Nothing is worse than religious legalism unless it is media legalism. Back when I was a boy growing up in Oklahoma, almost every two-week revival (we took them seriously back then) ended with the evangelist making an appeal for all good Baptist Christians to come forward and lay their besetting sins on the altar. Some surrendered their snuff. Some, their canasta decks. But if the sermon was really good, half of those sen-sen-breathing, cover-up smokers would come forward and lay their Lucky Strikes on the altar.
Well, media people thought Baptists were only legalistic in those days. Of course, everything changes with time, Baptists notwithstanding. The President of Baylor would have sparked nationwide revival if he had confessed to rhythmical movements (a term that we used to use at Baptist colleges to keep from saying the "D" word) 30 years ago. But now that Baylor's CEO has become more open, Baptists don't feel it so necessary to preach against you-know-what anymore. First of all, revivals are too short to support long altar-calls, where people had time to get down to heavy business. Suburban church softball gets the focus we used to give to the second chapter of Acts. Snuff-surrenders are a thing of the past. Dominoes tend to be played openly on the back lots at Ridgecrest. Movies are Sunday school outings. And sin, which we used to have revivals to confess, has been downgraded to misdemeanors. I'm OK, you're OK, right? Especially if it's OK with Him.
Exit religious legalism, enter media legalisms.
Now Peter Jennings and the FDA both wish Americans would all come forward and put their Lucky Strikes on the altar. On the evening news Dan Rather and the Surgeon General sound like Angel Martinez used to! Why do we hear now — nightly it seems — media sermons against tobacco?
Smoking among teens is up in the last three years, and the question everyone is asking is, 'How do you stop the little mall-rats from doing it?' Part of the problem seems to be that teenagers seem to get more upset when you tell them they can't have their noses pierced than they do when you tell them, by smoking, they will die at 68 instead of 76. Ask the media and they'll tell you that teen smoking is a problem. Somewhere around 34% of Euro-American high school girls smoke, and 32% of boys. For African-Americans, it's 29% for boys and 12% for girls.
And who's saying, "Cut it out, right now!?" Baptist evangelists? Maybe, but not as regularly as Peter Jennings. What a switch! The media have stolen all our old sermons. The media, those liberal champions of the status-quo.
Now that we Baptists have lined up with the FDA, we should find ourselves saying "Amen!" to the evening news and wondering why, if the media can be so straightforward, the church can't be. Are we still sweltering too much from the idea that when the media says it, then it's good sociology, but when the church says it, it's legalism?
To be sure, the media is not everywhere straight. It is true that the church has taken issue with the media on abortion, euthanasia, and televised porno flicks. These are things you rarely hear the media get red in the face about, but I wonder if we might give Peter Jennings and Dan Rather a little support on the tobacco matter. It's true that we said it first, but it's just as true when they say it.
Why are we both saying the same things? Because they're trying to battle cancer and TB, but with us it's a gift of Christ's counsel, born in our love for the Spirit, and Christian commitment. But since we're both going the same way (even it for different reasons) maybe we could both get mad about the right stuff together.
Calvin Miller is a professor at Southwestern Seminary.