The main characters explore questions of faith as if their beliefs mean something.
A minister talks to his flock about sin and forgiveness. A schoolteacher asks God’s help in reaching a student. A Quaker character berates herself for using the threat of violence to prevent bloodshed.
The shocking thing is this blatant display of religion is all taking place on prime-time television.
These scenes from the new CBS show “Christy” are only the most recent example of faith’s newfound respectability on the small screen. Other recent shows such as “Thea” on ABC, “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” on CBS and “Against the Grain” on NBC have treated faith respectfully.
“Prime time is on the right track; it should stay on it,” said the authors of a study done by the conservative Alexandria, Va.-based Media Research Center.
However, defenders of secular lifestyles should fear not. The shows do not signify a mass conversion of television producers to the recognition that faith is important to the vast majority of their audiences, according to the Media Research Center report and another new study that indicates religion is largely ignored or belittled in prime time.
In a study published in the recent issue of the Review of Religious Research, researchers from the University of Dayton, Northwestern University Medical Center and Duke University Medical Center examined a random sample of 100 episodes of network television in 1990.
Out of 1,462 characters, only 82, or 5.6%, had an identifiable religious affiliation. Further, five of the 82 characters were religious cult members, while no characters were portrayed as members of the Jewish faith.
If few characters have an identifiable religious affiliation, even fewer engage in prayer, attend church or participate in group religious activities, the study found.
“The data clearly indicate that the exploration of religion and spirituality in the lives of fictional characters is nearly invisible on network television,” the researchers concluded.
In the Media Research Center study, researchers found only 116 treatments of religion in more than 1,000 hours of prime-time programming in 1993.
“Those who assert that sitcoms, dramatic series, telefilms and miniseries engage in relentless religion-bashing are wrong. . . . It is clear that Hollywood ignores religion far more than it demeans it,” said the study, “Faith in a Box: Prime Time on Religion.”
When religion is mentioned on prime time, it is often in a demeaning way, such as when characters in NBC’s “Cafe Americain” joked about making love in a confessional or when a character playing a Protestant minister on “Picket Fences” on CBS said the Vatican opposes contraception because a population explosion would help it achieve world domination, the study found.
“We have a cultural disconnect between mainstream America and the cultural creed of the Hollywood community,” said Thomas Johnson, co-author of the study.
Still, the situation seems to be getting better, the report found.
In dividing up the portrayals of religion on the four networks, the center found more negative than positive portrayals, but taken together the positive and mixed portrayals represented a majority of the depictions.
For example, the study said, a made-for-television movie on the Fox network about former New York Jet Dennis Byrd did not gloss over how his religious faith helped him recover from a paralyzing injury.
And the theme song in “Thea” goes in part, “With God on my side, keeping me in line, I don’t worry about nothing, it’s gonna be fine.”
In the media center’s recommendations for improvement, the first suggestion by Johnson and Sandra Crawford was for the networks to continue the present trend of treating religion respectfully in shows such as “Christy.”
William Fore, author of “Television and Religion,” said network leaders deserve praise for presenting a show such as “Christy.”
“I think it’s a good thing that the networks did it, and they have the right to be commended for doing it,” said Fore, a lecturer at Yale Divinity School.
But he thinks the small increase in shows presenting religion as part of life has more to do with heading off the outrage of viewers and potential government regulators than more idealistic motives of fairly representing religion in society.
“They are trying to deal with the public’s increasing awareness and upset with the violence . . . and also the elements of hedonism that are there,” he said.
“Those are perfectly cynical reasons why they do this.”