Coercion or Conversion?

In seeking to restrain the media, some legislators and bureaucrats are pushing for tighter regulation not only of the broadcast media, but of cable media as well. Cable would be new territory for the FCC, and take it for the first time into the pay-TV sector.

Within religious communities, there has been outrage at the antics of Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake and assorted other bad boy and bad girl celebrities. This year’s Super Bowl halftime show was seen as a watershed event, which captured the declining cultural mores in microcosm. It led many people of faith to embrace the further FCC strictures and increased fines for indecency.

Religious leaders need to consider carefully the call for government intervention. Less cursing and sexuality on television and radio is a laudable goal. Whether it is primarily the government’s responsibility to bring about this goal is debatable. Wherever the government intervenes, it compels either implicitly or explicitly through the threat of force.

Unfortunately, the conversation within religious communities is often dominated by those who claim the moral high ground by advocating governmental action. If you aren’t for the government forcibly preventing the activity in question, the logic goes, then you must support it. The accusation extends to an array of activities such as smoking, gambling, and obscenity on the airwaves.

The argument in favor of government regulation of the media contends that companies that broadcast over “public” airspace and are freely available should be subject to government oversight. The issue becomes more problematic as we attempt to delineate just what is “indecent” or “appropriate” for public consumption.

Genuine freedom of speech and expression is an important component of a free society. Columnist John Leo reports that a measure close to becoming law in Canada would add “sexual orientation” to the hate propaganda law, “thus making public criticism of homosexuality a crime.” We flirt with such danger when we invoke the government to regulate speech and expression.

There are numerous preferable ways of combating vulgarity rather than resorting to governmental censorship, including voluntary and already available measures such as the ratings systems for television programs and the TV Guardian®.

Beyond these, a sure way to reduce objectionable material in the media is through the power of the consuming public. People should simply withhold their money and attention from stations and programs that broadcast things they find to be offensive. If enough people agree on the moral vacuity of a particular vendor and withhold their patronage, the vendor will accommodate the customers’ demands or go out of business.

If taken one level up, the moral responsibility of the vendor itself can come into play. For example, Wal-Mart has previously refused to stock music or magazines that its management deems offensive or vulgar. Large hotel chains are not compelled to offer pornography as a pay-per-view option in their hotel rooms. Oftentimes, however, the perceived possibility of reduced revenues can prevent businesses from making such morally-informed decisions.

While it is unwise and even impossible for human laws to forbid all vices, Christians have traditionally recognized that only those vices whose prohibition is necessary for the maintenance of human society should be made illegal. Admittedly, there is some room for debate as to which actions undermine society seriously enough to warrant prohibition. The point here is that an ill-conceived and overly broad attempt to outlaw immorality can backfire and, besides excessively constraining the field of human action, may provoke rather than curtail vicious activity.

A better way than coercing others to adhere to objective standards of morality is to convert them to those standards. This way, Christians could achieve the critical mass of support necessary to have their morally-informed economic decisions taken into account by businesses while doing justice to the primary mission of the church, which is evangelism.

As in all things, Christ provides the model for dealing with violations of the moral law. In the New Testament, we see Jesus engaging and embracing those who are social outcasts, eating with “sinners” and “tax collectors.” The religious establishment rebukes Him for this, to which Jesus replies, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:12-13 TNIV). Christ’s embrace of sinners does not imply His condoning of sin, of course: “Go now and leave your life of sin” (Jn 8:11 TNIV). But Christ certainly was not simply concerned with external adherence to the moral law, but rather the heartfelt obedience of a converted sinner.

Rather than forcing people to adhere to Christian moral standards through the use of government coercion, Christians should be engaging non-Christians, evangelizing them and making circumstances right for the Holy Spirit to work conversion.

The call of the Christian certainly includes purity and holiness, but it is not a call to isolation or elitism. It is a call to service and a call to evangelism. We are chosen out of the world to go back into the world, as in the words of the Great Commission, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).

In that respect, the task of evangelization is to be preferred to sending the censors down from Washington. Too often have the two been confused.

Jordan J. Ballor is a Communications Associate at the Acton Institute

(This article is a product of the Acton Institute —, 161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 — and is reprinted with permission.)

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