Churches spar with media over advertising

It doesn't mention God, or Jesus. But it does speak of finding "real truth" in a world of media noise and political spin. That was enough to keep the advertisement for a Bible out of Rolling Stone magazine.

As religion moves more overtly into public life, its reception in the major media has not always been warm.

Churches and religious publishers reaching out to the "unchurched" - those who may be spiritually inclined but institutionally alienated - are finding that some media are rejecting their advertising dollars. The United Church of Christ (UCC) and the United Methodist Church (UMC) have been told "no," as has Zondervan, the leading Bible publisher.

Media outlets have the right to decide what they publish or broadcast, but religious groups say the media are practicing a form of censorship that is keeping them out of the marketplace of ideas. This is not fair, they say, nor does it fulfill the media's responsibility to the public.

"Persons are battered with thousands of images a day. It's important for the church to be able to provide images of hope, comfort, and a positive sense of meaning," says Steven Drachler, UMC communications director.

Zondervan saw Rolling Stone as "the perfect vehicle" to reach its target audience of young adults, aged 18 to 34, for the largest Bible launch in its history. In February, the firm introduces a new Bible translation, Today's New International Version (TNIV), in contemporary language.

"We learned in research that it was that age group that most resonated with the TNIV," says Doug Lockhart, Zondervan's vice president for marketing. "We are confused about the rejection, because we placed the ad with Rolling Stone last June, and it was clear it was a Bible ad."

The magazine refused a request for comment. Mr. Lockhart says Rolling Stone told Zondervan this month that the ad wasn't appropriate and that it didn't take ads for religious materials.

A recent Harris poll showed "that 59 percent of that age group believe the Bible is relevant to their lives," Lockhart adds. "That demonstrates that there's a misperception about how important a role the Bible plays." Zondervan ads will run in the satirical magazine The Onion; in Modern Bride; and on websites of MTV, VH1, and AOL.

Why churches want to advertise

In recent years, some mainline Protestant churches, which have seen declining attendance compared with their Evangelical cousins, have launched advertising campaigns to try to raise their visibility and identity.

The United Church of Christ last month rolled out a $28 million campaign to run through 2007, its 50th anniversary year. The first commercial was "geared to folks with no church home," says Barb Powell, UCC spokeswoman. "Focus groups told us ... that people felt alienated and rejected from organized religion." The 30-second ad emphasizes UCC inclusiveness: "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we."

But its depiction of a bouncer turning several people away from a church, including ethnically diverse individuals and two men holding hands, rubbed some the wrong way. NBC rejected it as "too controversial," and CBS said it "touches on one side of a current controversial issue ... the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman." The ad also was not acceptable "because it proselytizes."

ABC did not consider the ad because it has a longstanding policy not to accept any religious advertising.

The ad ran on several cable

channels, but churches and others decried the networks' decisions. CBS and NBC indicate they will accept the next spot in UCC's advertising series.

"The broadcast networks are not being asked to give free time to the United Church of Christ to express its message - the church is ready to pay dearly for that privi- lege," said the communications commission of the National Council of Churches. "The for-profit keepers of the [public] square are all too willing to promulgate messages laced with sexual innuendo, greed, violence, and the politics of personal destruction, but a message of openness and welcome that merely says 'church doors are open to all' is being silenced as too controversial!"

The UCC has been barraged by thousands of messages, overwhelmingly supportive, in the wake of the action, says Ms. Powell. Preliminary data on the ad's impact on churches will be available in February.

"The press has the right to refuse whatever advertising it wants to; but that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do or the best policy for their relationship to the public," says Charles Haynes of Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. "Questions could be raised about what is the ethical or civically responsible thing to do in relation to religiously themed ads."

In fact, when the Methodists ran into trouble with Reuters in November 2003, the firm eventually had a change of heart. UMC wanted to run an ad in its "Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors" campaign on the 7,000-square-foot billboard in New York's Times Square. When Reuters said it didn't accept religious or political advertising, there was an outcry.

"We were heartened because Reuters then took a step back and changed their position, providing reasonable guidelines," says Mr. Drachler. The ad ran for two weeks with a disclaimer of paid advertising. Some question that necessity, but others say it's understandable.

"Religion is quite unlike Corn Flakes - it leads to fights," says Dr. Haynes. "Unfortunately, today we are too easily offended in this country, and a lot of media outlets are less concerned about free speech and more about not offending people."

A newspaper bucks the trend

The Colorado Springs Gazette is one newspaper willing to take that chance. Last month, the International Bible Society (IBS) went beyond ads and paid to place copies of the New Testament in the plastic bags in which the Sunday newspaper is distributed to subscribers.

More than 83,000 books went out, causing a stir among other faiths. Some Jewish leaders expressed distress, but the paper received more positive than negative feedback. The publisher said the paper wasn't in the business of stifling ideas, religious or otherwise.

"A newspaper wouldn't back down from a political form of advertisement, so they shouldn't back down from a religious ad or project, " says Bob Jackson, who heads the IBS effort. "We appreciate that attitude of the Gazette."

Religious groups recognize the challenge but say advertising is vital. UMC's campaign brought results: First-time attendance at 160 test churches rose by 19 percent, and overall attendance rose 9 percent between 2000 and 2004, the campaign period. Next week, UMC will announce a $25 million ad effort for 2005-2008.

Meanwhile, UCC has filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission over CBS's and NBC's rejection of its ad. Historically, it has been active in communications issues, winning decisions in the US Supreme Court. "This is another way we're trying to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be seen and heard in today's media," Powell says.

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