How prime time boxes in religion

By Thomas Johnson, Reprinted from TV, etc., April 1994

June 1994 –Not long ago, The Culture of Disbelief, by Yale law professor Stephen Carter, was the flavor of the month in the world of serious books – so much so that Carter received a thumbs-up from America’s First Reader. At a White House prayer breakfast, President Clinton endorsed the book’s central argument: that the virtual exclusion of religion from our legal and political culture works to our detriment.

Is the marginalization of religion which Carter writes about also manifest on prime time entertainment television? To answer this question, the Media Research Center’s Entertainment Division studied all prime time television shows (more than 1,000 hours worth) airing in 1993 on ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. The findings included:

Those who assert that sitcoms, dramatic series, telefilms, and miniseries engage in relentless religion-bashing apparently watch little or no television. The total number of hours of new prime time programming aired in one year on the broadcast networks alone is well into four figures. Given that the total number of depictions of religion in the study is 116, it is clear that Hollywood ignores faith far more than it demeans it.

On the rare occasions when prime time deals with religion, it does so unfavorably, but by a plurality, not a landslide. Overall, 42% of the portrayals of religion in the study are negative, 30% are mixed or neutral, and 28% are positive.

Broken down by category, these percentages are most illuminating. For example, cases when characters voice simple declarations of belief or non-belief, they are generally portrayed positively. By a margin of 63 to 22%, affirmations of faith outnumber expressions of agnosticism or atheism.

Positive examples include the title song to ABC’s Thea (“With God on my side/Keeping me in line/I don’t worry about nothing/It’s gonna be fine”) and the February 20 Sisters (NBC), wherein a woman, who becomes angry with God after her sister is found to have cancer, rediscovers her faith. One of the negative examples is found on the April 26 Homefront (ABC), on which a union leader states, “I have an equal affection for all religions: none.”

However, as professions of faith become more devout, the characters espousing such beliefs are more likely to be depicted negatively, particularly if they are Catholic. By 68 to 18%, the laity – not just casual churchgoers, but those who are shown taking their faith seriously – are depicted negatively.

Probably the most devout regular character on prime time is the evangelical Christian Jane Halliday, added this season to the fictional firm on NBC’s L.A. Law. There were positive portrayals of Jane on the series’ first two episodes of this season. On October 7, she rejects the advances of the office Lothario by telling him she is a practicing Christian and intends to remain a virgin until she marries, and on October 14, she talks a man out of suicide by offering him a faith-based message of hope.

Jane, unfortunately, is buried under an avalanche of anti-laity portrayals, including the December 3 Picket Fences (CBS). During the holiday season, a comatose young accident victim is found to be pregnant, in spite of overwhelming physical evidence that she is a virgin. The woman’s gynecologist says that as a Christian, he “believe[s] in the possibility of a miracle.”

It transpires that the gynecologist injected the woman with his own semen and staged the accident when she learned what he had done. His motivation? “Look what it’s done for Christianity,” he says after he’s arrested. “People all over reliving the possibility [of a virgin birth]. I was trying to provide a little hope.”

A murderous hypocrite is the protagonist of the February 23 CBS movie Judgment Day. John List, a devout Lutheran, refuses on religious grounds to let his daughter take part in a school play and rants at his other children for playing rambunctiously in the living room: “Evil still surrounds me. It lives in the very heart of this house.” He ultimately kills his insufficiently pious mother, wife, and children.

Negative depictions of the clergy dominate, 59 to 15%.

Several themes are used to ridicule clergymen, including prohibited clerical sexual activity (On the September 7 episode of NBC’s John Larroquette Show a prostitute mentions a customer who “someday...could be Pope.”) and brutal discipline (A Catholic woman on the May 1 broadcast of NBC’s Nurses says of a nun, “Her kind smacked the compassion out of me in the fourth grade.”).

In the October 28 Picket Fences, a priest dispenses inaccurate birth-control information when he suggests that a couple use the rhythm method – an anachronistic recommendation, inasmuch as the Church no longer endorses that technique. (The Vatican now recommends a far more effective practice called natural family planning.)

Two episodes of Fox’s Martin feature Leon Lonnie Love, a pimp-turned-minister who still behaves like a pimp. On February 11, when his date, Gina, questions him as to the source of his evident wealth, he replies, “God does provide. God provides like a son of a bitch.” On May 13, Leon bamboozles his congregation and once again harasses Gina.

NBC is the only network on which a majority of religious portrayals (56%) are negative. CBS (45%) and Fox (43%) trail NBC in percentage of negative depictions; ABC is the only network on which positive portrayals (37%) also outnumber negative ones (28%).

The positive trend in prime time’s treatment of religion should be noted. Thea, Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman (CBS), and Against the Grain (NBC) are 1993 premieres that have dealt fairly with religion, and the addition of Jane Halliday to L.A. Law is a real breakthrough, especially for such a liberal show.

The overall picture remains negative, however, and contrasts with the overwhelmingly positive portrayal of other sorts of characters, such as blacks and homosexuals. The day when prime time depicts its characters as individuals first and representatives of a group second is far off, but the recent improvement in the treatment of religious characters indicates it may yet arrive.  undefined