Let me begin by saying that although I enjoy playing golf, I don’t generally watch it on television. So, I didn’t personally see NBC’s double-butchering of the Pledge of Allegiance last week during the US Open broadcast. But having since watched it, I believe I see this fiasco a bit differently from many of my fellow religionists.
For the unaware, NBC began its coverage of the event with a montage of children saying the Pledge interspersed with military-patriotic imagery, the final version of which aired twice and without the phrase “under God.” The Web erupted with indignation, and three hours later NBC interrupted the program to issue this apology:
“We began our coverage of this final round just about three hours ago and when we did it was our intent to begin the coverage of this U.S. Open Championship with a feature that captured the patriotism of our national championship being held in our nation’s capital for the third time. Regrettably, a portion of the Pledge of Allegiance that was in that feature was edited out. It was not done to upset anyone and we’d like to apologize to those of you who were offended by it.”
Despite the quick turnaround, some Christians were still not impressed, noting ruefully that even the apology refused to identify the words “under God” as the linguistic casualty. They have responded with blog posts, petition drives, and the customary hand-wringing laments about hell and handbaskets.
So, should we be outraged? Should we see this as yet another attempt by the “vast secular conspiracy” to suppress religion in America? I think not.
First, the most obvious task preceding any response is a genuine effort to understand the event itself. What really led to this happening? And as I see it, there are three possibilities:
Scenario 1: The evil, godless Satan-worshippers at NBC concocted this scheme to eradicate religion by desecrating America’s Pledge of Allegiance before a worldwide audience.
What is the evidence for this scenario? Well, obviously, the fact that for years secularists have been trying to remove “under God” and any other theistic reference from the Pledge and every public space. Moreover, we know that TV people are all evil and hate Jesus and anyone who loves Him. That’s why they manipulated these children (children, mind you!) into saying the Pledge in their twisted One World Government atheistic way.
There are at least two problems with this argument. The first is that the version as aired didn’t only remove “under God.” It also removed “indivisible.” The children said, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation…with liberty and justice for all.” In the second version, they also omitted “one nation.” And if we are going to believe these alterations were deliberate, we have to decipher the other secret agenda for NBC: a radical plan to divide America back into separate, more easily-conquered States by extinguishing the concept of unity from our public consciousness! The big defect with Scenario 1 is that it fails to comprehend how truly extensive the scope of NBC’s secret plot really is….or not.
The other problem is that NBC came back on the very same broadcast with an apology, which is where Scneario 1 gets dicey from a logic perspective. On the one hand, its advocates believe there is some evil and elaborate anti-religious agenda manifesting itself. But if so, why the apology? I mean, if you’re going to announce your anti-God vision of America by deliberately changing the Pledge in this way, why the quick retraction? And, to belabor the point, why deliberately omit the other phrases, too?
Would critics have us believe that NBC did all this on purpose to be noticed and yet also have us believe they are so cowardly as to run away at the first Tweet of danger? Or perhaps NBC just underestimated how many people would respond angrily? What did the conversation in this meeting sound like?
NBC 1: “Hey, you guys wanna edit out ‘under God’ from the Pledge Sunday?”
NBC 2: “Great idea. Let’s take out ‘indivisible’ and ‘one nation,’ too. I hate unity.”
NBC 3: “Do you think anyone will notice?”
NBC 1: “I hope so. That’s the whole point. We need to get God off the airwaves once and for all. I think Americans will love our new, edited version of the Pledge.”
NBC 2: “We should definitely use children to do this. That won’t anger anyone.”
NBC 1: “And besides, those religious freaks who want ‘under God’ in the Pledge never get angry about anything anyhow. We want them to notice, and those weaklings will just go away quietly like they always do.”
NBC 3: “This is a really good plan, you guys. I’m psyched.”
Needful to say, this is much easier to imagine in my head than to believe occurred in reality. Thus, to accept Scenario 1 (given the quick apology) we have to believe NBC is led by people who are simultaneously bold subversives, total fools, and terrific cowards. To be honest, such enemies (if they are) don’t frighten me much.
Scenario 2: A small secret cell of evil, godless Satan-worshippers within NBC somehow smuggled this video into the broadcast booth and aired it on their own initiative.
If so, I find the quick apology for their misbehavior by NBC officials far more reassuring than any worry I draw from the behavior of their insubordinates. And remember that the level of ineptitude shown by omitting “indivisible” in addition to “under God” and then “one nation” in the other version should reassure us about the overall danger from activists with such weak technological skills.
Scenario 3: Somebody made two really unlucky editing blunders that weren’t caught until after the broadcast went live. Then, it took about three hours on a Sunday for the chain of command to be apprised and implement a coherent response.
I work in broadcasting. I make editing errors. Not all the time, but it’s amazing how easy it is to snip the wrong piece out of some production piece and not catch it until it’s too late. It just happens. And it happens more when you’re under time constraints and deadlines…the sort of pressure which I can only presume might have been involved here. Again, knowing how broadcasting often works, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone came up with the idea for the kids only a day or two prior, then decided it would be cool to mix them with the other images Saturday evening, and the whole thing just got botched by final air time Sunday morning. Not only would this explain the omission of “under God,” but it obviously does the best job of explaining the curious omission of “indivisible” and “one nation” as well.
I know this scenario isn’t very satisfying to the well-cultivated appetite some of us have for finding a demonic conspiracy under every hint of irreligiosity. But it certainly seems to fit the totality of the facts better than either of the other two.
But let’s imagine for just a moment that we can’t be so sure. Hypothetically, let’s suppose the montage had in fact cleanly omitted only “under God” rather than the other words, rendering the demonic conspiracy view much more viable. How should we as Christians respond then?
My Bible has a simple rule for situations like this. It says, “Do undo others as you would have them do unto you.” And one of the most obvious-but-neglected applications of that moral injunction is to give other people the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. If we can interpret them charitably, we should do so until we must go the other way. We should leap to generosity, not to condemnation.
I know one of the most discouraging things I experience as a broadcaster and columnist is the feeling that critics haven’t merely disagreed with me, but deliberately, even maliciously hunted for any and every opportunity to do so. Some people seem so itchy for war that any flicker of movement elicits a fire mission.
Knowing how unpleasant it is to be treated this way, I always try to understand the people with whom I disagree and represent them fairly. Oh sure, I routinely fail at this, but when I do, the shortcoming is with me, not with the core moral principle of my faith.
You see, it isn’t just a matter of kindness to prefer believing that some unlucky video editor at NBC made the blunder of a lifetime. It’s also a matter of making civilization function. Society requires people to be flexible and forgiving, not strident and contemptuous. Who wants to live in a world where people routinely presume the worst about you? But it’s even more important than that.
As a Christian, my response to events like this reflects directly on my religious cause. If I accuse someone of too little, I can always come back later with a stronger response if I must. But if I overreach with a nuclear blast at the outset and it turns out he merely blundered, I don’t merely look like a fool. I also shame the God whose generosity and grace are widely known emulative obligations of His followers. We can either present ourselves as petulant, impossible-to-please brats, or we can walk in the peace and mercy of Christ. We cannot do both.
And so as a matter of moral principle, as a matter of social necessity, and as a matter of representing my faith honorably, I choose to forgive NBC for a mistake they immediately apologized for. Even if it wasn’t a mistake, I side with the Manhattan Declaration blogger who said, “When a company makes a bad decision and immediately apologizes for it, we should recognize the apology more so than the offense.”
But there is one final morsel of public relations insight here which I think all too many of my fellow Christians will miss if I don’t mention it.
We live in a culture which is not persuaded best by anger and outrage. Instead, we live in a culture which is moved by compassion for those who are hurt. This means that if you really want to have traction with America today, the most effective response is to display anguish, not fury.
Anger may feel better, more self-righteous, more authentic. But you really must ask yourself whether your response to some (even serious) offense is meant to make you feel better about what you have said or to actually have persuasive impact with those Americans who don’t already agree with you. If the former, then outrage away with the same lack of results we’ve come to expect. But if the latter, then condition yourselves to show vulnerability and sorrow. Instead of saying how angry you are about the Pledge being distorted, say how much it hurts you to have something you love so dearly be mistreated in this way. Twitter rage may have generated an apology, but online sadness would have gotten real media attention.
When Tracy Morgan recently said some quite horrendous things about gays, the media response was amazingly hegemonic. Every outlet seemed on instinct to do the exact same thing. They found people (celebrities, gays, ordinary citizens) and asked them “How did his comments hurt you?” No one got angry. Everyone was sad. Hurt. Downcast. And I don’t for a moment mean to imply this was staged or not genuine.
But I do want you to notice that people listened. That’s because our culture responds to sorrow more than to indignation. And if I have to be honest, I find this praiseworthy. If anything, it means that sympathy is our surplus. A dangerous, easily manipulated, emotion-driven surplus, to be sure. But that’s the reality. You can ignore it, try to change it, or accept it and work within it to make yourself effective. Despise President Clinton all you like, but he beat all the angry Republicans with a simple show of public sadness.
You see, Americans despise bullies, and angry people always give off the aroma of a bully. Sad people, on the other hand, are victims. And victims get sympathy. This observation itself may make you angry. If so, that’s alright. Just don’t bother expressing it. No one will pay attention if you do.