Many say that, unlike in the past, Hollywood cinema in recent decades has denigrated religion--but the reality is more complex. Several new films present even fervent beliefs respectfully.
The relationship between the movies and religion has usually been an uneasy one. Although some films have presented sensitive and reverent depictions of religious belief, the clergy, and religious services and rites, others have denigrated or attacked religion with hostile or irreverent presentations. Some people may think that there was a golden yesteryear when movies revered religion and honored religious beliefs and practices more than today, but this is not really true.
There are a number of reasons why many people who make films--whether in Hollywood or elsewhere--have tended to be less than fully appreciative of religion. One is the kind of people who tend to go into film work. As Maryland-based film programmer and critic Eddie Cockrell says, the film business and Hollywood have "a history of attracting dysfunctional people--people who crave the fame, crave the money, crave the lifestyle, crave the attention" that being in the movies and Hollywood can give. Such people will be motivated differently from those who seek to have popular culture and its artifacts foster and uphold religious or moral beliefs and practices.
A second reason comes from the intellectual and cultural tenor of the times. Ever since the Enlightenment, a strong strand of thought and belief has seen religious belief and practice negatively, as impediments to clear and correct thought and good or humane action, and as something to be shunned by people who wish to think and act without destructive fetters. Darwin, Marx, and Freud--those three great apostles of modernism--all delivered messages (leading to habits of thought and action) that were explicitly antireligious. Although there are important counterexamples, the movies and their makers have frequently existed in and been part of this antireligious mind-set or cultural stream.
One can point to examples of both antireligious and proreligious films from almost any period in the history of cinema. From the silent era, Charlie Chaplin's The Pilgrim (1922) contains, as Kenneth Lynn says in Charlie Chaplin and His Times, "resemblances to the religious masquerade of the King and the Duke in Huckleberry Finn ... Menckenesque portrayals of the pomposity of latter-day Puritans ... [and] Sinclair Lewis-like satirization of a small-town tea party." The film features a drunk en deacon who welcomes Chaplin's tramp character to town, thinking that he is the new minister. The tramp is forced to give a sermon in a small church, so he acts out the story of David and Goliath in music-hall fashion--to a stunned congregation.
In Night of the Hunter (1955), Robert Mitchum plays a psychopathic preacher--with LOVE tattooed on the fingers of his right hand and HATE on the left--driven by repressed sexual desires to murder women and terrify children (David Thomson says Mitchum's "demented fraud" is "one of the most compelling studies of evil in American cinema"). And in Elmer Gantry (1960), based on the novel of the same title by Sinclair Lewis, Burt Lancaster plays a charlatan minister--crazed, alcoholic, adulterous, cynical, and money grubbing.
Some examples of religion-affirming films will be noted presently.
The harshest, most literate, and most clearly stated recent attack on Hollywood's handling of religion occurred in critic and TV host Michael Medved's 1992 book Hollywood vs. America. Medved joins those who claim that a "culture war" is occurring in America today. This war, he says, is against moral standards and judgments. He cites as his opponents the Hollywood decisionmakers themselves--producers, directors, script writers, song writers, critics who praise this morally bankrupt product, and those who say that, as a critic, Medved must not address the moral or intellectual content of a film or attack those other critics who praise things that are morally depraved. …