Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The decline of religion in television

Years ago, Hollywood had codes for movies and television that drew the line at what was acceptable and what wasn't. The TV Code lasted well into the 1980s, but the movie code was done away with in the late 1960s and it's worth pointing out the first winner of the Best Picture Oscar after that was dropped was the X-rated Midnight Cowboy. But let's stick with television for the purposes of this post. For most of the history of television, from just after World War II until, say, the mid 80s, ministers were regarded as people to be looked up to and it wasn't seen as a taboo for people to ask for divine intervention or even guidance to help with the struggles of daily life.

Maybe it was the rocky year in religion that was 1987 (to wit, Jim Bakker committing adultery then stealing his parishoners' money, Jimmy Swaggart doing his infamous "I have sinned" sermon, and Oral Roberts proclaiming he'd die unless he raised eight million for the missionary arm of his ministry in three months) but it was made for television. Since then, the message television has sent about religion has been mostly negative or mixed. There are noteworthy exceptions such as Touched by an Angel and 7th Heaven, but those and a few others are the rare exceptions.

On that note, the bipartisan Parents' Television Council has produced their latest study on the religion messages that the boob tube put out last season, and theirs is an especially sour one this year. I have some gripes with the PTC and its methodology, not to mention its founder Brent Bozell III. But the study put out the other day is very alarming. For the most part, all religions got a bum rap -- not just Islam as one might naturally expect, but Judaism and Christianity as well. Bottom line: 34% of references to religion were positive, 35% were negative, 27% were mixed (in that a character in question tried to play with God both ways) and 4% were "undetermined."

I'm as much for free speech as the next person. It's one of the bedrocks of democracy. However, I also believe that television while waning still does have an influence on people and that it needs to show the consequences of doing right versus doing wrong. There is nothing wrong with expressing one's faith in a positive light or doing well by others. In these times, we need people from both sides of the aisle who lead by example both in the characters they play as well as in their personal lives. Shows like Little House on the Prairie, Bewitched and even All in the Family have stood the test of time because all dealt with the issues of cause and effect. Today, the top rated shows deal much more with gore (such as CSI and its offspring) or the paranormal (e.g. Ghost Whisperer) and spend very little time discussing faith or lack thereof. Surely, cops and mediums have personal relationships with God as well. Why are they deemed irrelevant to plotlines?

One can't really say that TV and by extension music are the cause of all the ills of society, of course. But with less religion has come a greater level of cynicism and I think that may be partly the explanation why divorce and other family problems are so prevalent. As religion and families came to be ridiculed on television, problems in ordinary households also increased.

That's not to say all religious families stick together -- the divorce rate compared to non-religious clans actually runs about the same on average. But the healing process, I think, is much more accelerated after a breakdown if there is faith. I know my faith saved me from insanity when my parents divorced. I also think having a common faith leads to unions based on common sense rather than convenience, and much better sex.

We're supposed to be created in the image of God. It seems more and more we're trying to be the carbon copy of the media. If it's okay for two-time mother Britney Spears to flash her labia in public (not shown on TV of course, but mentioned with references to YouTube) that sends a message to parents and to kids that it's okay to go around town with unfurnished basements -- and tops. That's not to say she would not have done what she did even if religion was tops with television; of course she would have but she would be called for what she is rather than just dismissed as a show-off in the post-modern world.

Bottom line: It may be true that Americans have the right to bear arms while Canadians have the right to bear breasts, but just because both are legal doesn't always make it right. In the same way, just because it's legal to burn a flag or to make fun of religion (two rights which I also defend fully) doesn't make them right either.

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