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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

United Church of Christ marketing 2.0.

Yesterday the United Church of Christ launched a new marketing initiative with enough verve (and, it appears, just enough resources) to serve as a test case for other liberal denominations who hope to advertise their way to relevance. (You can help them succeed by donating to the campaign.) The denomination's new "ejector seat" TV ad — rejected once again by the broadcast networks — is airing on cable TV and on the web. This time, the church is simultaneously placing ads on blogs, introducing an online ministry called Rejection Hurts, opening a web community called, and — perhaps most significantly — setting up an advocacy effort aimed at pressuring TV's talking-head shows to start inviting the leaders of mainline denominations as guests.

They're all part of the denomination's overall "God is still speaking," campaign (gotta love that comma), discussed on this site at length this time last year and the year before, with additional linky goodness here (11.30.04), here (12.1.04), here (12.10.04), and here (12.16.04).

The Accessible Airwaves advocacy initiative is in some ways an odd tack. Talking-head TV is perhaps the stupidest part of mainstream political culture; much of it is broadcast while church-goers are in church; and the leaders of conservative denominations don't appear on the shows, either. But there are other ways in which it's brilliant and appropriate. For one thing, there's nothing like jumping into a fight to attract attention. For another, it really does seem odd that the leaders of the churches that have been most engaged in civic life in the last century are simply not seen on public affairs programs. Historically, the mainline Protestant denominations embraced a "social gospel" — seeing social and governmental policy reform as expressions of their Christian witness — and mainline denominations have pursued these reforms through their own denominational agencies. The fundamentalist or "individual gospel" churches that formed separate denominations avoided this kind of work for most of the 20th century. So it makes sense that the denominational leaders object when they see conservative religious activists like James Dobson popping up as "Christian" voices in the political arena with no prominent "social gospel" perspective offered on the other side.

But why is Dobson representing the conservative Christian perspective rather than, say, the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals? One reason is that fundamentalists and many Evangelicals have embraced political reform much more recently — and have largely adopted extra-denominational institutions to carry it out. Some emerging advocates of the "religious left" are trying to build extra-denominational social justice groups, like Jim Wallis's Call to Renewal or C. Welton Gaddy's Interfaith Alliance, but mainline churches continue to pass their government-focused resolutions and lobby Washington directly. They want to be noticed. That seems to explain why the UCC would want to challenge the political portrayal of Christianity on the talk shows by demanding that mainline denominational leaders serve as counterweights to the Christian right, even though denominational leaders from conservative traditions aren't on the shows.

On a much smaller point, where is the UCC blog ad showing up? I checked the top 20 blogs in the Blogging Ecosystem, and I found the ad on six of them: Daily Kos (3), Power Line (4), Talking Points Memo (8), Eschaton (aka Atrios, 10), The Washington Monthly (16), and Evangelical Outpost (20). Four of these are essentially liberal political sites (although the Washington Monthly has led efforts to encourage Democrats to reach out more effectively to Christians); Power Line is a politically conservative site; Evangelical Outpost is politically and theologically conservative. The ads are placed by BlogAds; only three sites in the Ecosystem Top 20 use the company's services but aren't featuring the UCC ad.

("UCC announces campaign to amplify mainline churches' public voice," J. Bennett Guess, United Church News 3.27.06; "Turning to mammon to spread the gospel," Stuart Elliott, New York Times 3.27.06, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 28 March 2006 at 7:01 PM

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March 29, 2006 09:30 AM | Permalink for this comment

Take a look at the rejection notices from the networks [pdf].


March 29, 2006 05:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

There is nothing in the Media Matters report which suggests that conservative religious leaders appear on talk shows more frequently than liberal religious leaders. In fact, in the MM report, press release and data charts I can find no reference to religion at all.

The report states that interview shows show more elected politicians and administration officials from the party in power than from the opposition. That is, Democrats were on more in the late 90s and Republicans were on more in the early 00s.

The report also states that while most journalists on interview shows are "centrists", there are more conservatives than liberals. This is obviously highly subjective.

All of the most frequent guests are politicians.

The UCC apparently interprets this to mean that conservative religious figures like James Dobson are on more often than liberal religious figures like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. But Media Matters offers no statistics one way or the other.

The UCC press release claims that out of 7000 talk show appearances 36 were by members of the religious right. It attacks this as "seemingly endless coverage." But the UCC doesn't offer comparable statistics for Jackson, Sharpton etc. My subjective impression is that Sharpton received a lot of press coverage in 2004.


March 29, 2006 06:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

My uneasiness with the UCC's strategy is that, online anyway, it appears to be missionary work directed at a highly partisan audience. It may well be that the church doesn't so much want to attract fired-up anti-Republicans to church as it is to attract journalists and TV producers, who rush after political controversy like sharks to blood. The idea here is to spend marketing money on generating controversy, which attracts free media, which makes people say to themselves, "Who knew there was a church like that?"

The danger, of course, is that the very same tactic distorts the gospel, polarizes the church, and doesn't attract new members.

My deepest uneasiness is that liberal Christians — and Unitarian Universalists — may not be simultaneously working hard enough at deepening the possibilities for spiritual, personal, and intellectual commitment to a liberal religion. Cultural work is more important in the long run than political work because politics depends on culture. And liberal culture — and especially liberal Christian culture — is in serious trouble.


March 30, 2006 12:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

If liberal Christian culture is in trouble, the next question is why? What is making people turn to being more conservative? What is the psychological profile that makes them do that? What happened to all the liberals? What makes someone turn from liberal to conservative?
And, if we can figure out the answers to those questions, then, what can we do to reverse the trend? And why aren't we doing it?


March 30, 2006 02:00 PM | Permalink for this comment


I don't think that people are necessarily becoming more conservative. It may be that liberals are less interested in church. For example, most UU RE alumni don't affiliate UU as adults. But I don't think they are becoming Southern Baptists. They just don't find church necessary.

In my view, this is why the political advocacy ultimately won't work as a substitute for culture. It is perfectly possible, indeed quite common, to dislike the religious right, support the ACLU etc. and never set foot in any church. If our kids are going to be UUs there has to be a positive spiritual and cultural message that attracts them.


March 30, 2006 06:11 PM | Permalink for this comment

A bracing article from The American Prospect highlights the cultural trends that show how seriously liberal culture is eroding in the U.S.:

Looking at the data from 1992 to 2004, Shellenberger and Nordhaus found a country whose citizens are increasingly authoritarian while at the same time feeling evermore adrift, isolated, and nihilistic. They found a society at once more libertine and more puritanical than in the past, a society where solidarity among citizens was deteriorating, and, most worrisomely to them, a progressive clock that seemed to be unwinding backward on broad questions of social equity. Between 1992 and 2004, for example, the percentage of people who said they agree that "the father of the family must be the master in his own house" increased ten points, from 42 to 52 percent, in the 2,500-person Environics survey. The percentage agreeing that "men are naturally superior to women" increased from 30 percent to 40 percent. Meanwhile, the fraction that said they discussed local problems with people they knew plummeted from 66 percent to 39 percent. Survey respondents were also increasingly accepting of the value that "violence is a normal part of life" — and that figure had doubled even before the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks.

And while some of us might want to blame these disturbing trends entirely on, say, the religious right, much of the blame can be directed at aspects of secular culture:

Over the past dozen years, the arrows [in Shellenberger and Nordhaus's quadrant analysis] have started to point away from the fulfillment side of the scale, home to such values as gender parity and personal expression, to the survival quadrant, home to illiberal values such as sexism, fatalism, and a focus on "every man for himself." Despite the increasing political power of the religious right, Environics found social values moving away from the authority end of the scale, with its emphasis on responsibility, duty, and tradition, to a more atomized, rage-filled outlook that values consumption, sexual permissiveness, and xenophobia. The trend was toward values in the individuality quadrant.

Any reader remotely familiar with American popular culture will immediately recognize the truth of this analysis. Ariel Levy recently grappled with one aspect of it in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, writing about a hypersexualized culture that encourages its young women to be Girls Gone Wild and its young men to be piggish voyeurs. She describes a new anti-feminist vision of "liberation" that eschews both traditional constraints and any concern for gender equality. "Despite the rising power of Evangelical Christianity and the political right in the United States, this trend has only grown more extreme and more pervasive," notes Levy. Indeed, the coarse, brawny, self-centered new philosophy could take as its exemplar television personality Bill O'Reilly, a man who, it was alleged in a sexual harassment lawsuit, is as interpersonally crude as he is politically rough and bullying. Americans, writes Environics founder Michael Adams in his 2005 book American Backlash: The Untold Story of Social Change in the United States [not yet published in the U.S.], increasingly reject traditionalism and progressivism alike.

"While American politics becomes increasingly committed to a brand of conservatism that favors traditionalism, religiosity, and authority," Adams writes, "the culture at large [is] becoming ever more attached to hedonism, thrill-seeking, and a ruthless, Darwinist understanding of human competition."

I mention this analysis because liberal churches must simultaneously critique both the unjust authoritarianism of the right and the inhumane hedonism of secular culture and offer a cultural alternative. It's on this level that a religion is a true counterculture, and can help reorient political life.

("Remapping the cultural debate," Garance Franke-Ruta, American Prospect 2.5.06)


April 1, 2006 12:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

I've said before that the Right blames the Left for lack of morals and the Left blames the Right, but it's really a third group -- Capitalist "Bottom Line" culture is what is destroying morals and ethics in our culture. When ruthless sociopaths lead us, our morals get lost. When our leaders have no heart, we lose ours. Corporate personhood is a problem because corporations are not persons precisely because they lack a conscience, and cannot afford to have a conscience. Yet the corporations are leading our culture -- through movies, tv, the books and news they choose to publish, and, mostly, through advertising. I think most people have no idea how much they are influenced by advertising. It's the Framing!!! Everyone should read Don't Think of an Elephant and/or Moral Politics on the subject of framing, and something on how brains work. Unfortunatly I don't have a single work to recommend on the influence of media on our brains, but maybe Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander is a good place to start if you can find it. (1977) You will remember from other works on advertising (The Hidden Persueders 1957!) that ads work on creating fear and anxiety. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the culture is showing more and more of the pervasive effects of fear and anxiety -- And the leaders of our country have certainly learned how to heighten the fear from 9/11 to milk it for all it's worth.
For a minor example of how you are influenced subtly by tv ads: How much toothpaste do you put on your brush, and where did you get that information of the "proper" amount? Most of you probably cover your toothbrush with toothpaste, maybe there and back, so you cover it twice. That "information" is from those toothpaste ads, who model that behavior to sell more toothpaste. The amount you really SHOULD use, for the sake of your teeth, is an amount the size of a big pea. That's less than half of covering most toothbrushes, and you got that misinformation without even realizing you were receiving information at all. What other subtle "information" are you getting that is wrong?

h sofia:

April 1, 2006 04:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

Kim, I was just about to post about the destructive values of capitalism and consumerism, when you touched on that. Thanks.

Bill Baar:

April 12, 2006 08:09 AM | Permalink for this comment

The Editors of the Daily Illini were fired for publishing the Danish cartoons. Few Liberals spoke in their defense here in Illinois. The paper's owners had clear rules on publishing things defaming religion.

It's no different really then the networks refusing these UCC commercials.

Liberals can't have it both ways. They often try too and perhapes that's why Liberal Culture is in trouble. It's stuck on Universal values and culture relativism.

Liberal values to be defended at home, but a war for Democracy in Iraq is really a way for oil.

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