August 22, 2005
Thinking Inside the Mailbox
-- Martin E. Marty
"Putting Jesus in Every Mailbox." That headline on a story by Shaila Dewan (New York Times, August 16) provides an opportunity for us to try to make a point about religion in public life. First, to crib from the Dewan report on the Jesus Video Project America (related to Campus Crusade): This is a mass mailing of a DVD on the life of Jesus, intended to reach every American home through "saturation evangelism." While 20 million copies have gone out, at the present rate you may not be reached until 2040. Never mind, it's already an old movie, which Time saw as a meticulous effort at authenticity, but which the New York Times called "painfully monotonous." Even a promoter who bought 1.7 million copies at $2 to $3 a disk and mailed them to every Alabama household gave it what sounds like only a 1.5-star rating. "The actor who plays Jesus breathes noticeably as he lies in the tomb." (There goes the Time accolade about authenticity!) In other words, it's a bit amateurish, but that does not deter supporters from supporting it.
As for reception: In a Georgia town, it had been viewed by 62 out of 100 homes; in Peoria, Illinois -- they're getting closer to us here! -- only 32 out of 100 saw it. Dewan, interviewing in one county, found no one offended, but "it was also difficult to find anyone who had actually watched the DVD." She did turn up a soul here and there who had been "saved" by its message. Viewers who felt that their sacred mailbox had been violated, as some did in heavily Jewish West Palm Beach, taped DVDs to bricks and mailed them back, hoping the sender would have to pay postage. Some think the money should have gone to the poor, something said whenever someone in another faith offends by spending money.
Enough -- you get the point. Now my point: Here is an excellent example of the way citizens can legitimately propagate their faith, try to convert others, and bolster their ranks. Those of us who oppose efforts to festoon classrooms and courtrooms with "Our God is better 'n your God" artifacts, or to sound the call to worship in such settings, should have no legal or policy reasons to want to restrict these "free enterprise," "non-governmentally endorsed" expressions. Some may think it bad manners to crowd little mailboxes with such mailings. Some may be in the mood of late comic Jimmy Durante, who turned slightly profane when asking, "Why doesn't everybody leave everybody else the hell alone?" Some will join us in recycling the DVDs along with other junk mail. (The Martys daily get three or four unsolicited magazines and a score more of unwanted and never-to-be-opened solicitations and advertisements.)
Picky we can be. It may be that all of us are subsidizing these ventures if they benefit from lowered postage rates that force a need to raise others, but if we want to get that scrupulous and refined, we are never going to be happy citizens, mailers, or addressees. Aggressive religious door-knockers, in towns where door-to-door solicitation is legal, may be irritants, but they are acting within their rights.
Back to basics: If the proselytizing or advertising occurs in settings that do not imply governmental privilege or favor, let some mail, some knock, and others knock those who knock. And religion will prosper in public life.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.