Hollywood’s hostility toward religion oddly has given rise to faith-based films

by WorldTribune Staff, February 3, 2020

In 1945, Bing Crosby won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of a priest who saves wayward youth in “Going My Way”. Crosby was nominated agains in 1946 for the same role, Father Charles O’Malley, in “The Bells of St. Mary’s”.

In 2020, the chances of any actor winning any award for a positive portrayal of faith are pretty much zero.

Bing Crosby in ‘Going My Way’, left, and scene from “Spotlight’.

“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,” James Varney wrote in an analysis for The Washington Times.

“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.”

Robert P. George, director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University said Hollywood’s reluctance to make faith-based films or even portray religion in a positive light 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,” George said. “So the media presented reflects their own understanding of religious matters, and they are self-consciously trying to promote this.”

Varney noted that “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, Varney wrote, “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 Best Picture Oscar went to “Spotlight”, which depicts The Boston Globe’s reporting on the sex abuse scandal in the local Catholic church.

Faith-based film critics cite 2014’s epic “Noah” as an example of how Hollywood tried but failed to prove it could pay fealty to biblical material while grabbing a larger audience.

While 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, 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,” Varney wrote.

George said social pressure drives Hollywood’s decisions.

“Ideology is much more powerful than moneymaking, and moneymaking is pretty powerful,” George 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.”

Hollywood’s turn to the Left, however, has also led to the creation of an industry for those willing to make films for faith-based audiences, Varney noted.

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,” 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.

Some see promising signs for faith-based films in Hollywood.

“Hollywood has slowly, carefully embraced religious audiences,” said Christian Toto, a film critic and 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.”

But Elder noted that the director of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, a hit based on the good nature of Fred Rogers, was slighted by the Golden Globes nominating committee, and Toto acknowledged progress has been slow.

“It’s still a drip, drip, drip process,” Toto 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.”

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.

Varney noted that when the Sorbos 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 Fox News host Sean Hannity.

“I don’t have time to do a lot more, though I would like to,” 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.”

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,” Hannity 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.”

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.

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,” Varney noted.

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.


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