Religion on TV Doesn't Have a Prayer

By Gahr, Evan | The American Enterprise, September-October 1997 | Go to article overview

Religion on TV Doesn't Have a Prayer


Gahr, Evan, The American Enterprise


Whether it's news shows that ignore religion or entertainment programs that regularly depict clergymen as buffoons, hypocrites, or outright perverts, on remains ground zero for the culture of Rabbi Marc Gellman, one of the first clergymen to pear regularly on network television in some 40 years, that "there's an anti-religious perspective in the media. News has created life without religion. That has created a distorted version of the world." Adding insult to injury, he contends, are the entertainment programs that offer "demeaning and libelous" portrayals of clergymen. Crazed rabbis betray confidences, priests are pedophiles, others are just plain simpletons. Few men of the cloth receive much sympathy unless they're outright heretics or rabble-rousers.

Television executives wouldn't dare depict representatives of other groups in such a manner, lest they be charged with "insensitivity" and other cardinal liberal sins. But there's a special absolution for such transgressions if you mock religious folks. Despite improvements on both the news and entertainment side, the general picture remains bleak. For all their purported marketing savvy and sophistication, most television executives seem oblivious to many viewers' craving for programs that give religious devotion serious, fair-minded treatment.

According to TV Guide, 61 percent of television viewers polled want "references to God, churchgoing, and other religious observances in prime time." Although 90 percent of Americans believe in God and more than 50 percent attend church or synagogue regularly, religion is accorded relatively scant attention. Television executives invariably justify the sewage they dump on the cultural landscape - such as Murphy Brown's ode to Fatherless America - by claiming that these shows merely reflect social realities. Yet television consistently overlooks the centrality of religion in American life. So much for sociological accuracy.

A recent study by the Media Research Center reveals the skewed portrait of religion that television offers. Last year, there were 436 religious depictions - everything from one-liners to thematic treatments - in 1800 prime-time hours on the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, UPN, and WB). "Religion is a scarce commodity on prime-time TV, appearing about once every four hours. Even though depictions of religion [were] overall positive, prime time has too often presented distorted unfair views of both clergy and laity."

Television also seems fixated on religious-minded criminals: "Law and Order" featured a whole slew of religious psychos, including a crazed theology student who killed three persons while laboring under the impression that he was a biblical warrior. TV movies such as NBC'S "Justice for Annie" - in which a middle-aged couple kills a young woman for financial gain - offer similar fare. It's a safe bet that religious people are disproportionately represented among television's criminals.

Again, other groups would never receive such unflattering treatment. Indeed, "reality-based" television shows sometimes take "creative liberties" to insure that their fictional miscreants aren't top heavy with minorities. Yet while religious criminals are over-represented on TV, religious do-gooders are few and far between. James Martin, who writes on television for the liberal Catholic weekly America, notes that "ER" presents a wide array of representatives from the "helping professions" - everyone from teachers to Girl Scout leaders. But the only hospital chaplain he recalls is a nun who appeared in full habit, which most sisters haven't worn for years.

Still, "ER" is par for the course. For example, the recently defunct series "Picket Fences" prominently featured a local parish priest consumed by a foot fetish, as well as a shyster lawyer considered by many an anti-Semitic stereotype. To be fair, "Picket Fences" won kudos for many positive religious portrayals. And executive producer David Kelley has treated criticism with considerable seriousness, rather than hiding behind supposed "sociological accuracy. …

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