The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

From Birth of a Nation to the Denigration of Christianity

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Most of what comes out of Hollywood these days is rubbish, although occasionally one does find a few gems (e.g., Chariots of Fire, Hoosiers, Driving Miss Daisy, Babe, October Sky, A Walk to Remember). Many movies that could be enjoyed by children and adults are often spoiled by raw language (My Cousin Vinny), taking God’s name in vain (Cinderella Man and The Aviator), inappropriate language (Searching for Bobby Fischer and O Brother Where Art Thou?), sexual situations (Dr. Strangelove, Doc Hollywood, You’ve Got Mail, The Natural, My Big Fat Greek Wedding), and violence (Tombstone, The Godfather[1]). Some movies will add a few cuss words to ensure that they do not get the dreaded “G” rating. The Iron Giant and Searching for Bobby Fischer are examples.

It’s no accident that early Hollywood designated the priest as the most trusted of film characters. Spencer Tracy, Bing Crosby, and Pat O’Brien made their careers with movies like Angels with Dirty Faces, Boys Town, The Men of Boys Town, Going My Way, and The Bells of St. Mary’s. Every parish dreamed of having a Father Flanagan for its priest or a priest who just looked like Pat O’Brien. Notice that in almost every case, the priest was a friend and confidant to young boys. It came with the territory. Parents always knew that their children were safe with a priest.

Film-making in the early years was nearly dominated by Jews, as Neal Gabler describes in his highly informative book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. Even so, Catholic clergy were almost universally depicted as decent and caring spiritual leaders. Louis B. Mayer “was a close friend and a great admirer of New York’s Cardinal Spellman, with whom he dined every time he visited New York, and a large portrait of Spellman in his red vestments was the first sight that greeted visitors to Mayer’s library.”[2] It was the church’s “respectability” that impressed Mayer. “If a character appeared on screen wearing a clerical collar it served as a sure sign that the audience was supposed to like him.”[3] Thanks to the new Hollywood, clergymen of all kinds have fallen on hard times. “Whenever someone turns up in a contemporary film with the title ‘Reverend,’ ‘Father,’ or ‘Rabbi’ in front of his name you can count on the fact that he will turn out to be corrupt or crazy—or probably both.”[4]

The trend to turn on religious-themed movies began with Elmer Gantry (1960) and Inherit the Wind (1960) in the decade following the release of The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben Hur (1959), which were box office hits. Chariots of Fire (1981) is one exception that proves the rule that Hollywood has little regard for true Christian plot lines. On the surface Sister Act (1992) seems like a reverent treatment of religion until you realize that it takes a Las Vegas lounge singer to revive an inner-city church. If Whoopi Goldberg had not shown up, the church and the convent would have died.

Movies like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Jesus of Montreal (1989), The Rapture (1991), Priest (1994), Dogma (1999), Stigmata (1999), The Magdalene Sisters (2003), and V for Vendetta (2006), to name a few, are a direct attack on Christian themes. They were money losers. The Da Vinci Code will prove to be an exception. The fact that it stars Tom Hanks and is directed by Ron Howard will almost guarantee that it will be a blockbuster. What will Christians put up against it? Another Left Behind movie?

Why this walk down movie memory lane? D. W. Griffth’s The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 epic silent-era film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan and cemented racial stereotypes in the minds of millions of Americans, introduces 36 films that Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will show through the month of May (2006) examining race and Hollywood. For years movie theaters and television stations refused to show the classic film (No. 44 on a list of the 100 greatest American movies by the American Film Institute) because of its despicable depiction of blacks. The Amos and Andy television series (played by white actors on radio)[5] and Disney’s Song of the South (1946),[6] based on the Uncle Remus stories, met a similar fate because of racial stereotypes.

So why is it that racial themes are treated with respect when it comes to film, but Christianity can be slandered, God blasphemed, and religion in general depicted in the worst light possible all in the name of “art”?

Endnotes:

[1] www.thegodfathertrilogy.com everything you ever wanted to know about The Godfather series is on this site. It’s rather remarkable that there is very little bad language and few sexual situations in the series, especially when compared to HBO’s The Sopranos and the movie Goodfellas.
[2] Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Crown Publishers, 1988), 285.
[3] Michael Medved, Hollywood VS. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 51. Roman Catholic and Episcopalian clergymen depicted in movies (e.g., Life with Father and The Bishop’s Wife) were most often chosen to represent the church because they were easily identified because of their clerical garb, most specifically a special collar. Most Protestant clergymen wear no special attire. They generally look like businessmen.
[4] Medved, Hollywood VS. America, 52, see pages 52–69.
[5] http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/2587/
[6] “Disney doesn’t want to acknowledge it ever made that movie,” said TCM programming executive Charlie Tabesh. (Jim Auchmetey, “Racist classic ‘Birth of a nation’ makes rare TV slot,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution [May 2, 2006], A6). For interesting information on “Song of the South” see www.imdb.com/title/tt0038969/, www.songofthesouth.net/, and www.snopes.com/disney/films/sots.htm

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