Feared Church Ads

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(HOST) The decision by CBS and NBC to refuse to run television commercials produced by the United Church of Christ proclaiming its openness to all people, including gays, reminds commentator Barrie Dunsmore of another time when fear ruled the airwaves.

(DUNSMORE) A United Church of Christ television commercial shows two men who look like bouncers behind one of those velvet ropes with brass hooks used in upscale night clubs and restaurants – except that here they are deciding who will be allowed to enter…the church behind them. As the action proceeds, minorities and gays are turned away. Then a message comes on the screen that reads, “Jesus didn’t turn anyone away. Neither do we.”

In refusing to carry the commercial, NBC and CBS said it was “too controversial.” I believe what that means is that they are afraid – afraid to provoke this White House, especially when it’s working on a Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. And perhaps they’re even more afraid of the growing power and influence of Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists who are already flexing their political muscles for fights on gays and abortion. If something as relatively minor as this episode makes TV networks afraid, how brave are they likely to be in a real battle – for example, if those who question or criticize the government and its policies are once again objects of a smear campaign to portray them as disloyal Americans.

Almost exactly fifty years ago, on December 2nd, 1954, what’s become known as the Era of McCarthyism officially came to an end. On that day the Senate passed a motion of censure condemning Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. For several years, McCarthy had been the main figure in an anti-communist witch-hunt that terrorized much of the country.

Throughout that period, a mere accusation that you had links with or had once been a member of the Communist party could cost you your career and your reputation. You could even end up in jail for refusing to cooperate with that most notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. With Hollywood and the entertainment industry a prime target for these attacks, thousands of Americans, including prominent actors, writers and directors, were black-listed. In those days, the Senator’s red-baiting supporters dubbed CBS “The Communist Broadcasting System.”

CBS was not a profile in courage. Instead it began to require loyalty oaths from its employees and it hired a former FBI official to run the CBS loyalty clearance office. CBS News and its legendary Edward R. Morrow did eventually take on the demagogic McCarthy, but only after his stranglehold on the country had begun to wane, and after President Eisenhower finally decided McCarthy was a menace.

What is notable about this period of American history is that it was a time when many otherwise fine, upstanding citizens, political leaders and institutions appeared to lose the courage of their convictions – a time when the mainstream majority was afraid to challenge an extremist minority. Could it happen again? Perhaps the answer lies in that old maxim, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

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