As Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of the Christ child and Jews give thanks and praise to God for sustenance even in alien lands and hostile cultures, it's a great time to reflect on how the relentlessly secular entertainment industry reflects -- in fact, mocks -- the religious beliefs of its American audience.
In the arid land of secular orthodoxy, there is no alarm at simple "spirituality" if it is trendy and harmless, and the God-idea is conveniently controlled by the individual, instead of the individual submitting to a sovereign you-know-Who. Even traditional faiths can be tolerated by Hollywood as long as they are kept quiet and muffled behind closed doors. Private prayer is fine, if it helps you. But the minute that traditionalists arrive at the public square to persuade and evangelize, then it's instantly oppressive and archaic.
America broadly believes in God and, in particular, the divinity of Christ. A 2003 Harris poll found 90 percent believed in God and 80 percent believed in the resurrection of Jesus. To see how Hollywood reacts to that norm, the Parents Television Council, along with the National Religious Broadcasters, conducted a study of one year of prime-time television treatments of religion on the seven broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN, WB and Pax -- from September 2003 to September 2004.
For an industry that claims to reflect reality, the results are not good. Religion is virtually ignored, and when covered, more often than not it's attacked.
PTC analyst Caroline Eichenberg found that TV writers were kindest to private expressions of faith, with more than 50 percent of those lines or scenes positively treated. For a typical example, when the lead character of "JAG" is hospitalized, another character prays for his health. One rare negative treatment was comedian Jimmy Kimmel kicking off his hosting duties at the American Music Awards by mocking award winners: "And finally, this is a personal thing: no thanking God. God does not watch television."
But when TV writers construct a plot with clergy or one discussing church institutions, the portrayals are more than twice as likely to be negative than positive. Indeed, only 11.7 percent of treatments of religious institutions or doctrines were positive. The clergy were depicted positively only 14.6 percent of the time. You don't get much more out of sync with American popular opinion than that.