By Jonathan Decker (Family therapist, film critic)
Author's note: this article originally ran in 2009 in Meridian Magazine. I've not revised the text since, but have included some updated photos to illustrate a few points.
In college I attended a seminar entitled “Hollywood vs. Religion,” examining the contrast between the lifestyles and beliefs of those in the movie industry as compared with those of mainstream America. While any implication that filmmakers are inherently faithless while the rest of the country is deeply pious represents a false dichotomy, there is a divide between the overall secularism of Hollywood and the religiosity of America, especially with regards to Christianity.
The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that nearly 77% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. The percentage of studio executives, producers, screenwriters, and directors at major Hollywood studios who go to church or identify themselves as Christian is significantly lower.
This is not to denigrate those in the entertainment business who don’t share my beliefs. One doesn’t have to believe in Jesus Christ to be a good person or exemplify worthwhile virtues. But for all of Hollywood's talk of “trying to be more realistic” (a popular rationale for including more sex, language, and violence), as a whole it is woefully unrealistic in its under-representation of Christians.
If you watch any amount of television programs or movies set in the United States, would you identify 77% of those characters as believers in Jesus Christ? I certainly wouldn't. Claims of “portraying reality” ought to be dropped for the sake of truth in advertising. What’s really being portrayed is a skewed and biased view of America, with three-quarters of the population hardly acknowledged. No wonder the Christian cinema sub-genre is growing: we want a voice and we’re a large market.
THE ACCEPTABLE DISCRIMINATION
The unrealistic portrayal of Christians in popular media goes beyond under-representation to misrepresentation. In my observation the portrayals of believers are far from balanced, generally lumping them into three groups: sweet idiots, judgmental hypocrites, or dangerous fanatics. This is a far cry from Hollywood's almost obsessive attempts at maintaining balance and fairness towards other social groups.
For every Islamic extremist on 24 the program provides a heroic and devout Muslim character as a counterpoint. Mocking Judaism is a modern taboo. Portrayals of the LGBT community are becoming less stereotyped and more balanced. Political correctness seems to be extending to all social groups except, to some degree, those who believe in Jesus Christ.
While it would be a mistake to assume that we are the only group who is stereotyped and satired, it does appear that pop culture is becoming simultaneously more sensitive to other groups and less concerned about fairness towards Christians. As mentioned previously, believers are often portrayed as sweet idiots, judgmental hypocrites, or dangerous fanatics.
PORTRAYAL #1: THE SWEET IDIOT
The Sweet Idiot, in my estimation, is the most prevalent Christian seen in pop culture. He or she is genuine, kind, and charitable but also hopelessly naive, sheltered, and dimwitted. This appears to be popular media’s way of acknowledging Christian virtue while asserting intellectual superiority over believers, because “only an unenlightened, uneducated, and irrational person” could actually believe in Jesus Christ and biblical authority. Examples include Homer Simpson’s unfailingly kind and cheerful neighbor Ned Flanders and 30 Rock’s lovable buffoon Kenneth.
An episode of Frasier found the title character hiring a Latter-day Saint assistant, finding the man to be honest, hardworking, and trustworthy, but ultimately firing him after being annoyed by his endless, naive optimism. In South Park‘s infamous “All About the Mormons” episode, The Sweet Idiot stereotype was trotted out in full force. Latter-day Saints were displayed as sincere people and good neighbors who happened to believe something idiotic: the Joseph Smith story was told while background singers repeated “dumb-dumb-dumb-dumb-dumb.”
PORTRAYAL #2: THE JUDGMENTAL HYPOCRITE
The Judgmental Hypocrite simultaneously shames and guilt-trips others while not practicing what he/she preaches. Angela, the up-tight evangelical Christian accountant from The Office fits this mold. Though there are frequent references to Angela’s devoted church attendance and love for the Bible, her attitude is far from pious, as illustrated by the following quote: “I don't back down. My sister and I used to be best friends, and we haven't spoken in sixteen years, over some disagreement I don't even remember. So, yeah, I'm pretty good.” To The Office’s credit, several more likable characters have also been identified as Christian, but there's been little follow-through on the importance of faith in their lives.
While I’ve never seen HBO’s Big Love, I understand that its mainstream Latter-day Saint characters, while accurately differentiated from the polygamist ones, often fit the Judgmental Hypocrite mold. The stereotype has repeatedly found its way into cinema, such as Danny Boyle’s Millions, in which three creepily and robotically cheerful Mormon missionaries ultimately reveal themselves to be liars and thieves, claiming money that isn’t their own in order to purchase video games and luxurious appliances.
PORTRAYAL #3: THE DANGEROUS FANATIC
The “Evil Christian” is becoming more and more common. Fox’s Dollhouse recently had an episode in which a fanatical leader cloisters himself in a compound with his followers, using the example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as rationale for attempting to light the compound on fire with his followers inside (incidentally, his followers are all Sweet Idiots). According to my coworker, True Blood has evangelical Christians as bloodthirsty murderers.
The box-office bomb September Dawn was so blatantly biased in its interpretation of the Mountain Meadows Massacre that even mainstream critics blasted its broad characterization of Latter-day Saints as violent fanatics. Another lunatic from Utah takes hundreds of lives to oppose scientific progress in Contact (though the film itself makes some profoundly pro-faith arguments).
THE GOOD NEWS
Now, in all fairness to Hollywood, there have been some excellent Christian characters in mainstream fare (yes, even in recent years), and I am a fan of some of the media I’ve listed. What’s more, The Sweet Idiot, The Judgmental Hypocrite, and The Dangerous Fanatic do exist in the real world. There is no need for white-washed depictions of Christians; it is fine to show the naivety, the hypocrisy, and the extremism as long as there are positive counter-examples (as with the 24-Islam example cited earlier).
Sadly, efforts to balance the scales in mainstream portrayals of Christians are still rare in recent decades, but not unheard of. These portrayals also fall into several categories, which incidentally counter the previous three: The Wise Soul, The Person of Principle and The Flawed-But-Faithful.
THE WISE SOUL
The Wise Soul is the opposite of the Sweet Idiot, and just as the latter is the most common in mainstream media, the former is the least. This characterization displays a follower of Christ who is intelligent and rational, with faith based in spiritual experience instead of ignorance or tradition.
One excellent example of the Wise Soul is Father Gabriel, a Jesuit priest played by Jeremy Irons in The Mission. Gabriel is a gentle, loving, and industrious man who glories in nature, music, and thought. He is also deeply devoted to Christ and feels it his calling to improve the lives of those around him by bringing them the Gospel, serving them with humble dedication. The character, and his faith, are treated with fantastic respect by the filmmakers. Gabriel is a source of wisdom to those around him; indeed, the entire point of the film is that had his own nation followed his counsel, respecting the ways of God instead of chasing greed and political power, a peaceful Zion would have been established.
Another fine example of The Wise Soul is Shepherd Book, a Christian preacher on Joss Whedon’s popular-after-its cancellation TV series Firefly (and the excellent film spin-off Serenity). Firefly has gained a large following on DVD, even with people who don’t generally like science fiction, because of its characters, storytelling, and explorations of morality. Traveling from world to world with a group of ragtag thieves and gunfighters, Book is initially met with disdain. He ultimately wins over those around him with his emphasis on service and genuine charity for people. He lives his beliefs and never participates in activities he’s morally opposed to, but refrains from dealing out harsh judgments. He is also portrayed as very intelligent and is often the first to “see what is really going on.”
Shepherd Book becomes the moral compass of the group, a source of counsel, and a friend to even the most antagonistic. Credit Firefly creator Joss Whedon, an atheist, for creating the most noble, genuine, and smart Christian character to appear on network TV in the past decade. Whedon’s lack of faith (and this is important) shows other Hollywood producers that even if they don’t posses a belief in Christ, they can portray with respect those who do.
THE PERSON OF PRINCIPLE
The Person of Principle is the opposite of the Judgmental Hypocrite. This type of Christian stands by their values and is immovable. A fine example is Jaime Sullivan, played by Mandy Moore in A Walk To Remember. Daughter of the local pastor, she loves the Savior without shame and is committed to abstinence before marriage. Though her dedication to both God and chastity are challenged, she stays firm and ends up influencing others for good with her resolve.
Another example of The Person of Principle is found in the Best-Picture winning film Chariots of Fire. Olympic runner (and devout Christian) Eric Liddell refuses to run on the Sabbath, despite intense pressure from heads of state. Eric’s dedication to the Lord wins him the respect of those who initially pressured him, viewing him as a man of true character.
In the fantastic 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma Christian Bale’s meek rancher, Dan Evans, is a man of quiet strength and unwavering dedication to doing the right thing. His steadfastness is comes from a desire to influence his sons to be good men, to be worthy of his wife’s love, and to have respect for himself. Though Evans momentarily expresses a feeling that God has abandoned him, he prays with his family and is later shown in silent prayer as he prepares to face vicious enemies. Nobody in the movie respects Bale’s character, mistaking his humility for weakness. Nobody, that is, except for Russell Crowe’s much-feared outlaw, Ben Wade.
While the charming Wade is murderous, selfish, and vicious, he justifies his actions in with the belief that all men are like him at their core. Throughout the film Wade refers to hypocrites who profess Christian belief but in deed are anything but. He is therefore deeply fascinated by Bale’s rancher, constantly testing the latter's integrity for weakness. When Crowe’s outlaw finally accepts that Bale’s rancher is a genuine man of integrity, the film builds to an emotional climax. As was the case with Chariots of Fire and A Walk to Remember, the steadfastness of The Person of Principle earns 3:10 to Yuma’s protagonist the respect of those who once denigrated him.
The Flawed-But-Faithful is perhaps the most popular positive characterization of Christians in the mainstream. This person is portrayed as a regular person with weaknesses and flaws who also happens to believe in Jesus Christ. Rocky Balboa immediately comes to mind.
Rocky is a Catholic, and though he smokes, drinks, and sleeps with Adrian before their marriage, his faith moves to center stage after he weds and starts a family. He is often shown in sincere prayer before a grueling bout, studies Bible verses with a friend in Rocky Balboa, and in the much-underrated Rocky II spends days in prayer as his wife lays in a coma. Several times he thanks and gives credit to the Lord, as in this clip:
The television program House recently had a Mormon character, a black single father who graduated from Brigham Young University. He's portrayed as a sympathetic and honorable figure who turned the other cheek time and time again while enduring ridicule for his faith. The show itself, if not the character of House, treated the Latter-day Saint with surprising respect, allowing him to describe the church as having a progressive attitude about racial equality. He wasn’t perfect, however. He hit House in the face after the latter mocked Joseph Smith; as it happens this incident endeared him to House, who liked the character’s passion for his faith.
Needing to compare a patient’s liver reactions to alcohol with those of a person who’d never drunk, House convinced the Latter-day Saint doctor to drink tequila. The Mormon fended off House’s critique that he'd abandoned his principles with an implication that charity is the highest law. He also explained that the church “doesn’t try to dictate every detail of our lives. When a situation isn’t clear we are encouraged to make our own decisions.” When he goes on to say that House had made a convincing argument, the latter is shocked and says: “Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people.” It is refreshing to see a Latter-day Saint, even a flawed one, portrayed with such respect.
Johnny Cash and June Carter, in the hit film Walk the Line, fall under the category of Flawed-But-Faithful. The film implies (but doesn’t show) that the two had one night of indiscretion (which she regretted although he didn't) that is shown as having tragic consequences for Cash’s family. Later, when Cash nearly dies from drug and alcohol abuse, June, as his friend, encourages him to seek the Lord’s help and tells him that “God is giving you a second chance.” They are shown attending church, and though they fall in love, there is no implication that they sleep together again before they are married. When told that his fans are Christians who’d oppose his performing a concert in a prison, cheering up “rapists and murderers,” Cash coolly responds, “Well, they’re not Christians then.”
SUPPORT THE CAUSE
Here it is, the call to arms. If you, like me, appreciate respectful and fair portrayals of those who believe in and try to follow Christ, please help it happen more often by telling your friends about it when you see it. Perhaps you could send a quick email to a film or movie producer when they make something that fits this description. Obviously, unfavorable portrayals will always be found in a free country, but fairness and balance in how we are seen can be requested, sought after, and supported.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.