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.

Comments (11)

by Ben on May 10, 2012
Ben

excellent post. also good to see another of my old law lecturers on pundit.

I am confused as to why the ASA even decided to respond. I guess if the Equippers Church 'sells' Jesus, the Commerce Commision or Ministry of Consumer Affairs might try to protect our precious rational (but not rational enough) minds too. What bullies the Equippers church must be, picking on us vulnerable non-believers... (/sarc).

As with most matters in religion and theology, does the finding not depend on your definition of God or Jesus? I am not sure that ordinary people would take the assertion that 'Jesus heals Cancer' as literal, or even anything more than opinion. Is it not equally valid to claim 'God causes Cancer'?

This seems as 'untrue' as the contention that Doctors, or modern medicine at least, 'heals' mental illness - the trouble is, Doctors don't know how some things actually work (ECT, Lithium, the list is long). Better call the ASA if anyone tries convincing us otherwise in public...

My point, which agrees with yours Rex, is where does this mandate to limit free speech end, and what point does it serve? Hopefully vox populi is loud enough to make the ASA's futility on this issue apparent to the ASA itself. Otherwise, it is more ammunition for the anti-PC brigade to conflate with genuinely insensitive propaganda.

by barry on May 10, 2012
barry

If I put up some advertising saying that my universal elixer cures cancer that would also be breaching the ASA rules, even if I give it away for free.  How is religion discriminated against?

Nobody (religion or not) should be allowed to claim medicinal benefits that aren't backed up by scientific proof. Even "Jesus sometimes heals" and “Jesus heals colds and rheumatism” are not provable and can't be justified in advertising.

None of the other claims you suggest would be OK make any unprovable claims.  Condoms and KY jelly really do work.

Of course if they advertised "naughty by night" and that turned out to be false then it would also be against the rules.

 

by Scott Chris on May 11, 2012
Scott Chris

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 rationale in this ruling seems clear. Lasciviousness isn't considered to be substantially harmful within the context of modern liberal society, whereas offering false hope to those who may be dying is considered to be substantially harmful. I don't think conflating that issue with that of the mocking of Christians is the same argument.

Incidentally, a reasonably cogent argument supporting deific intervention could be made based on the assumption that everything is God. If so, human medical intervention is divine. 

 

 

 

by stuart munro on May 12, 2012
stuart munro

It would interesting to see the ASA enforce these strict truth requirements on pre-election political advertising or even ordinary commercial advertising - claims of value for instance. I can recall an Exclusive Brethren printed pamphlet that contained gross deliberate distortions and provable factual inaccuracies. So nice of the ASA to volunteer to straighten such things out.

by Tim Watkin on May 12, 2012
Tim Watkin

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Of course the billboard can't be proven. But it can't be proven inaccurate on every occasion either. What might be false hope to some may be very real to others. And it's not like faith – in Jesus or another – is for sale like a soap powder or tablet. So I do wonder.

by Johnny the Red on May 15, 2012
Johnny the Red

I always thought the most useful counterpoint would be a billboard that said: "Sometimes Jesus just lets you die for no good reason, because he's like that".

by John Stroup on May 16, 2012
John Stroup

 I'd say that the burden of proof that the claim "Jesus heals cancer" be on those that believe this to be not possible.

I know of several people who have been "healed", after medical efforts had failed, and the only explaination was that of invocation of supernatural power. Truth in advertising? "Jesus heals cancer" IS a truthful statement, but only for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. The rest could see and hear, but that would take faith in more than themselves.

 

by Jay on May 19, 2012
Jay

Segment 1

Did Equippers church putting up the billboard tantamount to commercial advertising? It certainly appears so. By advertising “Jesus heals cancer” the church was suggesting it offered something the other churches cannot (TVNZ). While the church may be a non-profit organisation, the billboard – which provided information about church service times – fit the definition of an advertisement (TV3).  The advertising is suggestive of the church seeking to increase its followers/membership. Whether the increase in membership is deemed commercial activity is not the question raised in this topic however, by putting up the billboard the church engaged in advertising itself for a service it offered (healing cancer by Jesus).

The other point raised by the author is whether the billboard message would be considered inconceivable by most modern minds. Definitely, but how about those, whose all other means have failed to find a cure and they take the billboard seriously enough to believe it. Further, it would be dangerous if the few vulnerable are encouraged to abandon conventional medical treatment by taking the claim seriously. Such a consequence would surmount to the billboard giving false information or even preying on the vulnerable, a socially irresponsible act on part of the church.

As correctly pointed by the author, such a claim or belief in the idea is acceptable if confined to debates at home or at a congregation at church. However, when advertised on a billboard the viewpoint changes appearing to be a factual claim, that cannot be validated by empirical evidence. The church accepted that the billboard was not aimed at generating public debate neither was it self-expression (opinion/belief). Stating bible as its authoritative and reliable source of information the church was attempting to substantiate the claim.

The imaginary deity (Jesus) described in a religious book supposedly written thousands of years ago does not provide a sound provable basis. Such a claim can be construed as puffery, “the practice by a seller (Equippers church) of making exaggerated, fanciful or suggestive claim about a product or service (Jesus healing cancer).” (Arrington R.L) The advertising message is not meant to be simply information that allows public to make a decision. It is in fact attempting to influence thinking of the public by offering a service that rids a problem and prolongs life. Surely this is a form of puffery. Admittedly such a technique is desirable in advertising as it offers hope. (Levitt, T.) The message certainly offers hope to the readers of the billboard especially the ones that are affected by cancer. That said such use of puffery amounts to manipulation and exploitation. Drawing people, suffering of cancer and those in the wider community affected by the disease, by a message that is a scientific improbability furthermore using religious figure as Jesus, appears to be a case of manipulation.

The message on the billboard transcends the religious orientation of the reader. It is not stating that Jesus heals cancer for only Christians. So anyone with cancer can expect healing from Jesus. This is indicative of the church targeting wider audience in the hope a certain number of people will buy into their product (membership). Furthermore, by offering such a service makes their church stand out from others. Why else would it put a billboard up?

by Jay on May 19, 2012
Jay

Segment 2

The author points out that advertising ethics code states that “expressions of opinion are essential and desirable for functioning of a democratic society”. Also that “opinion should be clearly distinguishable from factual information.” The message on the sign was conveyed more as factual information than a message of belief and hope. The ASA upheld the complaint that the sign had caused offence to the complainants.  It ruled that the advertisement had "neither been prepared nor displayed with the due sense of social responsibility required'' and therefore breached the code of ethics. (NZ Herald) The church accepted the ASA ruling and replaced the sign.

Was ASA right? Did it suppress freedom of speech?  I don’t think so. The agency functioned well within its mandate. Many ethicists are of opinion that commercial speech should be regulated and need not be accorded same protection as privileged (e.g. advertisements for political candidates) or religious speech (belief). This sign cannot pass as a religious speech. InNew Zealandit is not uncommon to find signs in the premises of places of worship. Mostly quotes from Holy Scriptures however, the difference in this case was that it was stated as a strong absolute statement of fact – it was neither, information nor opinion, attributes of commercial speech. “We should value speech not just as it contributes to autonomy, but also as it contributes to a valuable human life. The characteristics of political or religious speech that makes it worthy of protection is that it encourages us to deliberate about the very meaning and value of life. Commercial speech does not typically involve this, and so should not be accorded same level of protection”. (Open Polytechnic, 2012, M3, p 32)   

In author’s view the complainants finding church’s sign offensive, deceptive and irresponsible is unfathomable. I feel the complainants are justified and entitled to their feeling offended. They have also behaved ethically by taking the matter to the appropriate authority rather than taking matters into their own hands e.g. vandalizing the sign. The complaint does not appear to be Christianity bashing neither does the ASA decision influenced due lowly status of the religion inNew Zealandas suggested by the author. I think all parties involved acted ethically to uphold what is morally right and to an expected standard in a secular democratic society. 

References

Jesus heals cancer' billboard ruled offensive – Retrieved 12/5/2012, from http://tvnz.co.nz/national-news/jesus-heals-cancer-billboard-ruled-offen...

Complaint against 'Jesus Heals Cancer' billboard upheld - Retrieved 12/5/2012, from http://www.3news.co.nz/Complaint-against-Jesus-Heals-Cancer-billboard-up...

The Open Polytechnic ofNew Zealand. (2012)-Reading 3.9 Advertising and Behaviour Control - Marketing and the Disclosure of Information p. 409 Arrington, Robert L.

The Open Polytechnic ofNew Zealand. (2012)-Reading 3.9  Advertising and Behaviour Control - Marketing and the Disclosure of Information p. 411 Levitt, Theodore

Jesus heals cancer' billboard complaint upheld Retrieved  13/5/2012, from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10802580

The Open Polytechnic ofNew Zealand. (2012) Module Three. 71203 Business Ethics. Lowe Hutt, NZ: Author Vanessa Scholes.

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by Jeff McClintock on December 11, 2012
Jeff McClintock

Here's why the bilboard was offensive. And here's what happens when faith-healing become a big money spinner for charletans - This Paster made a lot of money off the old and vulnerable with 3rd rate magic tricks....

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwfGRHINJUA

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