The Bible in Rolling Stone: Have the media seen the light?

Sunday, January 30, 2005

A perfect storm was brewing in the culture wars two weeks ago when Rolling Stone magazine rejected an advertisement for a new translation of the Bible. A magazine spokesman described the problem as the “spiritual message” in the ad, an apparent reference to the words “timeless truth in today’s language.”

As soon as word got out that the Word was out, Jerry Falwell was quick to warn of “a burgeoning atmosphere of repression when it comes to issues of faith.”

A story in The Washington Times described Rolling Stone as inconsistent, pointing to an ad in the current issue selling a T-shirt with a drawing of Jesus and the message “put down the drugs and come get a hug.” (But since that ad promises T-shirts that “will make you laugh so hard you’ll flat-line,” maybe it doesn’t qualify as a spiritual message.)

Just as the hard rain of criticism began to fall, Rolling Stone ran for cover this week and agreed to accept the ad, telling USA TODAY that it was all a problem of “internal miscommunications.”

What’s remarkable about this story is that it’s a story at all. As far as I can tell, Rolling Stone has never carried ads with religious messages — and no one has ever noticed or cared. And Bible publishers haven’t heretofore targeted the rock ‘n’ roll demographic. But the recent infusion of religion in American public life may change all that.

Now that Rolling Stone has seen the light, selling religion in the secular media may be the last taboo to fall in this anything-goes-era of marketing campaigns. After all, if ads about incontinence and erectile dysfunction are no longer deemed controversial or offensive, can the Bible be far behind?

Many media outlets — especially the major networks — are sure to resist this trend. Look at last month’s brouhaha over the refusal of NBC and CBS to air a commercial from the United Church of Christ. In the ad, a number of people, including two men holding hands, are turned away from a generic church — but accepted by the UCC. The tag line: “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.”

It turns out that CBS and NBC are actually willing to broadcast religious ads — but only if they aren’t controversial (which would seem to eliminate many religious messages). ABC doesn’t air any religious advertising.

Is the reluctance to accept religious commercials part of a longstanding hostility to religion in the secular media, what Falwell describes as “absolute secularism that prohibits the religious community from participating in the free flow of cultural ideas”?

Probably not. A more likely explanation is that many media leaders are afraid that competing religious messages will offend or anger readers and viewers — and thus affect the bottom line. The Bible may be the best-selling book of all time, but it’s invoked by all sides — from Falwell to the UCC — in our culture-war battles. The conventional media wisdom appears to be: Let this sleeping dog lie.

Media executives know their audience. Polls taken over the years show that many Americans are wary of public arguments over religion. But the numbers are changing, according to a survey released this month by Public Agenda.

In 2000, 18% of Americans surveyed said that deeply religious people should keep their faith private; 46% said people should be very careful about “spreading the word of God” so as not to offend others — for a 64% majority. In 2004, that combined number dropped to 57%. Meanwhile, the percentage of people surveyed who said the deeply religious “should spread the word of God whenever they can” is up from 35% to 41%.

Of course, the media are free to accept or refuse religious ads for any reason or for no reason. Any government effort to force media outlets to accept faith-based messages would violate freedom of the press under the First Amendment.

But there’s also something called the spirit of the First Amendment — a commitment to the free exchange of ideas in our nation’s public square. When media outlets exclude religion, they aren’t keeping faith with the American people.

Would more religious commercials open a Pandora’s box of religious conflicts and debates? Perhaps. But trying to keep the lid on sends a message of censorship. Besides, it no longer works (just ask Rolling Stone).

It may be risky to open the media forum — but the greater risk to freedom is to keep people out. Somewhere in the definition of a “free press” should be the civic obligation to let the voices be heard.

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