Who Gets To Speak on Public TV?


All individuals and institutions are, to some degree, marked by inconsistency. Not all of our ducks -- conceptual and behavioral -- are ever quite in a row. But sometimes, an inconsistency is so sharp, so jarring, that it crosses the line into hypocrisy.

A case in point is the recent decision of the Public Broadcasting System to exclude any religious programming from its future schedules. The usual reasons are trotted out: religion is divisive; it would be impossible to give equal time to all denominations; the public forum should not be the place for partisan speech but rather for objective exploration of issues, etc. etc.

Well, about three months ago, I was flipping my way through the cable channels and I stumbled upon a PBS program hosted by the British intellectual historian Jonathan Miller. I rather like Miller, having enjoyed his past programs on the history of science and the workings of cultures. But this show, I discovered was part of a multi-episode presentation on atheism. As I watched, it became increasingly clear to me that it wasn't an objective history of the phenomenon of non-belief, nor a balanced presentation on the relative merits of theism vs. atheism. Rather, it was an enthusiastic advocacy of the atheist position; I might even be tempted to call it evangelism on behalf of unbelief. Miller tried, over and again, to show that religion is stupid, a hold-over from a primitive age, and the enemy of intellectual progress. The episode that I watched concluded with Miller's interview of an elderly lady on her death bed. At our kind host's prompting, she assured us that she looked forward to nothing at all after death.

Late on the evening of the very day that I read of PBS's decision to exclude religious programming, I found myself, once again, surfing channels and came upon another interesting PBS offering. This one was an episode in a series on homosexuality in America. Once again, it was not an objective study of same-sex attraction or a sober consideration of the history of the debate concerning gay marriage. It was outright and passionate advocacy. What stayed particularly in my mind was a conversation between Larry Kramer, the well-known gay playwright and activist, and a man dressed as a woman, sporting a three foot blond wig! Kramer laid out his familiar arguments in a relatively disciplined way, but his interlocutor at one point intervened to observe that while there is only one Gay Pride Sunday all year, there are 51 Sundays on which the churches attack gay people. I'll leave aside the laughable insinuation that the Christian churches attack homosexual people every week of the year (in fact, I can't remember even one sermon to that effect in nearly a half century of hearing and giving sermons). But I will observe that this program amounted to a kind of evangelism on behalf of gay rights.

Now don't get me wrong: I love the fact that we live in a free society where practically all positions can be aired, debated, and argued. I welcome passionate and public advocacy for points of view that I don't share. More precisely, I think it's fine that atheists and gay activists have a televised forum to present their cases. But come on PBS, you can't have it both ways! You can't say that religious evangelism is dangerous and divisive, but other types of evangelism are just fine. You can't say that all voices should be heard in the marketplace of ideas -- except religious voices.

But come on PBS, you can't have it both ways! You can't say that religious evangelism is dangerous and divisive, but other types of evangelism are just fine. You can't say that all voices should be heard in the marketplace of ideas -- except religious voices.

In his trenchant book Democracy and Tradition, Jeffrey Stout argues that there is a healthy construal of liberalism as the set of practices that allow for peaceable conversation and interaction in a society marked by differing understandings of ultimate meaning. Here, tolerance, reason, and openness of spirt are the great practical virtues. Hence it was in the context of a robust liberal American polity that Abraham Lincoln could interpret the Civil War in explicitly religious terms and Martin Luther King could argue for civil rights on the basis of Old Testament prophecy. Both were permitted to speak religious language in the public forum, because both entered that arena with respect and non-violence. However, Stout holds that there is a more destructive and ideological version of liberalism that sees religioius belief as irrational and therefore advocates the exclusion of religion from the public discussion altogether. This mode of liberalism is hoisted on its own petard, precisely in the measure that it becomes deeply intolerant, totalitarian, and exclusive.

So Jonathan Miller can have ten hours on public television to trumpet the value of atheism, but no religious voice can be raised in that forum to counter him. I'll let you decide which type of liberalism PBS is displaying.




Father Robert Barron, "Who Gets To Speak on Public TV?" Word on Fire (July 8, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of Father Robert Barron.


Fr. Robert Barron was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1986. He has a Masters degree in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America and a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Institute Catholique de Paris. He is currently professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary. Fr. Barron is the author of, And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, Heaven in Stone and Glass: Experiencing the Spirituality of the Great Cathedrals, Eucharist (Catholic Spirituality for Adults), Priority of Christ, The: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism, and Word on File: Proclaiming the Power of Christ. He also gives frequent talks, retreats and workshops on issues of theology and spirituality.

Father Barron uses his YouTube channel to reach out to people and bring valuable lessons of faith alive by pointing out things that can be learned by watching popular characters of movies and television shows.

Copyright © 2009 Father Robert Barron

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