The National Council of Churches, at a meeting scheduled this week in Baltimore, is expected to condemn the violence on television and in movies and criticize the communications media for global marketing of American values to the exclusion of other cultures.
The mostly Protestant, mostly liberal council, the country's largest ecumenical organization, has already stirred controversy in religious circles with its proposed policy statement on global communications.
Some critics see that statement as too vague, as tolerant of repressive Third World governments and as a simplistic adaptation of Marxist liberation theology.
But even traditional opponents of the liberalism perceived as dominant in the mainline churches appear to agree that violence on TV and in movies has reached unacceptable levels.
A dilemma for the council is that it finds censorship equally unacceptable, and thus must rely -- without much hope of success -- on persuading "media industries . . . to act as good citizens in society."
The five-day meeting of the church leaders, beginning tomorrow at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, will be the first return to Baltimore by the New York-based council since it met here in February 1964.
Voting is by a 275-member board representing 32 Protestant and Eastern Orthodox denominations with a total membership of about 49 million.
In connection with the meeting, the Rev. Gordon L. Sommers, head of the Moravian Church in America, will be installed as the new president of the council in an ecumenical service Wednesday evening at West Baltimore's Bethel AME Church, with music by a brass band and combined choirs from Moravian congregations.
Dr. Sommers will be the first Moravian to head the 43-year-old council. The evangelical Moravian Church in America was established in the 18th century by central European missionaries to Georgia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
Clergy planning to take part in the installation service, in addition to the Rev. Frank Madison Reid III, Bethel's pastor, include the Rev. Syngman Rhee, who is concluding his two-year term as council president; Bishop Shen Yifen of the China Christian Council and Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Neither the Roman Catholic Church nor the Southern Baptist Convention, the country's largest Protestant denomination, is a member of the council.
Carl Sagan, the scientist and author who has urged stronger religious commitments to protecting the environment, will address the council at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Scheduled to speak at 11:30 a.m. Friday is President Fidel Ramos of the Philippines.
While the business of the meeting includes discussions or debates on other topics -- such as human rights, evangelism, Cuba, criminal justice, urban strategies and health care -- the two policy statements critical of the communications media are the only ones up for a final reading and adoption.
The less controversial of the two statements says that "our society knows violence through abuse and rape, rising crime rates and diminishing trust" and that this violence is clearly exacerbated "by the prominence given to it in films, television and other media."
It condemns "the misuse of the First Amendment by commercial interests as a cover for a quest for profit," holding "media industries accountable for what they produce and distribute."
Although it calls on the government to develop media standards, media incentives, tougher regulations and "vigilant supervision" of the airwaves through the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, it also says:
"As objectionable as we find media violence, we do not believe government censorship is a viable or appropriate solution."
It calls on the churches and the families of the United States to monitor the viewing habits of their members with regard to television, movies and video games, and to "protect children from seeing films expressly intended for adults."
And it urges municipal governments to review media violence when they are entering into contracts with the cable television industry.
The council's proposed statement on global communications accuses the U.S. television and film industries of exporting programs that appeal "to the base instincts of humanity" for private gain and creating "a mass culture of the lowest common denominator of all of society."
The statement claims both the entertainment and news media are motivated by consumerism and greed, instant gratification, the use of violence rather than negotiation as a way of solving problems, sexual titillation and the satisfaction of curiosity rather than a deeper consideration of issues.
'Pandering' being exported
Charging that a government commitment to "public service obligations" has been "abrogated in the United States in favor of marketplace regulation" and that this "pandering" is being exported to other nations, the controversial policy statement says the damaging messages presented in global communications include exploitation of the weak by the strong -- "particularly women, children, older persons and ethnic minorities" -- and "single viewpoints rather than multiple viewpoints."
Because of the "concentration of ownership and power" of the media in Western nations, cultures in other parts of the world are being "swept away in the flood of mass images," the proposed statement says.
The Washington-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, which has often opposed what it calls the council's "bureaucratic ecumenism" and "consistent leftist slant," nevertheless agrees in critique of the proposed policy statement that most Christians are concerned about "so few corporations" having "so much control over the shape of popular culture."
The institute argues, however, that the council treats the issues in "simplistic terms of liberation theology" when it warns that the world's poor "are not able to withstand the onslaught of Western, and primarily American, media."
The statement "acknowledges none of the complexity involved in communications, including how people sort through what they receive," the institute said, asking, "Is democracy part of the problem or part of the solution?"