TV's trouble with religion

Posted: Dec 24, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

 For example, both ABC's "The Practice" and CBS's "Without a Trace" had adulterous-priest plotlines. CBS's "Cold Case" featured an abusive convent where one of the nuns bore a child out of wedlock. In CBS's "Judging Amy," a minister beat a boy with a whip, and on a later episode, a Catholic priest underwent a sex-change operation.

 The Catholic Church was singled out for abuse by Tinseltown this past year. Even on NBC's "Last Comic Standing," the reality show and comedian contest, several "Catholic" comics mocked the Pope and the church. Tammy Pescatello joked, "It's a good time to be Catholic 'cause we're grading on a curve. As long as you're not touching pee pees you got a get-out-of-hell-free card. That poor Pope. If he could stand up, he'd stab those priests with his hat, don't you think?"

 Unsurprisingly, the shows on the Pax network, which Bud Paxson founded to stand apart from the others with a more reverent schedule, were more than 90 percent positive in their religion treatments, and a small number were mixed or neutral, without a single negative exchange on religious issues. Among the more traditional networks, CBS (the "Joan of Arcadia" network) led with the most positive religion portrayals, with 38.3 percent.

 On the other end was NBC, which could only manage to have 4.8 percent of its religious moments turn out positive. NBC had a shocking ratio of 9.5 negative treatments for every positive one.

 NBC spokeswoman Shannon Jacobs tried to argue that "It is never our intention to appear, nor do we accept the notion that we are, anti-religious." Unfortunately for her, the Associated Press story quoting her also noted a clip from NBC's "Will & Grace" featuring a character quipping, "let's go by that historic church and turn it into a gay bar." It is impossible for NBC to convince very many people that this scene was not mocking religion. Perhaps when NBC states it "reflects the diversity of their audience," it means giving credibility to those who would insult religion.

 Religion continues to serve as a critical element in the lives of most Americans. Hollywood must be challenged to examine its conscience. Ironically, the more often entertainment programs reflect the values and beliefs of Americans, the more it would help Hollywood's most sacred idea -- the bottom line.