?

The ad I’m referring to — for the United Church of Christ — was recently rejected for broadcast by several networks, including CBS, NBC and UPN. CBS and UPN determined that the ad was “too controversial” in light of the current gay marriage controversy. Citing similar concerns, NBC also worried about the reaction of other churches.

The ad shows a series of people — including a brown skinned young man, and a male gay couple an apparently male gay couple– being refused entry to a church by a couple of bouncers. It ends with a stage full of smiling people, including senior citizens, families and individuals of various minority groups, as well as a female gay couple two women with their arms around each other. There is a text overlay that reads: “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” It ends with a voice stating: “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

Before the election, I might have gotten swept up in the debate about “fairness.” Now, though, I’m more interested in the controversy as an early indicator of political and cultural shifts in the Bush II era.

This is my take:

I believe the ad represents a growing boldness on the part of organized religion to increase its visibility. Although designed to appeal to moderate to left-wing sensibilities, I think the commercial represents an inevitable encroachment on the part of the religious establishment into secular realms of thought and deliberation.

I think the ad represents the beginning of a move by religious institutions to gain more political power. The “identity campaign” (to build popular support, and neutralize criticism and scrutiny) is just a small part of the strategy. The larger, but less visible effort will involve a whole range of creatively-veiled acts of political patronage aimed at securing legislative influence. As the conservatives start to erode the barrier between church and state through dedicated and side-legislation (just look at all the crippling new restrictions they put on abortion services in the recent one week lame duck session — if you even heard anything about it), the big show the religious folks put on for Main Street will keep people from noticing the even bigger move to “K” Street.

I believe this push for visibility and power is going to cause a lot of friction among the houses of the Lord. I think we’re going to see a virtual “land grab” as religious institutions battle each other for “market share” in areas ranging from social services to health services to education. Having vanquished the Democrats, it makes sense that the rise in power will also bring internecine battles for a larger share of the spoils. You can already see it happening, as exemplified by today’s NYT article on the (family) fight over the Intelligence bill. (Personally, I couldn’t help reading the first line of the article over a few times. It begins: President Bush sought to stem a near-rebellion by members of his own party….).

Finally, I see this ad (along with others like it) signaling a new commercialization and “branding” of religion. Really, the true God in America is unchecked consumption. As such, I can envision the denominational powerhouses taking to the airwaves to assert themselves as the new “Chrysler’s,” “Ford’s,” and “Chevy’s” of the Bush II generation. In other words: welcome to the rise of the “Theological-Industrial Complex.” (By the way, with all the controversy over this “rejected” spot, you can’t tell me the ad people for the United Church of Christ aren’t thinking they’ve died and gone to heaven. Certainly, they are now guaranteed far more visibility than if the ad had been accepted.)

(…But, isn’t that the way the game goes, anyway? If all it takes for ABC and the NFL to get attention is Nicolette Sheridan and a towel, what’s to stop the church from getting it’s “fifteen minutes” by way of a couple gays and a bouncer?)

View the ad here.

(image: United Church of Christ — link)

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