Conservative Christians Take on Hollywood’s Portrayal of Religion

By Lisa Anderson
Chicago Tribune, Jan 29, 2006

A martini-sipping wife, a pot-peddling daughter, a gay son mourning his twin's death, an aging mother battling Alzheimer's disease - and his own habit of popping painkillers and literally seeing Jesus. Daniel Webster, a beleaguered Episcopal priest, clearly has issues.

And the American Family Association definitely has issues with him. The Tupelo, Miss.-based Christian family advocacy group unleashed an e-mail protest blitz, mobilizing its 3 million members effectively to try to defrock the fictional Webster and get his new "anti-Christian" television series, "The Book of Daniel," excommunicated from the NBC schedule. The show, struggling for viewers, has been pulled from NBC's schedule.

Opting for finesse over legal firepower, Opus Dei, the conservative global Catholic lay organization, launched a pre-emptive media charm offensive in anticipation of the May 19 opening of the film "The Da Vinci Code." The movie is based on Dan Brown's 2003 best-selling novel, which depicted the group as murderous, misogynic and Machiavellian.

American Family Association, or AFA, and Opus Dei represent different strategies in an increasingly common effort by conservative Christians to influence the popular entertainment industry and challenge its portrayal of them. Invigorated by a sense of rising political empowerment after the re-election of President Bush, they also have at least the potential power of numbers on their side. In a majority-Christian nation, one of three Americans claim to be born-again or evangelical Christians, and 57 percent of respondents told the Gallup Poll last year that religion is "very important" in their lives.

"I think there is a very clear recognition of where power lies," said Linda Kintz, a professor of English at the University of Oregon in Eugene and co-editor of the book "Media, Culture, and the Religious Right." "The numbers of true believers are probably not as great as we imagine, but the place where truth is created, in a televisual sense, is in the sphere of the popular media."

In fact, only a small segment of conservative Christians may be vocal in the public forum, but that segment's ability to find platforms to transmit its views and translate them into action has never been greater. Helping is the growth and accessibility of content-hungry mainstream cable and broadcast television venues - not to mention the proliferation of Christian media.

"There's so much time and space to put this stuff on and there's so much demand for it because it's about entertainment, not boring economics," said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "These groups certainly are more active and getting more attention than they did before."

Another reason lies in the sophisticated use many conservative Christians make of new technologies, particularly as they relate to the Internet. For example, through a feature of its Internet server, the AFA said it can tell how many members responded to its "e-mail blast" earlier this month and sent e-mails to NBC protesting "The Book of Daniel," said Buddy Smith, who supervises the group's extensive online presence.

He said the server tracked 600,000 protest e-mails sent; NBC called that number "greatly exaggerated" and put the number at "a couple thousand." An unknown number of the group's members also called their local NBC affiliates to complain about the show.

Since "Daniel" debuted on Jan. 6, at least nine NBC affiliates, primarily in the South, have declined to run the show. It also has struggled to attract and keep advertisers, which likely played a role in its demise. But it is difficult to know how much is due to the show's controversial content, its lukewarm ratings or the opposition by such groups as AFA and the American Decency Association, a Christian organization. In any event, the series always planned to end Feb. 3, but it doesn't signal the end of the cultural war it's embroiled in.

""The Book of Daniel' is anti-Christian and sacrilegious," said Tim Wildmon, president of the AFA. "By anti-Christian, I mean all the characters are screwed up. There's not a sane one in the bunch."

With a cast of characters that also included a lesbian secretary and an embezzling brother-in-law, the first show "had a lot more going on in it than an average family faces in a single day," said Jack Kenny, the series' creator and writer.

But none of it was anti-Christian, said Kenny, 47, who is a Christian.

"I know I sound like a naive idiot, but I actually thought the Christian community would embrace it as a story and then it also could be used as a tool to teach," he said.

But not only is there little embracing going on, the AFA is upset that Kenny is, as the group puts it in its news releases, "a practicing homosexual," behavior Wildmon calls "sinful."

"It's not sinful, it's who I am. I am what God made me," said Kenny, who has a partner of 24 years.

Wildmon said he doesn't "have a problem with Christians being depicted in an imperfect way ... but for goodness gracious, have some redeeming value to the story line."

There is that and more, Kenny said.

"There are so many scenes of love and support and tolerance and acceptance. I'm just surprised those are not seen as Christian values."

But where Kenny sees tolerance, Wildmon sees moral laxity. He cited an episode in which Webster counsels an unmarried couple and asks them about their sex life. "The correct counsel from the pastor would not have been, "How's your sex life since you're shacked up,"' said Wildmon, 42.

He also is troubled by the depiction of a long-haired, laid-back Jesus.

"The advice he gives is often not consistent with the same things he said in the Scriptures," Wildmon said. He's "kind of a hip Jesus ... doing more flippant commentating than spiritual counsel, it seems to me."

The Jesus in "Daniel" certainly is not the moral absolutist that some might prefer, said Syracuse's Thompson.

"If you read the New Testament, you find a Christ who was annoyingly tolerant with everyone around him, talking to tax collectors, prostitutes and other undesirables. What people are complaining about in "The Book of Daniel' is exactly what the Pharisees were complaining about the Christ in the New Testament," he said.

Opus Dei and its 86,000 male and female members worldwide face a different kind of image problem with "The Da Vinci Code." Not only is it anticipated as 2006's hottest movie, some 25 million people already have read the book, which depicts Opus Dei's leader as a bonkers bishop who dispatches an albino monk to brutally dispose of those threatening to blow the Catholic Church's 2,000-year cover-up of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene and the daughter he fathered.

One inaccuracy, among many the organization claims, is that "there are no monks in Opus Dei, albino or otherwise," said Brian Finnerty, New York spokesman for the Rome-based organization, whose 3,000 American members are heavily concentrated in Chicago, where its U.S. presence began in 1949.

Opus Dei received nothing more than "polite but non-committal" responses to its concerns, first from Doubleday, which published the book, and then from Sony, whose Columbia Pictures is making the movie, Finnerty said.

"While we're not going to reveal any details about the film until it is released in May, we welcome the discussion inspired by it and hope that it can encourage people to learn more about many of the issues raised by "The Da Vinci Code,"' Jim Kennedy, senior vice president of corporate communications for Sony Pictures Entertainment, said in an e-mail message.

Unwilling to take legal action, according to Rome-based Opus Dei spokesman Marc Carroggio in a recent interview, the organization also is unwilling to allow "Da Vinci" to define it.

"The movie is like a big wave that is going to hit the beach whether we like it or not. ... We're going to try to ride the wave," Finnerty said. "By riding the wave, I mean using every opportunity we can to tell the world about the reality of Opus Dei and the reality of the Catholic Church."

To that end, in the last year, representatives of the organization have spoken to journalists, crammed its Web site with information and appeared on "Meet the Press," "Hardball with Chris Matthews" and "The Today Show."

And, somewhat ironically, Finnerty said, "Da Vinci Code" publisher Doubleday has expressed interest in publishing "The Way," a collection of points for prayer written by Opus Dei's Spanish founder and recently canonized saint Josemaria Escriva.

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