When the animated television series The Simpsons appeared more than a decade ago, it was denounced by many throughout the nation, and nowhere more vigorously than from America's pulpits.
The nation's moral leaders thundered that this nuclear but dysfunctional family was the latest evidence of the fall of Western civilization.
"We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons," President Bush told the National Religious Broadcasters in 1992.
As cartoonist Matt Groening's show approaches a new season, it continues to be a source of controversy, this time drawing criticism from a Roman Catholic watchdog organization. The group, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, cited several jokes about the church. In one case, pressure from network officials last season forced the show's producers to alter a line about the Catholic Church from the original show when the program aired in rerun this summer.
But both the initial denunciations and the recent controversy obscure the fact that God, Christianity and Christians are more a part of the Simpsons' daily lives than any other prime-time network series not specifically devoted to religion, such as Touched By An Angel and 7th Heaven.
"Right-wingers complain there's no God on TV," Groening said in a recent interview in Mother Jones magazine. "Not only do the Simpsons go to church every Sunday and pray, they actually speak to God from time to time. We show him, and God has five fingers, unlike the Simpsons, who only have four."
Mike Scully, the series' executive producer, said the show tries to reflect through its characters the fact that faith plays a substantial part in many families' lives.
"We try to represent people's honest attitudes about religion," he said.
The Simpsons is consistently irreverent toward organized religion's failings and excesses, as it is with most other aspects of modern life. However, God is not mocked. When the Simpsons are faced with crises, they turn to God. He answers their prayers and intervenes in their world. The family says prayers before meals, believes in a literal heaven and hell and ridicules cults. Their next-door neighbors are committed evangelical Christians.
Some in the religious world have recognized this phenomenon. Three years into the series, in 1992, the show was the subject of a favorable master's thesis at Pat Robertson's Regent University.
"While it may not completely resonate with the evangelical Judeo-Christian belief system," wrote Beth Keller," The Simpsons does portray a family searching for moral and theological ideals."
And in the Christian monthly Prism, published by Evangelicals for Social Action, teacher Bill Dark wrote that the series is "the most pro-family, God-preoccupied, home-based program on television. Statistically speaking, there is more prayer on The Simpsons than on any sitcom in broadcast history."
William Romanowski is looking for a video of "Homer the Heretic," an episode of The Simpsons to use in the class he teaches at Calvin College, a Christian school in Michigan.
The author of Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life, Romanowski said the episode is instructive because "it tries to get at the role God and religion play in people's everyday lives."
This is not to say that when the Old Testament prophet Isaiah said "a little child shall lead them," he had young Bart Simpson in mind. Sometimes, it's more a case of "suffer the little children." Bart's grace at mealtime is likely to be, "Rub a dub, dub, thanks for the grub."
Homer, who works at a nuclear power plant, often expresses gratitude at the dinner table, even extending well beyond sustenance, thanking God "most of all for nuclear power, which is yet to cause a single, proven fatality, at least in this country."
The Simpsons' blessings are decidedly mixed. …