Media and Control: A Futile Exercise

The absence of the voice of Mainline theologians, ethicists and other religious leaders in the public conversation about significant life issues has become obvious to some who have written to me recently.

One note asks plaintively, “Why is my church not offering guidance on these things? I feel like I’m not being heard.” She was speaking of the Terri Schaivo debate.
Over the past two decades the Mainline denominations have consistently made intentional decisions to remain outside the public conversation for many reasons. They once were deeply engaged in media but the current disengagement is both intentional and a result of public policies that marginalized and then eliminated them from public media.
I remember my first day of employment years ago at a national ecumenical organization. At a reception to welcome me, the CEO came to me in the hallway at the elevator on the sixth floor and said, “Just remember this. You do not write or send press releases.” She punctuated her words by tapping my lapel with her index finger.
Since I was hired to be a communications director, this came as rather shocking instruction. But I came to understand soon enough that in this Mainline organization the issue for communication in my unit was not getting the word out. The whole culture was focused on controlling communciation. It was a reactive strategy motivated by damage control on one hand and internal organizational competition on the other. Communication was not about an aggressive proactive strategy to tell the story of the organization.
The effort to control communication didn’t work, of course. It simply gave permission and power to others to frame the organization and create public perception about it. Those who cared enough to do this were antagonists who characterized the organization negatively. Our leaders were in a constant state of defensive reaction.
The harsher the attacks, the more they clamped down. The more then clamped down, the more emboldened the antagonists became because they had the initiative. Eventually, I moved on.
There are many reasons Mainline denominations are not speaking in public media. Lack of financial resources. Lack of experience in media. Fear. Lack of agreement within constituencies about where the denomination should stand.
These uncertainties make it difficult for leaders to speak. However, the requests I’ve had are not for pronouncements from the organization. They are questions of faith. What does the church teach about end-of-life care? How am I to decide upon the ethics of prolonging my father’s life inf the face of great suffering? What are my moral obligations? and in this religious leaders are especially skilled and equipped to share their perspectives.

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