Politics & Policy

Subway Semiotics

What counts as controversial underneath New York City?

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is an advertising agency with a half-organized transit system attached, and it is happy to hawk all manner of goods and services: slip-and-fall law firms advertising their histories of multimillion-dollar payouts; reality-television shows of questionable taste and merit; storage companies that employ a lighthearted approach to mass murder as a tool of building brand affinity; etc. New York being New York, this is all taken in stride, and if you don’t want to begin your morning between two giant placards reading “Divorce” and “Bankruptcy,” there’s always the suburbs.

My attention was therefore arrested by an advertisement bearing a disclaimer from the collection of incompetent bums who don’t make the trains run on time: “This is a paid advertisement. The display of this advertisement does not imply MTA’s endorsement of any views expressed.”

Vodka makers and anti-Israel crusaders? No problem. But the Times Square Church gets a disclaimer.

The Times Square Church is an inter-denominational Christian congregation founded by evangelist David Wilkerson in 1987, back in the bad old days when Times Square was wall-to-wall pornography, prostitution, and drug-dealing; it’s a ministry to “the physically destitute and spiritually dead people,” as Mr. Wilkerson put it. And Times Square Church would very much like to pray for you — not in some general sense, but specifically, and has therefore, this being the 21st century, set up an online operation. You can send in your prayer requests online or you can send a text. On Tuesdays, the church holds a “Worldwide Prayer” meeting online, petitioning the Almighty on behalf of those who have requested its assistance in doing so. I prefer my Christianity a bit more pre-modern and unreformed in style, but their hearts seem to be in the right place; if the Creator of the universe is indeed listening, then it is quite possible that He is checking text messages, too. I do not pretend to know what the divine media strategy is or what it should be, but if the Times Square Church believes that the public-communications space should not be entirely ceded to Mammon, Moloch, and graphic-design-challenged dermatologists, then I suppose it is the case that a man with a light does not put it under a bushel, but on the No. 6 train, and it gives light unto all those who are on their way to Grand Central.

I have no objection to advertising vodka or trashy television shows, or to the MTA’s selling space to organizations that turn out to be about one degree of separation removed from Hamas or to anybody else who wants to get the word out to a few million commuters and a few hundred million rats. Let a thousand poison flowers bloom. But against that background, why the disclaimer for a bunch of presumably well-meaning church-goers who simply want to pray for people who wish to have prayers offered on their behalf?

This is not really a question of MTA policy, assuming that an organization as useless as the MTA has anything that might be called a policy, unless by “policy” we mean relentless stupidity and the pillaging of the public fisc. It is only another indicator of the intellectual weather of the times. Nobody thinks twice about advertisements dealing with, say, heroin addiction, even as MTA employees use their buses to traffic millions of dollars’ worth of the stuff, but prayer — prayer — is something that requires careful consideration and an explanation.

Christians and other religious people, and cultural traditionalists of all stripes, very often complain that far from wanting to use political power to impose their religious views on others, they would be happy to be left alone, or at least to have the services of public institutions that do not regard them as something somewhere between an enemy and an infection. The filth and bile that are part of public life everywhere in this country, not least in New York City, are taken as the price we pay for freedom of speech, thought, and conscience, which they are — but if you have a message or an idea that intersects with religion (and, let’s be honest, mostly with Christianity), then you are a political suspect. The very constitutional provisions that we wrote to protect the free exercise of religion have been perverted into excuses for restricting religious expression, and the cultural deck has been, in no small part through the actions of governmental and quasi-governmental agencies, stacked against the very tradition that was and is the cultural foundation of our society.

The guillotine is in, the cross is out. And if Christians are feeling a little alienated, can you blame us?

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.


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