Political extremists and religious zealots sometimes do us a good turn. They get our attention by dramatically depicting problems that need urgent attention. But unfortunately they often come up with the wrong solutions.
For instance, morality cannot be legislated or litigated (nor should it be) by sanitizing courts and pledging judges to ''Christian'' values. At the same time, censorship of books and movies won't quell baser instincts. And even if it did, such government-imposed bans raise serious questions of abridgment of constitutional guarantees of free speech.
Values are preserved and nurtured not merely by striking down old laws and substituting new ones, but by fully utilizing the free democratic process to focus on problems and come up with thoughtful, reasoned solutions.
A study commission of the National Council of Churches (NCC) appears to be tackling sex and violence in television and films in just this way. And it is to be commended for its approach. The NCC has launched a year-long investigation of the issue; it recently held a first set of public hearings in New York. Others are planned for next year in Los Angeles and Washington.
The Rev. Dr. James M. Wall, the project chairman and editor of The Christian Century, explains that this endeavor is ''the first religious national study to seriously examine problems presented by sex and violence in the communications media and at the same time dedicated to preserving the constitutional freedom of speech.''
Quite an order! Is it really possible to curb sex and violence in the movies and on television without abridging individual rights?
The NCC's study group thinks it is. And so far, witnesses at its hearings have recommended, among other things, public education that not only emphasizes ''critical viewing'' but focuses on raising individual consciousness; the employment of more women and minorities by the TV industry; and exploration of ways to make the visual media more financially accountable to viewers and less dependent on advertising revenues.
The sad statistics show that sex and violence on television are expanding - even during prime-time, family-oriented programming periods. And these elements are coming into an increasing number of homes via videotaped programs, cable TV, and rented films.
What's more, ''aggressive pornography'' - including male-dominated ''slasher'' films - are reinforcing a callous attitude toward women, rape, and violence, University of Wisconsin researcher Edward Donnerstein told the commission. In fact, some films depict women responding positively to pain and suffering, Dr. Donnerstein points out.
Another witness, George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, says that television has created a ''mean and violent world'' and cultivated a pattern of inequality and domination. Professor Gerbner explains that women, ethnic minorities, the poor, the uneducated, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to television's ''mean-world syndrome.''
Researchers are not quick to assert a direct causal relationship between television or movie violence and ''real world'' crime, however. And some media officials urge the NCC and others looking into this issue to look more for reasons behind public acceptance of this kind of betrayal in the media.
Perhaps public attitudes and the lure of the lurid need to be explored. But this should not become an excuse for letting movie and television producers off the hook. There is ample evidence that media violence, including the depicting of sexual domination of women, does not promote healthy attitudes and that it may trigger antisocial behavior in some people.
Some communities have flirted with local ordinances that attempt to restrict pornographic books and films on the basis that they promote male domination and so violate the civil rights of women. Federal legislation along these lines is expected to be proposed next year. Although the rationale is provocative, it must be questioned whether such laws smack of censorship and are in conflict with free-speech protections.
The answer lies in a change in public attitudes. Violence and sexual deviation in the media should be unacceptable to civilized and sensitive individuals. And one hopes this would include many of those who peddle this shabby merchandise in the name of free enterprise.
The Rev. Dr. Wall is a strong advocate of individual and voluntary curbs on violence. He rejects the whole idea of censorship, which he says ''is abhorrent to a free society, because it blocks artistic expression and the search for truth.''
But in a recent Christian Century editorial, Dr. Wall draws a parallel to the environmental movement and urges a broad-based solution. ''We know that when pollution threatened to engulf us, state and federal laws were needed to force industries to halt the contamination of our land, air, and water,'' he says. Media sex and violence certainly contaminate our cultural environment. It's time to purify the atmosphere.