Pardon the interruption

printingpress 01 01As some of you have noticed, we are currently having some technical difficulties. This has required us to turn off the comments sections of the blog. Our tech friends at hope to have matters straightened out by Monday or thereabouts. So we’ll take today off and, maybe, swing back into action late Sunday with comments about religion coverage in the weekend editions.

Hang in there with us. Cyberspace can be complicated, sometimes.

Oh, what the heck.

Did anyone else see that “Blessed be the Bloggers” story in the Raleigh News and Observer? On one level, it’s a short feature about the role that blogs are playing in all kinds of denominations, from totally free-church Protestantism to American Catholicism. But it opens with a very concrete test case that deserves more inspection — the role of bloggers in the minor earthquake at the recent Southern Baptist Convention.

Reporter Yonat Shimron opens the door, but it doesn’t look like her editors gave her the room she needed to flesh out this major story.

Blogs give ordinary people a pulpit and make clergy one of a crowd. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the weeks leading up to the Southern Baptist Convention, held last week at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. In recent years, the convention of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination has offered up unchallenged candidates for the presidency.

But this year, many Southern Baptists were unhappy with the endorsed candidate, the Rev. Ronnie Floyd of Springdale, Ark. The bloggers among them got online and vented. By the time delegates — called “messengers”– arrived in Greensboro, they were ready to give challenger [Frank] Page their vote. It’s impossible to say how many of the messengers actually read any of the blog entries. But there was no question the bloggers created a buzz.

Actually, the “moderates” over at Associated Baptist Press had this story going into the convention. Click here to see their story on the rising tide of Baptist bloggers. And, of course, I mentioned this angle here at GetReligion in my post on the surprise election of Page. Since then I’ve continued to receive emails from old Baptist sources of mine about the blogging hooks in this story.

No doubt about it. There’s a story in there that affects everybody from the Southern Baptists to the Episcopalians. As the old saying goes: Freedom of the press belongs to people who own one.

I hope ours is back up and running very soon. See you in the comments pages in a day or two.

Print Friendly

Name of the mainline game is “local option”

rainbow altarIn the end, it was the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that made the biggest news on the front lines of the liturgical culture wars this week. However, it should be noted that the most important action taken by the oldline Presbyterians was to adopt precisely the option that the Episcopalians have been using for quite some time now.

The name of the game is “local option,” meaning that officials in blue pews get to read the Bible (and the denomination’s own teachings) in a way that allows them to move foward on issues such as the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians and the creation — semi-officially, of course — of church rites to celebrate same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, people in red pews get to keep believing what they have believed for centuries and, of course, they get to keep sending in their pledge dollars to support national agencies that act as if basic points of doctrine and moral theology are moot, even if they remain on the books.

This is called compromise. The problem is that there are true believers — on the left and the right — who keep acting as if they believe they are actually right and that there is such a thing as truth and that it should be defended. It’s the people in the middle who keep asking: What is truth? It’s the people in the middle who want to wrap their seminaries and pension funds in a protective layer of doctrinal fog. And that’s the story that is hardest to write, because it is impossible to say that one side lost and the other side won.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been poised to make this leap for 30 years, while watching the people in its pews age and its statistics slide as traditional believers drift away to other churches. Here is how religion-beat veteran David Anderson summed up the story for Religion News Service:

The nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination, in a seismic shift on the role of gays and lesbians in the church, voted on Tuesday (June 20) to allow local and regional bodies to ordain gays to the church’s ministries.

After nearly three hours of debate, delegates voted 298 to 221 to approve a complex proposal that allows local congregations and regional bodies known as presbyteries to bypass the church’s current ban on “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. Current rules from 1996 that require “fidelity in marriage … and chastity in singleness” will remain on the books, but local bodies can now allow exceptions to those standards if they wish.

The question now is: What happens next?

Once local option is in place, any attempt to overthrow it is viewed by the establishment as an intolerant attempt to create schism. This is precisely the stage of the game facing traditional Anglicans who remain in what has now formally been named The Episcopal Church, as opposed to the old name, which was the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. What does this name change mean? Is this the formation of a new, multinational church that will sooner or later stand opposite the Anglican Communion? That’s a good question.

But I digress. Back to the mainline Presbyterians, a shrinking flock already rocked by $9.15 million in budget cuts at the home office in Louisville. As Richard Ostling wrote in the main Associated Press story, the move to “local option” on hot issues is a bold and even courageous move, if one is a progressive who depends on offerings from conservative pews.

Consider the dice rolled.

The Presbyterian establishment, including all seminary presidents and many officials, promoted the local autonomy plan, which was devised by a special task force. The idea is to grant modest change to liberals but mollify conservatives by keeping the sexual law on the books.

It’s not clear whether that will work.

“We have been painfully aware that in some ways our greatest challenge was not preparing for this assembly but preparing for what happens after this assembly,” the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, chief executive at denominational headquarters, told delegates after the votes.

So what are the key issues affected by “local option”? Issues linked to homosexuality get all the headlines, of course. But there are other sexual issues that are — behind the scenes — just as controversial. What about the status of premarital sex? How about adultery? Why are conservatives so slow to talk about divorce and the Bible?

I’ve been covering this story since the early 1980s and, long ago, I came up with three basic questions that I always ask when covering battles in oldline pews. Some of you will say that these questions are rooted in my own bias and beliefs. I can honestly say that I can justify them as a journalist because they are the questions that, for me, have always led to the most revealing questions, the most interesting quotes. Here they are.

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Was this a real — even if mysterious — event in real time? Did it really happen?

saint john the divine 20021214(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Is Jesus the Way or a way? Thus, it was highly symbolic that the Episcopalians tabled a resolution declaring the church’s “unchanging commitment to Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the only name by which any person may be saved” and acknowledging “the solemn responsibility placed upon us to share Christ with all persons when we hear His words, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). …”

(3) Is sex outside of the sacrament of marriage a sin? The question is a matter of moral theology, not national policy. The controversial word is sin.

Want to find out who is a true liberal and who is a waffling conservative? Who is a person who worships the institutional church and its pension fund? Want to see the full scope of “local option”? Ask those three questions. I have asked those questions in press conferences and seen bishops simply refuse to answer.

OK, here’s a bonus question: Should the (insert name of mainline Protestant flock here) ban the worship, by name, of other gods at its altars? That’s a hot one, especially at seminaries with covens.

“I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have none other gods but me.”

Well, that depends on the zip code. “Local option” is a powerful thing.

P.S. If you want a gigantic collection of links to MSM reports on the events of the past week, click here and head over to the Christianity Today weblog.

If you want to see veteran London Times correspondent Ruth Gledhill look ahead, attempting to read the mind of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, then click here. Here’s a sample of what she hopes he is thinking:

As a Welshman who by instinct supports a degree of antidisestablishmentarianism, I would privately welcome the opportunity to dismantle the old system of fixed parochial, diocesan and provincial boundaries and set about doing so. I would do this while ensuring that my office remained the “focus for unity” for the worldwide Church, thus making me a kind of Anglican Pope. Without any real power. Which I don’t want anyway, so that’s all right.

I would contemplate once more some of the liberal principles I had when first I took office. I would find some way of reassuring the liberals who have deserted me as I strive for truth and unity that I may still hold those views, albeit privately. I would tell them that in a deconstructed globalised Church, parishes and dioceses would be at liberty to seek episcopal and primatial oversight from almost whomever they wished. There would be room for Episcopalians and Anglicans, and everyone could focus then on promoting the message of Christ. Or Christa.

Print Friendly

Does the G in PG stand for God?

ftgmovieposterfinaltweakTwo weeks ago, I wrote a little column for Scripps Howard about a little movie called Facing the Giants that seems to have started a little controversy. I have given up trying to predict when people are going to react to a column. You know?

Anyway, I’ve been on a radio show or two and done interviews with Variety and the Los Angeles Times (more on that in a moment). I don’t want to replay the whole mini-drama, but the news hook is that the Motion Picture Association of America has given this ultra-low-budget film — which comes from a Southern Baptist congregation in Albany, Ga. — a PG rating because it contains “thematic elements” that might trouble some parents.

Ah, but what are the troubling thematic elements? Here is what I wrote:

“What the MPAA said is that the movie contained strong ‘thematic elements’ that might disturb some parents,” said Kris Fuhr, vice president for marketing at Provident Films, which is owned by Sony BMG. Provident plans to open the film next fall in 380 theaters nationwide with the help of Samuel Goldwyn Films, which has worked with indie movies like “The Squid and the Whale.”

Which “thematic elements” earned this squeaky-clean movie its PG?

“Facing the Giants” is too evangelistic.

The MPAA, noted Fuhr, tends to offer cryptic explanations for its ratings. In this case, she was told that it “decided that the movie was heavily laden with messages from one religion and that this might offend people from other religions. It’s important that they used the word ‘proselytizing’ when they talked about giving this movie a PG. … It is kind of interesting that faith has joined that list of deadly sins that the MPAA board wants to warn parents to worry about.”

Now, according to a story by Jim Puzzanghera of the Times, the MPAA has been swamped in emails — 15,000 or so — protesting this rating. That’s 10 times the previous record and, sure enough, this mini-revolt has even spread to Capitol Hill, where there are people who know a good fundraising letter headline when they see one.

… (The) third-ranking House Republican has written to MPAA Chief Executive Dan Glickman demanding answers.

“This incident raises the disquieting possibility that MPAA considers exposure to Christian themes more dangerous for children than exposure to gratuitous sex and mindless violence,” said Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

The MPAA rarely discusses its decisions about ratings, electing to work in a cloud of mystery. This is, I think, a strange way of doing business in the age of the Internet and all of its helpful niche reference materials. However, Puzzanghera did get a response.

Joan Graves, chairwoman of the MPAA’s rating board, said Tuesday that the decision had nothing to do with Christianity but was based on football violence as well as the inclusion of mature topics such as depression and infertility. In a rare interview granted in an attempt to defuse what she calls a controversy born of miscommunication, Graves said that although infertility and depression are involved in the coach’s “crisis of faith,” the religious story line itself did not raise a red flag.

“If we see somebody on the screen practicing their faith and indicating they have a faith, that’s not something we PG,” Graves said. …

“We think our rating is correct,” she said of “Facing the Giants.” “I think it gives parents an alert that there may be something in the film they’d want to know about.”

cast granttaylorFrankly, I think the PG rating is fine, if the MPAA is going to be consistent. If the goal is to warn parents about movies that contain scenes that may offend a sizable number of modern Americans, then Facing the Giants should get a PG rating. There are tons of secular and liberal people out there who, if they wandered into a theater without a warning, would be very offended by this movie’s in-your-face evangelistic content.

So when Puzzanghera and others have asked me what I think of this application of the PG rating, I have tried to give them a three-part answer. (1) I think the rating is appropriate. (2) I agree that there are legions of parents, some of them with lawyers, who would be offended by the pro-Jesus material in the film. However, I also think that (3) the MPAA now faces the challenge — if it wants to be consistent — of applying this standard to other films.

But that is a big “if.” Will other world religions be considered equally offensive? Vague environmental pantheism, perhaps? How about political viewpoints that would offend many parents? If the MPAA is worried about offending blue-zip-code parents, will it also strive to protect the children of red-zip-code parents?

I think that’s an interesting story and, you know, I may just have to write that one myself. So far, other journalists have not been very interested in that angle. Maybe my three-part answer is too nuanced for a headline or a sound bite. You think? It doesn’t work on religious talk radio and it also flopped with the Los Angeles Times. I’ll let you know what Variety ends up running.

Print Friendly

About the best job in the world

merryn baptism2I am blessed and honored to have nine godchildren (that’s me with one of them and her mum). Oh how I love them, and I take my vows very seriously. As a Lutheran, being a baptismal sponsor means I am to pray for them daily, and assist with and ensure their catechesis. I am closer to some than others, but they all are the subject of my prayers. Having these godchildren is a huge part of my life. As such, I was so pleased to see a religion reporter write about being a godparent.

Mark Pinsky, of the Orlando Sentinel, uses Reynolds Price’s new book Letter to a Godchild as a hook to explore the views of local parents and godparents:

Godparenting has its roots in the early church, when adults being baptized had a sponsor who guaranteed their good character, according to Elaine Ramshaw, author of The Godparent Book and numerous articles on the subject. Children were first sponsored by their parents, but about the sixth century, nonparents replaced parents as sponsors, although it is not clear why this shift occurred.

Today, the honor of godparent still is usually bestowed during a baptism, although for non-Christians it can be an informal arrangement.

The limitations of the article are evident in that last paragraph. Being a Christian godparent is very different from being a special adult friend who is called a godparent — but Pinsky throws both groups together. Still, he does a good job of showing how it works in the Christian faith:

Michael and Leanne Brunton had several concerns when looking for prospective godparents. They wanted a local family, not too old, who could take care of their sons if anything happened to them. But they also wanted a couple who share their strong Southern Baptist beliefs.

“We looked for somebody who would raise them in the same faith as my husband and I,” says Leanne, 32.

Their choices were Teri and Emmett Hummel, who they knew from First Baptist Church of Orlando.

“They are a very strong Christian couple, a very strong, godly couple,” Leanne says.

Of course, at this point I’m thinking there is a further distinction that would be interesting to explore: the difference between godparents who are present (or asked to be present) at an infant’s baptism and those who are chosen by people who don’t baptize infants. When do the parents ask people to be godparents if it’s not related to baptism? If the Baptist parents do wait until their children are baptized at an older age, how does that work? I’m full of questions and wish that Pinsky had the time or space to look into this. I demand a follow-up!

Print Friendly

Goodbye to the White House evangelical

gersonThe departure of President Bush’s close adviser and longtime speechwriter Michael Gerson ends an era in which an evangelical Christian had unprecedented access and influnce in shaping American foreign and domestic policy. Thanks to Gerson’s humility, he never came close to receiving the attention from journalists of the likes of Karen Hughes and Karl Rove, but few were as influential.

Fortunately, a few journalists were smart enough to spot the influence of Gerson, particularly Carl Canon in this National Journal cover story, which received a Aldo Beckman Award for repeated excellent White House reporting, and Jeffrey Goldberg in a New Yorker profile that received a high level of attention. Appropriately, his exit is receiving attention from Washington’s heavyweights:

Here’s The Washington Post‘s Peter Baker:

Michael J. Gerson, one of President Bush’s most trusted advisers and the author of nearly all of his most famous public words over the past seven years, plans to step down in the next couple of weeks in a decision that colleagues believe will leave a hole in the White House at a critical period.

Gerson said in an interview that he has been talking with Bush for many months about leaving for writing and other opportunities but waited until the White House political situation stabilized somewhat. “It seemed like a good time,” he said. “Things are back on track a little. Some of the things I care about are on a good trajectory.”

Since first joining the presidential campaign as chief speechwriter in 1999, Gerson has evolved into one of the most central figures in Bush’s inner circle, often considered among the three or four aides closest to the president. Beyond shaping the language of the Bush presidency, Gerson helped set its broader direction.

The WaPo article was a bit more thorough than the New York Times piece, but that’s to be expected. I did have one small beef with the Baker piece, though, in his reference to Gerson’s sharing Bush’s “conservative Christian faith.”

Gerson stood out in a White House known for swagger. A somewhat slight, pale, bespectacled and soft-spoken Midwesterner, he nonetheless forged a strong bond with the outgoing, backslapping Texan president, in part through their shared conservative Christian faith. He found a way to channel Bush’s thoughts, colleagues said, transforming a sometimes inarticulate president into an occasionally memorable speaker.

I won’t contest Bush’s conservatism or Christian faith, nor will I contest either for Gerson. But it’s just not that simple, as Cannon’s profile clearly demonstrates:

Gerson, in what amounted to a self-directed continuing education, had been immersing himself in Catholic social thought, to try to understand the intellectual underpinnings of these issues. (He currently attends the Falls Church, an evangelical Episcopal church in suburban Virginia that was organized in 1734; George Washington served there as a warden.) Gerson had also been studying how Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services delivered services to those in need. And Bush — in part because of Colson’s work in Texas’s prisons — had become a convert to the idea that government could work in concert with faith-based programs.

“Catholics have long believed that the state has a role to play in alleviating poverty, but that this is not necessarily a role it plays directly,” says Catholic scholar Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “What has happened in the U.S. is that Protestants have embraced this — first with school vouchers, and later with prison outreach, poverty, and other issues. It’s a growing alliance between Protestants and Catholics to help the less fortunate, and Mike Gerson is at the intersection of these two traditions coming together.”

Does description of Gerson’s faith dovetail with what we know of Bush’s faith and politics? That’s a difficult question because much of Bush’s personal faith and its connection to his politics is relatively shrouded by political necessity. Perhaps we will learn more once Bush has left office, but until then, the comparison cannot be made.

It’s clear that Gerson stood out in the White House. It’s not so clear that he and Bush necessarily saw eye-to-eye on everything Christian and conservative. I believe it would be more accurate to say that Gerson’s conservative Christianity influenced Bush just as Karl Rove’s cutthroat politics influenced him.

To wrap up, I’d like to say that without Gerson, one cannot imagine the course of the Bush presidency. Gerson turned Bush into one of the most articulate presidents of all time at various points in the last five-plus years.

Where would Bush be without Gerson? I point you to the White House transcript of a press conference held Wednesday:

Q: Is the tide turning in Iraq?

THE PRESIDENT: I think — tide turning — see, as I remember — I was raised in the desert, but tides kind of — it’s easy to see a tide turn — did I say those words?

President Bush is already missing Mike Gerson.

Print Friendly

Daaaaaaaaa-dum. Da-dum. Da-dum. (continue)

PassionLastSupperWell folks, I really don’t know what to say about this news except: Cue the theme from Jaws. Let’s go straight to the Hollywood Reporter story by Paul Bond, which I am amazed has not inspired more coverage. Where is Frank Rich?

The bottom line — literally — is that Sony Pictures is attempting to appeal to the evangelical slice of the mainstream audience that flocked to The Passion of the Christ by making a sequel about the events after the resurrection.

Who are the key players? Wait for it:

Using the Bible for its source material, “Resurrection” will tell the story of Jesus Christ beginning the day he died on the cross and ending about 40 days later with his ascension into heaven. According to insiders, Sony’s mid-budget Screen Gems division commissioned a script several months ago from Lionel Chetwynd, the veteran screenwriter, producer and director whose credits include the feature “The Hanoi Hilton” and the Emmy-nominated TV movie “Ike: Countdown to D-Day.”

Set to produce is Tim LaHaye, co-author of the best-selling “Left Behind” series of books. A popular minister and frequent TV news pundit, “Resurrection” will mark LaHaye’s first foray into mainstream filmmaking.

Now, we know that the words “Mel Gibson” freaked out a lot of folks on the left coast. However, his name also thrilled a lot of people who were excited that a heavyweight, A-list talent was going to make a serious film about Holy Week. Gibson is a love-him or hate-him kind of man, but no one doubted his talent and his commitment to quality. He had that Braveheart thing going for him, after all.

But Tim “Left Behind” LaHaye? His involvement will excite many on the Christian right, but it will also — needless to say — raise questions about artistic merits of the project. I mean, is this a direct-to-video project?

It is possible that this movie will not cause controversy. It is also possible that it will. Bond’s short report noted:

The film will focus on these dramatic encounters and their implications for the Roman garrison in Judea and the broader Roman Empire, insiders said.

“This is not a fanciful rendering. It’s a serious attempt to understand the Roman world in which Christ moved and the Christian era was born,” a person familiar with the project said.

Does “the broader Roman Empire” include the complex and divided world of the Jewish authorities of that day? It goes without saying that LaHaye’s beliefs may also raise concerns among Jewish groups, especially on the cultural left.

Meanwhile, it is clear that The Passion raised issues in Hollywood that are not going away anytime soon.

After all, the crew at Entertainment Weeklywhich is known (cough, cough) for its mainstream views on religion — has just named Gibson’s bloody epic as the single most controversial film of all time.

That’s right, hotter than The Message by Moustapha Akkad, which offered a take on the origins of Islam that lead to riots and terrorism. Hotter than the epic racism of The Birth of a Nation. Hotter than JFK, Deep Throat, Fahrenheit 9/11, A Clockwork Orange and, of course, The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese. And EW thought that Gibson’s film was way, way more controversial than that historic film Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl that helped build the legend of a secular messianic figure of some importance — Adolf Hitler.

It’s safe to say that anything hailed as Passion 2 will cause a bit of heat among the powers that be in the world of entertainment.

Print Friendly

Southern Baptists hit the highways — again

dbc buses lineThe year was 1979, the place was the Astrodome in Houston and, for legions of Southern Baptists on the left side of the nation’s largest non-Catholic flock, what took place there forever changed how they looked at church buses.

Church buses? You know, those slow-moving vans and school buses that you pass on highways during the summer-choir-tour and youth-camp season that have church names hand-painted on their sides.

The old ruling elite of the Southern Baptist Convention was in firm control until church buses started rolling into the Astrodome parking lots packed with “messengers” — the convention does not have “delegates” — from churches that wanted to see their national boards and seminaries take a strong turn to the right. It was a landmark event in the history of American evangelicalism and the rise of what would soon be called the Religious Right. The buses were crucial, because they allowed thousands of Southern Baptists who had never played a role in convention politics to roll into the city on the day of the vote and swing the election. How many Baptists live within a six-hour drive of Houston? You don’t want to know.

I bring this up for a simple reasons. It appears that waves of church buses played a major role in the surprise election of the Rev. Frank S. Page of Taylors, S.C., as the new leader of the nation’s 16 million or so Southern Baptists during the current meetings in Greensboro, N.C. How many Southern Baptists are there in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia? You don’t want to know. It also pays to know that these states contain a high percentage of Southern Baptists who are conservative, but not as wedded to the new ruling elite that traces its reign to the events of 1979.

The New York Times sent reporter John DeSantis to cover the convention and, in a short report, he captured some of what went down. He also did a good job of avoiding the usual labels used in this kind of coverage — “moderate” and “fundamentalist.” Truth is, it appears that this election turned on factors other than the usual wars over the Bible and social issues. Here is the key section of that story:

… Page and his supporters said his election, on the first ballot on the first full day of the annual meeting of convention, did not mean that the nation’s largest Protestant denomination would change its views on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion that the three candidates generally opposed. “I do not want anyone to think I am out to undo a conservative movement,” Dr. Page told reporters after his election. …

Page said although his election did not mean that the church was moderating, it certainly meant that change was in the wind. “I believe in the Word of God,” he said. “I am just not mad about it. Too long Baptists have been known for what we are against. Please let us tell you what we are for.”

The Times report also noted that Page drew stronger than suspected support — think church buses again — from people who have previously been on the fringes of the convention’s life.

bus mirrorThis is one of those cases where the nation’s newspaper of record simply could not offer the kind of nuanced reporting that readers would find in niche media. This is especially true for Southern Baptists, since this giant body is actually served by two wire services — Baptist Press (click here for a Page Q&A), representing the establishment, and Associated Baptist Press, which is operated by the progressives, “moderates” or, in some cases, true liberals who have been pushed to the margins since 1979.

The ABP report by veteran Greg Warner includes some fascinating details. The losing candidates, for example, had strong endorsements from the aging leaders of the 1979 movement. Is there division there now?

It is also crucial that only 11,346 messengers were registered at the time of the vote to elect the new president. This meant that voters in the region — driving in from nearby churches to vote for a South Carolinian — were in a position to swing the election.

And Warner also caught this crucial detail about the role of cyberspace:

Page agreed the bloggers, a new phenomenon in SBC politics, made a difference. While the bloggers are few in number, he said, “I think there are a large number of leaders who do read those blogs. I think they played a role beyond their number — perhaps an inordinant amount of influence given their number — but they are a growing phenomenon in Southern Baptist life.”

So two kinds of highways were crucial — concrete and digital. Outsiders have more clout when they have their own printing presses (so to speak).

This election was a blend of the past and the future. Stay tuned.

Print Friendly

Preachers and pornographers unite

remoteKudos to The Washington Post for picking up this Religion News Service article by Piet Levy on the problems religious broadcasters see with à la carte cable plans. The subject has been around for awhile. It has received heavy coverage in publications such as National Journal‘s Technology Daily and a segment on NPR’s On the Media, but mainstream press coverage has been scant.

It’s an excellent look into how Washington lobbying works. You would think that religious broadcasters would be thrilled with the idea of consumers being able to choose what cable channels they receive, but this is surprisingly not the case:

The fear among Christian broadcasters is that a proposal to allow consumers to reject MTV or Comedy Central would also allow them to drop the Trinity Broadcasting Network or Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. Cutting off that access could hurt religious broadcasters.

“We do not believe that ‘a la carte’ is the cure for the disease,” said Colby May, attorney for the Faith and Family Broadcasting Coalition, which represents Trinity and CBN, in addition to other stations. “In fact, it is a cure that may very well kill the patient.”

Evangelical and family groups support the concept of “a la carte” cable legislation, which would allow cable users to subscribe only to the networks of their choice.

The article does an adequate job of explaining the two cable channels’ fears other than possibly losing viewers. Religious broadcasters are worried that they will end up “witnessing to the choir” and that channel-surfers will lose out on conversion experiences.

cable dishThis is definitely a concern, but what to do about viewers who want to receive family-friendly channels such as ESPN and CNN but want to avoid FX, Spike TV and Comedy Central? Well, here’s the answer:

“That’s why we have remote controls,” [Michael Goodman, media analyst for the Yankee Group] said. “If you don’t want to see it, turn the channel. Or if you really don’t want to see it, use the parental controls.”

But [Lanier Swann of Concerned Women for America] said because many children are more tech-savvy than their parents, it is simply not enough. Besides, she said, the main problem is that cable subscribers are required to pay for material that they find objectionable.

In an effort to appease critics, the two main cable providers, Time Warner and Comcast, announced “family tier” packages late last year that carry only what they construe to be family-appropriate stations, such as the Disney Channel, Discovery Kids, the Food Network and CNN Headline News. But the critics are still upset.

“The ‘family tier’ system is a straw man designed to fail,” Swann said. “. . . I don’t think we need the same individuals who promote, produce and air the type of programming we’re trying to avoid to be allowed to define what is family-friendly.”

I wonder whether FX and Spike TV are equally concerned. I would think they wouldn’t have the same “preaching to the choir” concerns, but are they worried about losing audiences?

As a consumer I want to control what I pay for. I don’t like paying for Lifetime and the other two dozen channels I never watch, but I also understand the concerns of the television evangelists, not only from a financial perspective, but also from a, well, evangelistic perspective.

I guess the next question is whether government policy is supposed to be directed to support religious goals. President Bush’s much heralded faith-based initiatives would seem to say that yes, government action can encourage religious activity, but I know more than a few groups that would strongly disagree with that ideology.

Print Friendly