Editor's note: This essay accusing Hollywood elites of anti-Christian bigotry is made all the more deserving of our readers' attention because it is written, not by a fellow-Christian, but by a leading American rabbi. The same point is made by Michael Medved, a highly respected film critic, who is also Jewish, in the book and video, Hollywood vs. Religion.
Parental concerns over the levels of sex, violence, and profanity on television has led the entertainment industry to introduce a controversial new TV rating system. Unfortunately, the public debate over program content has not extended to another troubling aspect of our popular entertainment: Hollywood's increasing antipathy toward religious faith in general and to Christianity in particular.
Is Hollywood hostile to institutional religion? To faith? To Christianity? If so, why? These questions demand careful analysis, for Hollywood's impact on our popular culture is profound and undeniable. A brief review of films with religious characters reveals that this impact is largely negative.
Hollywood's defenders point to recent films such as The Preacher's Wife and Dead Man Walking in their efforts to deny this hostility. But these are merely the exceptions that prove the rule. More often than not, filmmakers seem to go out of their way to depict people of faith in the worst possible light. And while Jews and Judaism are, by and large, portrayed favorably and reverentially, Christians, particularly Evangelical Protestants and devout Catholics, do not fare so well.
One is left with the distinct impression that Hollywood has a very real and pervasive anti-Christian bias. Critics of the film industry often cite the highly controversial movie The Last Temptation of Christ, a 1986 release that took cinematic irreverence and iconoclasm to new heights. But Hollywood's portrayals of religious figures have worsened over the last decade.
How else do we explain the fact that Christian clergy — when they are portrayed at all — are usually shown engaging in morally reprehensible behavior? Or the fact that Christian symbols are associated with characters who prey upon society? Or that the crimes of various antagonists are shown to be religiously motivated?
In Primal Fear, for example, the local archbishop is murdered by one of the waifs he exploited in his self-made porn films. The lead character in Priest is shown in a homosexual tryst with a stranger. The sadistic nurse in Misery wears a cross; the rapist in Eye For An Eye sports one as well. A killer played by Harry Connick, Jr. in Copycat repeatedly invokes the name of Jesus.
In the remake of Cape Fear, the psychotic killer has a crucifix tattooed on his back and frequently quotes the Bible. In Seven, the crazed killer has a neon cross above the bed; his room filled with religious items, including Bibles and empty Holy Water containers. In Johnny Mnemonic, the main assassin is a Jesus look-alike named Street Preacher. He carries a huge crucifix that's actually a dagger and kills his victims crucifixion-style.
Sadly, such anti-Christian films represent the norm among films being released by Hollywood today. Perhaps what is most disturbing is that there is no balance coming out of Hollywood on this sensitive issue. The near total absence of films with positive Christian characters provides clear evidence of anti-Christian bias on the part of many filmmakers.
Christian beliefs and symbols are often belittled by Hollywood producers and writers. Clergy are portrayed as hypocrites — or worse. The cherished symbols of their faith are put to blasphemous uses. Indeed, if there is a Christian character in a film, he is usually depicted as a fool, a liar, a cheater, a diabolical murderer, or a crazy person.
The manifestation of such prejudice on screen is a relatively recent phenomenon. During the golden era of Hollywood when, incidentally, the "Jewish influence" on the industry was much stronger than it is today, movie-goers were more likely to encounter religious characters who were heroes, from Spencer Tracy in Boys Town and Bing Crosby in Going My Way to Gregory Peck in The Keys of the Kingdom and Henry Fonda in The Fugitive. It wasn't until the late 1960s that positive portrayals became an endangered species. Contrast, for example, the nun played by Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music in 1965 and the nuns in 1985's Agnes of God, in which a pregnant nun murders her own infant child.
One can't help but wonder if this shift could have been averted if Christian groups were as well-organized as the Jewish community. Could Hollywood producers ridicule and malign Christians with impunity if the Christian community organized its own equivalent of the Anti-Defamation league?
Can this situation be changed? It will take a great deal of effort since Hollywood is determined to produce such films despite their financial track record. Not surprisingly, most of the movies referenced above have been box office flops.
We must hold Hollywood accountable for their "product." Just as tobacco companies are expected to make money without enticing the young, and chemical plants are expected to turn a profit without polluting the environment, so filmmakers must assume responsibility for that which they produce. They must recognize that their harmful and egregious depictions of religion and faithful Christians are as damaging to our popular culture as drugs are to the body and pollutants are to the environment.
Hollywood can and should do better. We should demand it.
"The Rapture, and I quote, 'is the immediate departure from this Earth of over four million people in less than a fifth of a second,' unquote. This happily-volatilized mass of the saved were born again in Jesus Christ. Everybody left behind will basically go to Hell, but not before experiencing Armageddon, which is a really bad end of the world. If you find yourself in this situation, there isn't much you can do except one, starve yourself, and two, get your head cut off. This loving Christmas message coming as it did amid the jingle of the mall Santa and the twinkling manger at the corner of Canal and the Ramparts made it clear that the Rapture is indeed necessary. The evaporation of four million people who believe this cr-p (editor's modification) would leave the world an instantly better place."
New Orleans-based National Public Radio commentator Andrei Codrescu, Dec. 19, 1995. "All Things Considered."