Watching the ad the first few times, I couldn't figure out what the fuss was about.
Paid by for the United Church of Christ, and running on a number of cable-TV channels, it shows two bouncers guarding the entrance to a church with a velvet rope. They let in a white couple and two white women, but reject a man in a wheelchair, two people who look vaguely black and Hispanic, and two guys who are together.
Then a voice intones: "No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here."
The ad seemed benign to me, a message about racial tolerance perhaps, and a warm and fuzzy assurance that the United Church of Christ is open to all. Yet it has sparked a controversy over what types of paid messages should be allowed on television and which are improperly advocating a political point of view. This one was rejected by all three of the major networks - by ABC because it doesn't air religious ads, and by CBS and NBC because they say it advocates acceptance of homosexuality at a time when the country is deeply divided over the issue and same-sex marriage in particular.
Frankly, I watched the ad at least a half-dozen times before I even picked up on the homosexual thing, and it doesn't mention gay marriage at all. Yet its perceived message sparked fear in the hearts of our increasingly squeamish TV network officials. CBS doesn't accept advocacy advertising, I was told, and currently there's a huge national debate going on over whether homosexuality should be condoned. One network official described the United Church of Christ to me as if it were a sinister organization trying to force its radical views on the nation.
The United Church of Christ folks say they couldn't be more surprised by all the fuss. "It's not about gay marriage," Barbara Powell, a church spokeswoman said of the ad. "It's not about gay issues or about any particular issues except a church being welcoming." Powell said the ad's purpose was to reach out to non-churchgoers who have felt excluded by established religion - because of their age, the way they dress, some physical disability, and, yes, because they're homosexual. Which seems like a perfectly benign goal to me.
The only reason I can see for CBS' and NBC's rejection of the ad is that after a year of emotional battles over same-sex marriage, a presidential campaign marked by ugly ads, and revelations about the role that moral values played in George W. Bush's re-election, the networks are more paranoid than ever about offending anyone. And the fact that this is an administration that panders to religious conservatives is probably influencing them as well.
After all, the United Church of Christ is no left-wing cult. It's a mainstream Protestant denomination with 1.3 million members. It does ordain homosexual ministers and has championed the rights of homosexuals, but has taken no official position on same-sex marriage.
Having been reared in a black Baptist church in the South, I can testify to the Christian church's split-personality on the homosexuality issue. My own church preached - and still does - that homosexuality was a sin, would never have considered ordaining a gay man and rarely even ordained women. Yet it could never have put together a decent choir, manned a church governing board or enjoyed the financial resources that it did without the contributions of its homosexual members. Christians may struggle with whether homosexuality is a sin, but the essence of the faith is its belief in accepting people in spite of their weaknesses and moral failings, as long as they accept Jesus Christ.
And while Americans in general are torn over the issue of same-sex marriage, more and more we've come to believe that homosexuals deserve to be treated fairly in all walks of life. The United Church of Christ ad seems to me to be in that spirit. And the network executives are wimps for refusing to air it.
© 2004 Newsday, Inc.