Hollywood is far removed from the days when it awarded an Oscar to Bing Crosby, playing an avuncular priest who saved schools and wayward youths in “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”
Even in the countercultural ‘60s, Hollywood found room to celebrate the nuns in the “Sound of Music” who “sinned” by pulling wires from Nazi vehicles, allowing the von Trapp family to escape.
But as Tinseltown closed out the 20th century, its treatment of religion was more epitomized by “The Shawshank Redemption,” in which a prison warden’s Christianity is at the center of his cruel mendacity, and “Pulp Fiction,” where hit man Samuel L. Jackson misquotes the Bible’s Book of Ezekiel each time he pulls the trigger.
In 2016, the movie industry awarded its best picture Oscar to “Spotlight,” depicting The Boston Globe’s reporting on the sex abuse scandal in the local Catholic church.
Analysts say Hollywood always has had a simmering hostility toward religion and the nation’s media elite have had a low-grade contempt for its practitioners.
The sentiment is more profound now. Producers and directors figure it makes more sense to drive devout elements of the faith-based community away from theaters and instead seek eyeballs by emphasizing liberal politics.
“I don’t think the industry is simply reflecting social changes they had no role in creating. It helped to shape it,” said Robert P. George, director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.
He said the move is not surprising for an industry in which doctrinal religious practice is almost unthinkable.
“It’s not just celebrities — the ‘suits’ have disaffiliated more rapidly and more thoroughly than their countrymen,” Mr. George said. “So the media presented reflects their own understanding of religious matters, and they are self-consciously trying to promote this.”
Faith-based film critics cite 2014’s epic “Noah” as an example.
It was supposed to be Hollywood’s chance to prove it could pay fealty to biblical material while grabbing a larger audience. The filmmakers insisted they stayed as true to the Bible as possible, and star Russell Crowe met with Pope Francis in hopes of winning the Vatican’s blessing.
Instead, most Christian news outlets called the film a missed opportunity. They said deviations from the Bible were too palpable and the almighty was little more than floodwaters in a film about God and salvation.
Television, for the most part, had done better, analysts said, thanks to an unexpected source: the Federal Communications Commission, which exercised oversight over the broadcast networks and shaved some of the rougher edges.
Shows such as “Highway to Heaven” and “Touched by an Angel” were staples of small screen prime time into this century, and sitcoms have always been more willing to tackle religious themes as part of their runs.
“TV remained ‘wholesome’ far longer thanks to the FCC, but filmmakers had chafed under moral restraints and tested their limits ever since 1960 and even earlier,” said Matt Franck, a political scholar and lecturer at Princeton.
Playing by its own rules
Mr. George said social pressure is driving Hollywood’s decisions.
“Ideology is much more powerful than moneymaking, and moneymaking is pretty powerful,” he said. “It comes down to what people in your social class think about you. Consider how Hollywood would trust, say, teachers unions more than Catholic priests. That reflects the fact culturally and morally: The public school unions are in line with Hollywood, and the Catholic Church is not. Evangelicals also. They are very unlikely to be portrayed favorably.”
Executives at Warner Bros. declined to discuss the topic, and those at Hollywood powerhouses Disney, Paramount and Sony Entertainment did not respond to requests for comment.
The early days of film were freewheeling, with movies showing crime, drug use, sex and the like, as Howard Hawks’ violence-soaked “Scarface” demonstrated in 1932.
But a series of scandals left Congress rumbling over regulations, and Hollywood, eager to head off mandatory censorship, adopted its own rules called the Hays Code.
Under the code, written in 1930 but applied since 1934, nudity and drug abuse were prohibited from screens. Adultery was not to be celebrated. Bad guys were supposed to get their comeuppance by the end of a movie. The American flag was to be treated with respect.
And depicting religion in any sort of mocking manner and blasphemy against the church or ecclesiastical authorities was prohibited.
Films that complied received a seal of approval, which usually headed off boycotts and ensured screens would show them.
Some films bucked the code, and standards slowly relaxed. By the late 1960s, the Hays Code was abandoned in favor of the system that rates movies as G, PG, and so on.
Faith films find an opening
Hollywood’s turn to the left has created an industry for those willing to make films for faith-based audiences.
Small companies such as Pure Flix and Kendrick Brothers Productions have emerged as the Disney and Paramount of faith-based entertainment media, dominating the market from celluloid to video on demand.
“It’s just been a matter of creating content for a base that doesn’t have a lot of material,” said David A.R. White, who founded Pure Flix in 2003. “The truth is it didn’t really exist, anything being made for people of faith, and we’re providing content for this niche without going out of it.”
Pure Flix’s biggest hit is “God’s Not Dead,” which was produced for $1.2 million and took in $63 million after its 2014 release.
“Not everyone involved in our movies are believers, and in our society today it seems to be all about not labeling,” Mr. White said. “We don’t have any qualms about what we’re doing and trying to do, but we’re not trying to alienate anyone either.”
In perhaps the most famous example, Mel Gibson eschewed Hollywood financing to make his “The Passion of the Christ,” a deeply Christian movie that went on to gross more than $600 million worldwide.
Smaller examples abound, too. In 2014, TriStar and Sony put out “Heaven Is for Real,” a modest movie starring Greg Kinnear that topped $101 million at the box office.
Bob Elder, an executive with Collide Media Group in Tennessee that handles post-production duties for many faith-based movies, said that from “The Passion of the Christ” on, films that overtly target the faith audience have collected $2.37 billion at the box office.
It suggests that the movie industry has not completely ignored the religious community, and some see promising signs.
“Hollywood has slowly, carefully embraced religious audiences,” said Christian Toto, a film critic and editor of a right-of-center entertainment blog who covered entertainment as a staff writer for The Washington Times and is a current contributor. “Sony’s Affirm label produces movies like ‘Overcomer,’ ‘Soul Surfer’ and, more recently, ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.’ 20th Century Fox gave us ‘Breakthrough’ this year, one of the best faith-friendly films produced in recent years.”
Still, Mr. Elder noted that the director of ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,’ a current hit based on the good nature of Fred Rogers, was slighted by the Golden Globes nominating committee, and Mr. Toto acknowledged progress has been jerky.
“It’s still a drip, drip, drip process,” he said. “And even movies like ‘A Beautiful Day’ only touch on the key character’s faith, whereas a more faith-positive storyteller might have played up an angle that meant a great deal to the real Fred Rogers.”
Producers aim for shock value
Kevin Sorbo, who became famous for playing Hercules on television, and his wife, Sam, have begun writing and directing movies for a faith-based audience.
When they sought financing for what would prove a profitable feature, “Let There Be Light,” a script centered on a renowned atheist having his worldview challenged, they found it in an unlikely source: Fox News host Sean Hannity.
“I don’t have time to do a lot more, though I would like to,” Mr. Hannity told The Washington Times about moviemaking. “I do think one of the more underserved markets has been the faith-based one. Look, I think there is a pop culture faith market and it is one that is looked down on, just as they look down on people who express their faith.”
Mr. Hannity said he took no issue with Hollywood’s portrayal of Boston’s Catholic church in “Spotlight.”
“With the institutional corruption of the Catholic Church going straight to Rome, nobody did the right thing there,” he said, identifying himself as a Christian but no longer a Catholic. “But I think the fact remains there is a widespread contempt in Hollywood circles for people who are religious.”
Although tales of depraved churchmen have titillated the public since the Marquis de Sade, some of what Hollywood does is rooted as much in a desire to be avant-garde as it is to undercut religion, said Dawn Eden Goldstein, a former rock music journalist for Rolling Stone and other publications who has become a Catholic theologian and author.
“At each stage of the modern age, they are thinking of new ways to be offensive,” she said. “It doesn’t surprise me they have more ways to push the envelope.”
Barbara Harrington, director of the script and screenwriting programs at Regent University, agreed.
“They are always asking, ‘How can we be provocative?’” she said, and one sure-fire way is to mock or belittle religion.
Some major Hollywood figures wear their religious faith proudly.
Mark Wahlberg regularly attends Catholic Mass; Dave Chappelle converted to Islam in 1998; Tom Cruise, John Travolta and others are famously attached to Scientology.
When he accepted an MTV “Generation Award” in 2018, movie star Chris Pratt urged his fans to pray and spoke of religion in ways that went beyond the familiar rote thanking of Jesus.
“Rule No. 6,” he said during a speech that was by turns serious and jocular. “God is real. God loves you. God wants what’s best for you. Believe that. I do.”
Mr. Pratt and his wife, Katherine Schwarzenegger, attend Zoe Church, an institution so modern in Los Angeles that one of its primary worship locations is in Bancroft Middle School. Zoe Church does not list a phone number and did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
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