Christianity and the FCC:  A Faustian Bargain

Barry Fagin

Colorado Springs Gazette, March 23, 2000



Being a free-speech activist in Colorado Springs isn’t easy. We’re known for our large evangelical Christian community, many of whom I call friends. I got an email from one such friend the other day.  He knows about my views on free speech, and wanted my thoughts on a recent FCC decision.


A few weeks ago, conservative Christians were angry with how the FCC handled a Christian TV station’s licensing request.  When it applied to change channels, it learned that half of its programming had to serve an “educational, instructional, or cultural purpose”. Programs primarily devoted to “religious exhortation” wouldn’t count.


Doesn’t this, asked my friend, restrict free speech?  Doesn’t it make Christians into second-class citizens?  Is it fair that Christians in America can’t express themselves as freely as the secularists they oppose?  Are you just as fired up about this issue as you are about other free speech causes?  Finally, I think my friend wanted to know, what do you think about it?


All excellent questions.  The answers are: Yes, yes, no, yes, and I’ll tell you.


Governmental attempts to regulate religious expression ought to repulse all people of good will, including the non-religious, because they violate a basic human right:  the right of peaceful people to be left alone.  Unfortunately, this right has never been enthusiastically embraced by social conservatives, except when they themselves wish to exercise it. 


The FCC decision is a perfect example of the love/hate relationship some conservatives have with political power.  It unleashed a storm of protest from the Christian community, and (fortunately) was eventually reversed.  And yet, to whom does the predominantly Christian group Morality in Media turn to in its crusade to improve America’s television habits?  You guessed it:  the FCC.


Just two weeks ago, MIM released a lengthy memorandum to Congress demanding hearings on the FCC’s failure to enforce existing indecency legislation against television stations.  They may be unhappy with the job the FCC is doing, but they love its legal authority to dictate what Americans can watch and when they can watch it.  In light of recent events, is such infatuation truly wise?


The right response to the FCC decision, it seems to me, is to ask “Why is the right to broadcast dispensed as a privilege from Washington?” Once you ask this question, things start to get interesting.  After all, a bureaucracy deciding who gets to broadcast where and under what conditions is not required for civil society to function.  All you need are property rights to the electromagnetic spectrum.


This isn’t that radical:  ideas for market-based spectrum allocation have been around since the 80’s.   It’s been politically difficult, but that is changing.  Last month, before his elimination from the race, one of Senator McCain’s staff suggested that the FCC should be disbanded.   Sounds great to me, but how will social conservatives react if the idea gains ground?  Will they be willing to give up their fascination with national power in exchange for greater freedom for all?


I don’t know. I’m not a conservative, nor am I a Christian. But that seems to me to be the great question facing the Christian Right today.  Will politically active Christians realize that a government committed to a war on drugs can just as easily wage a war on guns?  That when they support laws banning same-sex benefits, they might get laws making them compulsory? That the same agency they hope will remove filth from the airwaves could just as easily remove religious programming?


There was one politically active Christian, I think, who knew the answer.  He’s the one who said that a man could not serve two masters.  Those who claim to follow in his footsteps, it seems to me, should decide which master they wish to serve.  My challenge to my Christian friend, and all the Christians I know, is this: do you have the power of your faith, or merely faith in power? 


America awaits your answer.


Barry Fagin is the Senior Fellow in Technology Policy at the Independence Institute, a Colorado public policy think tank. He is the co-founder of Families Against Internet Censorship, an ACLU National Civil Liberties Award recipient, and a member of Temple Shalom in Colorado Springs.