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Religion portrayed in prime time rarely reflects reality

Sunday, July 15, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

In prime time, television characters often come in one of two varieties: all-religious, all the time, or completely without religion in their lives. Neither rings true.

"People in the entertainment industry have trouble with this," said Quentin Schultze, a communication professor at Calvin College. "Often it feels like a Christian character has been dropped in. It happened on 'L.A. Law' and often comes across as an attempt to pander to a religious subculture. Religious people look at it and think, 'That's not how I experience spiritual life.' Secular people look at it and think spiritual people are wacky. It's a real problem."

And not one unique to religion. TV characters are often defined by a particular trait, whether it's age, gender, skin color, sexual identity or religious beliefs.

All the more reason that "The West Wing" season finale astounded viewers of faith. President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) displayed unrepentant anger at God over the death of his secretary, a scene that rang true to many viewers.

"Rather than just dropping a religious character in where it seems out of place, this guy is really dealing with cosmic questions of faith," Schultze said. "It came out of that struggle and seemed a totally natural fit."

The last overtly religious show to be broadcast, ABC's priest drama "Nothing Sacred," met with jeers from the conservative Catholic League before it premiered. The show's pilot depicted a liberal priest seemingly going against church doctrine in an episode that felt designed to inflame.

"Drama tends to get writers into difficult situations because good drama requires conflict," Schultze said. "How do you develop conflict with respect to religion?"

Bill Fore, executive director of the Broadcasting and Film Commission of the National Council of Churches from 1964 to 1989, said a TV show doesn't have to depict characters coming out of church to be overtly religious.

"I have the highest regard for Norman Lear," Fore said. "That guy is a genius. He brought ethical issues and moral issues to the attention of the American public. Nobody had been able to do it while making big bucks for the networks, and he knew what he was doing. He's a very thoughtful, sensitive and aware guy."

Schultze said Lear tried to get a religious talk show on the air in late night to compete with "The Tonight Show" but could never get his foot in the door. "The networks said nobody would be interested. Decision-makers in the entertainment industry tend to have a secular orientation even though the employees and audience they serve don't."

Schultze praised NBC's "Ed" for a "Calvinistic world view" ("Ed cannot determine his own destiny. He is in some respect caught in fate and rather than fight it, he accepts it and finds grace in it") and said he's seen powerful spiritual scenes on "NYPD Blue."

"Forgiveness is one of the most powerful themes in that series, and forgiveness is deeply religious," he said.

He also made note of CBS's "Christy," a period series based on the novel by Catherine Marshall.

"For purposes of accuracy, it was very particular in the faith," Schultze said. "For example, often on TV, prayers will talk about God, not Jesus Christ. That was not true with 'Christy.' People don't give 'Christy' enough credit. It softened up the [network] executives and opened the door for 'Touched By an Angel,' which is more generic."

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