A chill wind

December 03, 2004

THE UNITED Church of Christ is a pretty mainstream American institution. The notion that the 1.3 million-member church would accept worshippers regardless of race, ethnicity, age, economic status or sexual orientation seems no worse than idealistic. (Or dare we say, downright Christian?) Yet, the church's new 30-second television ad promoting that idea has been rejected by two broadcast networks, CBS and NBC, as too controversial.

That's right: The idea of tolerance suddenly can't be tolerated.

Officials with the Cleveland-based church are understandably perplexed. The UCC is still going forward with its campaign - timed to run during the Advent Season - on other networks. In a statement, the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC's general minister, says he finds it ironic that after an election "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."

Amen.

The 30-second ad opens with a couple of burly bouncers in front of an unnamed church. They decline to let two men past the velvet ropes but do allow a well-dressed white man and woman. Some minorities are also refused. The announcer intones, "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we." The scene shifts to a happy and diverse assembly of people posing for a group photo. The announcer ends with, "No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here."

Still missing the controversy? A CBS official writes that "because this 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."

The lesson is clear: That chill you're feeling right now is the legacy of President Bush's re-election campaign. Our homophobia has reached such an extreme that being openly nice to them - or suggesting that others aren't - is strictly verboten. The networks don't want to offend red-staters. They've been scared into self-censorship, and that's scary indeed, because UCC tested the commercial last spring on local TV stations (including a total of 11 CBS and NBC affiliates) from Oklahoma City to York, Pa. How many complaints did they hear? Zero.

Maybe this is an isolated incident, and maybe a few network executives are just extra fearful on this issue. Maybe. But if such a fundamental tenet of Christianity can be deemed off-limits by networks running shows such as The Biggest Loser and Fear Factor, we have to wonder what kind of values the nation has embraced.

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