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In Fox’s Super Bowl broadcast, God is benched

In the perennial post-game buzz about Super Bowl ads, the buff body of the new GoDaddy Girl (aka Joan Rivers) was a big hit this year.

So was the pugnacious pug dog flattening his owner to grab the Doritos. And, of course, who can forget the woman who got smacked in the head with a soft drink can?

But the most intriguing ad may be the one Super Bowl viewers didn’t see: a 30-second piece about “John 3:16,” a Bible verse much-quoted by Christians and often spotted on signs in football stadiums. (“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”)

Fox Sports, like other Super Bowl broadcasters before it, doesn’t do religion. Trailers for violent movies, beer commercials, and scantily clad women selling stuff all make the cut. But God, it seems, is out of bounds.

According to company policy, Fox doesn’t accept advertising from religious groups “for the purpose of advancing particular beliefs or practices.”

The refusal to air the John 3:16 ad, produced by an evangelical group called Fixed Point Foundation, isn’t a First Amendment issue. As a private business (as opposed to the government), Fox is free to choose which commercials to broadcast.

But Fox’s religion-free Super Bowl does raise intriguing questions about the “market” in the marketplace of ideas that the First Amendment is intended to create and protect. What does it mean for freedom of expression if religious ideas and beliefs are excluded from ads at The Big Event with an audience of more than 100 million?

And it’s not just at the Super Bowl. Writing in The New York Times about the rejection of the John 3:16 ad, Mark Oppenheimer points to examples of religion-ad bans on radio stations in Portland, Ore., and buses in Fort Worth, Texas.

Some of the past lines drawn by the major networks about what’s in and what’s out have been blurry. During last year’s Super Bowl, CBS famously allowed a pro-life ad from the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family (featuring quarterback Tim Tebow and his mother).

This decision appeared to contradict a CBS policy barring advocacy ads that was invoked in 2004 to refuse an ad from the liberal United Church of Christ about the inclusion of gay couples in worship.

Commercial broadcasters are understandably loath to stir the religion pot by airing messages that provoke controversy or offend. If John 3:16 is broadcast, it inevitably will be followed by ads proclaiming that millions of people do just fine without God.

Of course, it could be risky for business, and somewhat messy, to allow dueling ads about God during the Super Bowl. But then again, robust freedom of expression always has been and always will be a messy business.

I say, let God compete. After all, what kind of “marketplace” do we really have on Super Bowl Sunday when selling sex, alcohol and violence are OK, but messages about faith are taboo?

— Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001.

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