One of the strangest things happened on “Glee” a few weeks ago. Just before McKinley High’s sectionals competition, the coach asked a student to lead the team in a prayer. On a show that aims to shock, nothing could have been more unexpected. From day one, the series has been hostile to religion. Christians have been portrayed as hypocritical, repressed, cruel, and unforgiving. (Twice already, the narrative has featured manipulative Christian-themed clubs run by the school’s head cheerleader of the moment.)
It’s possible that network parent Fox asked that for the insertion of the pre-competition prayer to demonstrate the series isn’t universally anti-religion. And to be fair, the show features one nice, albeit secondary, student who pops up occasionally to smooth the rough edges off Christianity. This begs the question: Why doesn’t television try harder to throw the occasional crumb to its religious viewers?
The holiday season, with its saturation of Christmas programming, probably seems like an odd time to highlight the anti-religious attitudes of television, but Christmas has become a secular holiday and most of the Christmas shows are heavy on nostalgia and materialism, with nary a nod to the actual practice of Advent. You can’t really count “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” as religious programming.
It's a long-standing puzzle why religion is so absent from the TV screen. After all, one of the first great TV stars was Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who reached an audience of 30 million people in the 1950s. And “Touched by an Angel,” possibly the most overtly religious prime-time show ever, was a major hit.
According to Christianity Today, about 20% of Americans attend church on a weekly basis, but except for Larry David, who’s had numerous madcap escapades in his synagogue, and the surprisingly devout Stephen Colbert (the actor, not the character), hardly any major sympathetic TV character is a regular churchgoer.
Televised religion certainly got a bad reputation in the 1980s when some of the best-known televangelists embroiled themselves in sex and financial scandals. Beelzebub himself could not have come up with a better way to discredit religion than to make Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker the public face of televised Christianity.
Then too, there’s the long-standing enmity between the networks and “decency” groups over network standards on sex, language and the overall coarsening of media. These traditional values organizations, which are generally tied to church groups, have excoriated the media for decades, leading to an atmosphere of extreme distrust.
It’s surprising, though, that the television industry hasn’t tried to make peace with values groups by tossing them a few programming bones. Isn’t that what niche television is all about -- finding an under-represented group and targeting them with their own programming? How hard could it be to produce a reality show about seminary students, a sitcom about a church secretary, or a drama set in a cathedral? And, no, something like “Bar Mitzvah Wars” is not what I had in mind.
Given the touchiness of the family values interest groups, the networks may think it’s too dangerous to set a series in a church. Or maybe the problem is that true Christians, with their emphasis on forgiveness and sharing, are just too darn “nice” to be interesting on TV (no Christian ever uttered the line, “I’m not here to make friends.”).
I think part of the problem is peer pressure. If a TV producer develops a soul-crushing reality show that celebrates multiple manifestations of the Seven Deadly Sins (e.g., wrath, greed, envy, pride, gluttony, sloth and lust) he can look his colleagues in the eye and say, “Hey, it’s just a business” -- something they’ll all understand. But if he produces a show that’s overtly religious, he’d be accused of proselytizing, promoting an agenda or otherwise sleeping with the enemy.
The lack of religious characters on TV also reflects a lack of imagination. If you are supposed to “write about what you know,” how can you write about people of faith if you don’t know any? Hollywood is possibly the most secular place in America. Where are the writers going to find out what makes churchgoers tick? From their hometowns? That’s what they were escaping from when they left for Hollywood.
There is one show on television that demonstrates you can make a profit on a religiously themed show. GSN’s “The American Bible Challenge,” a game show hosted by Jeff Foxworthy that quizzes contestants on their knowledge of the Bible, is the network’s biggest original-programming success. There’s also a report that Mark Burnett, the creator of “Survivor” and “The Voice” is producing a 10-hour miniseries, “The Bible,” based on stories like Noah’s Ark and Daniel in the lion’s den.
For Christians, these two shows on basic cable must seem like mustard seeds: tiny kernels capable of growing large trees. And for programmers, they can be an experiment on whether religion necessarily has to be the video kiss of death.