Offensive christian billboard or offensive ethics ruling?

Do you believe in an interventionist God? Well, don't say so ... in case you offend people.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently ruled that a church’s billboard stating “Jesus Heals Cancer” was in breach of the Advertising Code of Ethics. The Equippers Church billboard was found to be offensive, misleading and social irresponsible.

One can understand the hurt feelings of a Napier mother who, along with 8 others,  laid the complaint. No doubt she experienced genuine hurt at witnessing this sign, having the daily burden of caring for her three year-old son battling leukaemia. As she said, it made her ‘blood boil’.

But to say the church’s sign was offensive, deceptive and irresponsible is hard to fathom. If the church billboard had said the pastor was “Hung and he’s got a big one” that would have been okay. If the church hall had displayed a sign depicting nuns with a hands on their protruding bottoms coupled with the caption “Naughty by night” that would have been fine.  Billboards of this sort would have not been likely to cause “serious or widespread offence” according to “generally prevailing community standards”. We know this because recent decisions of the ASA have made it clear that average New Zealanders would not be upset by sexually provocative or explicit advertisements nor commercials that mock or disparage Christianity.

The “Jesus Heals Cancer” decision tells us something about the lowly status of religion in New Zealand. More accurately, it reveals something about the way both official and quasi-official bodies (like the ASA, an industry self-regulatory watchdog) views biblical Christianity, the sort that makes old-fashioned, supernaturalist claims like “miracles still occur”.

Acceptable religion in the secular liberal state is that which is “nice”, which offends no one and which does not assert that patently absurd, non-scientific events happen. Good religion is the kind that goes along with the sexual revolution and moral relativism. It is not so impolite or crass as to publicly declare or imply that traditional moral strictures against adultery, homosexuality, immodesty, abortion, euthanasia, intoxication, the occult and so on, really apply these days.

It is not so foolish as to make bold and unqualified exclusivist claims about religious truth in a multicultural, religiously plural society. Good religions are those that operate like the Lions, Red Cross or Lifeline; they confine themselves to humanitarian works or function as “support groups” (the important role for churches today, as one complainant put it) for the infirmed, destitute and lonely. In their public capacity, their utterances should be directed to supporting egalitarianism, environmentalism, indigenous causes and to lambasting imperialism, Zionism, capitalism, and homophobia.

By now churches and Christians, or at least the “fundamentalist” sort, should have realised we had the Enlightenment and religion lost. Next we had postmodernism and exclusivist belief systems based on unchangeable absolutes or traditional dogmas lost. Then came political correctness and the right to upset or offend anyone was abolished.

This would, I suppose, be tolerable if the governing ideology was even-handed, if it treated secular and religious people alike and all belief systems equally. But the implicit governing worldview is not impartial.

For it is all right to offend some citizens. Those who cling to antiquated beliefs, superstitions really, are not to be taken seriously. No ordinary rational person today believes as they do. Their benighted religious views don’t count.

The ASA decision this week reminds us that generally prevailing community standards are secular, “rational” (a loaded word) standards. And when the Code states that “expressions of opinion are essential and desirable for functioning of a democratic society” and these may be “robust” we are encouraged. But that same rule also requires that “opinion should be clearly distinguishable from factual information.”

It is inconceivable to most modern minds that Jesus heals cancer. Such a bold factual claim is pure nonsense, which is fine if such irrational opinions are kept within doors. In the privacy of your home or church you can believe in people rising from the dead, walking on water, leprosy being cured and a thousand other impossible things before lunch. But to put it on a billboard is offensive. Indeed, if it encourages some people to actually take the claim seriously and abandon conventional scientific medicine (not what the Equippers Church advocated incidentally) it is downright dangerous.

These out-dated, flights of fancy should be re-worded to say something like “Jesus sometimes heals ” or, if you wish to be yet more cautious and innocuous, “Jesus heals colds and rheumatism”. The first revamped version is sufficient vacuous and cryptic to be completely harmless. Why it might even be taken to mean that this deity heals spiritually or emotionally. The second version is so “ho hum” as to be entirely safe. Yet even this version makes a factual claim and could contravene the rule that commercials not make “false and misleading” claims. Better to re-phrase it “Jesus might heal colds and rheumatism”. The Equippers Church, in the spirit of reconciliation, offered to amend its billboard to read ”Jesus heals every sickness & every disease ­—Matthew 4:23”. But that makes an even more sweeping claim that this imaginary deity cures aids, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and so on.

The Equippers Church would have been better advised to have erected an ASA-approved advertisement such as free KY jelly and condoms to attendees (presumably married ones only, but mind you, that might be suspect) than to suggest God intervenes supernaturally in earthly affairs. The latter course simply does not exhibit a “due sense of social responsibility”.

If any institution is causing serious offence and not acting with due social responsibility it is the ASA. It should learn that ethical decision-making, like charity, begins at home.