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Why God Can’t Get a Speaking Part in Hollywood

More than half the population of the United States will be in synagogue or church this week, the holy season of Passover and Easter. Surveys report that over 100 million Americans find God in daily prayer. His healing hand is experienced in hospitals, His hope in hospices. Victims and heroes who have brushed death in accidents and war passionately praise His name. Clergy of varied denominations enlist Him–successfully–to save marriages, comfort the grieving and give courage to people facing loss, career challenges, or troubled relationships with families or friends. Sunday schools still instruct the young in virtue and the heritage of the Bible, which is still the world’s perpetual best-seller. Christian books, almost unnoticed, out-publish the “trade book” houses that are followed so closely by the media.
But you have to look hard to find God in the movies or even on TV. He has been all but black-listed. When He gets a part, it usually is trivial, or ridiculous or even–amazingly–villainous.

In the midst of its regular diet of mayhem, you will find the occasional movie or TV program that tells a tale of people successfully combating gang violence, say, or rehabilitating drug addicts. But you seldom would guess that much of that work is done by religious groups–who raise over half of all charitable dollars in America–or that faith is not just part of the motivation for such service but is its transforming essence. Rev. Del C. Maxfield of the Denver Rescue Mission, for example, asserts that “God is the only answer to the spiritual emptiness that drives substance abuse.” He backs this claim with the fact that his mission’s success rate in rehabilitation programs is 60% for men and 70% for women, versus a government program success rate of 10%.

From building orphanages overseas to helping rescue teen runaways on our own urban streets, the churches are there, witnessing their faith in God. But seldom, if ever, are they in the movies or on TV. Millions of believers died at the hands of Hitler, Stalin and Mao, and Christians today are persecuted still in China, North Korea, Cuba and the Sudan. Christian doctors and nurses risk their lives in outbreaks of dread diseases in Africa and trying to prevent killings in the Balkans. Few of their stories make it on to the big screen.

The rare exception makes us grateful. Dead Man Walking just won an Oscar for Susan Sarandon who plays a nun who is involved as much in saving the soul as the life of a murderer on death row. There is little sense that this nun is part of a supporting church, but at least her own motivation in faith shines through. Looking back, one remembers a few other films of our times–Chariots of Fire in 1980, comes to mind–where real people in the movies lives of witness. A cartoon feature like Disney’s enormously popular The Lion King somehow evokes a sense of an Almighty and an eternal order.

But far more common are anti-religious movies like Disney’s The Priest, that Michael Medved, movie critic for PBS’ Sneak Previews, has called “the most anti-Catholic movie ever made,” or the poorly made, but ardently defended The Last Temptation of Christ, a few years back, which was genuinely sacrilegious. “Christians,” says Medved (who himself is a practicing Jew) “are the last group that Hollywood feels it can offend with impunity.”

Some of the offense is simply gratuitous and preposterous. There is stock use in comedies of the amiable buffoon who makes a brief appearance as a minister or priest at weddings (e.g., Four Weddings and a Funeral) or the silly rabbi with a Yiddish accent (c.f., the films of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen). On TV, its Dana Carvey’s sanctimonious and lusting “Church Lady” satire. But, increasingly, the stereotype is sinister: the evil, Bible-spouting warden in Shawshank Redemption (with the same Tim Robbins who–remarkably–directed Dead Man Walking), the fundamentalist fanatic in The Rapture, the Orwellian Puritans in The Handmaid’s Tale, the Pentecostal psychopath in Cape Fear, the maniac in who uses a sharpened crucifix to slash his victims, the hypocritical and violent papacy depicted in numerous thrillers such as The Pope Must Die . (When I was a babe, a few Protestants still railed against the papacy, while Hollywood glorified the Catholic Church in fine films such as Boys’ Town and Going My Way. Today, Protestant and Catholic clergy attend prayer groups together, leaving Hollywood to demonize the Vatican. The dark days of the Inquisition live on, not in the real world, only in the reel world.)

Hollywood, of course, is not meant to be real. Robert and Linda Lichter of George Washington University’s Media Center have shown that 40 percent of the murders on the screen are commited by businessmen, whereas you’d hardly find a less likely profile for the real life police blotter’s lineup. So what difference does it make if films and television trash religion when they are not ignoring it? Aren’t they just responding to the market and giving people what they want?

We can thank Michael Medved and his truly courageous 1991 book, Hollywood vs. America, for showing that Hollywood is not giving people what they want. The reason you may not even recognize some of the films I have listed here is that anti-religous movies tend to bomb. Most of the best attended, money-making movies of the past few years have been G rated or P-13 rated. Turkeys like The Pope Must Die routinely fare poorly at the box office.

So, why do they go on making them? Because, Medved indicates, people in Hollywood care most about impressing each other. They are very politically correct about a lot of things, which is why they adopt a dilettante’s affectation of New Age spirituality. They love “angels” and people coming back from the dead as helpful spirits, which is to say they imagine to be the goodies of religion without the responsibilities. But then they find organized religion offensive, or at least think that taking a cheap shot at it in their horror or science fiction flick will make them seem more like serious artists. Not to ordinary people–but to Hollywood. After all, “Epater les bourgeois” (shock the middle classes) has been the motive force of inferior art for much of the materialist 20th Century. Lacking a moral core, its original criticism of hypocrisy eventually became hypocritical itself, and, hence, literally degenerate. My colleague Philip Gold calls it “anarcho-sterility.”

This is not art, no matter how many candles you light in front of a ghoul’s shrine to Jesus. As the late Bart Giamatti, Renaissance scholar, Yale President and Baseball Commissioner said of the genre, it is “fatigue masquerading as philosophy.”

But if anti-religious themes are not money-makers and lack artistic authenticity, they still do damage. Just because an ad on TV doesn’t sell everybody, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sell somebody, as Medved points out. Hollywood’s antagonism to God and to people of faith cannot help but have an influence on the culture, just as its themes of wanton violence do. Worse, they portray to people who have no compensating contact with faith a bizarre caricature of reality. Instead of Mother Theresa (no film on her yet!), we get some dopey Christian slasher.

Fortunately, Hollywood is in financial trouble and cannot much longer support self-indulgent work that offends large segments of the population and results in small box office returns. Moreover, there are signs that some few producers, directors and artists are realizing that faith and the faithful are not necessarily their enemies. There are quiet Christians in Hollywood as there were in the Catacombs of Rome. They had a role in The Lion King, for example. Some Christians are forming film companies outside the Hollywood orbit. At the same time, a few Hollywood artists of integrity are going through something very like religious conversions. When Steven Spielberg made Schindler’s List, the great Holocaust story that ends in an affirmation of both brotherhood and deep faith, he not only came to grips with his ethnic Jewishness for the first time, but he also powerfully encountered the God behind it. His new company features both serious Christians and Jews. Its first motion picture, Spielberg recently announced, will be The Prince of Egypt, about Moses. Why? “To be a blessing” on the new company, he said.

Well, that’s not exactly the Church Lady speaking.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.