Things Which Are Contributing to Secularism in America: TV and the Movies

By Gary Henry

The secular society in which we live is the result of influences that have come at us from several different directions. Of these various influences, none has been any more powerful than Hollywood. The fare served up to us by TV and the movies has been more destructive to the religious character of our culture than anyone can accurately measure. We have been hit hard by our entertainment.

Two excellent books have recently dealt with the corrosive social influence of the entertainment industry. Robert and Linda Lichter and Stanley Rothman have written Watching America (Prentiss Hall, 1991), a penetrating look at how TV has portrayed and changed American society since the 1950’s. The authors state: “During the past four decades, television has transcended its role as mere entertainment to become a potent force shaping everyday life. The average American now watches more than four hours of TV each day, and the average household keeps a set on more than seven hours a day. The full force of television’s impact is rarely felt in a single program or even a single season. It is the long-term result of exposure to an artificial reality so pervasive it has become a major part of the social environment” (3).

More recently, Michael Medved has written Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values (Harper-Collins, 1992). Says Mr. Medved: “As a nation, we no longer view the show business capital as a magical source of uplifting entertainment, romantic inspiration, or even harmless fun. Instead, tens of millions of Americans now see the entertainment industry as an all-powerful enemy, an alien force that assaults our most cherished values and corrupts our children. The dream factory has become the poison factory” (3).

The secularization of America is damage done, in part, by the relentless assault of Hollywood on the public image of religion. For many years now, the movies and TV have tried to pretend that religion is nothing more than a relic from the past. Despite the fact that studies have repeatedly shown that around 50% of the U.S. population still considers religion an important part of their lives, a recent Gallup survey showed that only 5% of TV characters practice religion in any way. Mike McManus, a syndicated religion and ethics columnist, comments, “You’d never know by looking at TV that religion is a source of joy for so many people . . . It’s as if religion didn’t even exist.” And on those rare occasions when religious people do appear in movies or on TV, they are usually portrayed as unintelligent, maladjusted, and of questionable worth to society. No other group in society would stand for such misrepresentation of the facts, but the attempted obliteration of religion by Hollywood has gone unopposed for the most part.

The almost totally secular view of society in entertainment should not be surprising. As a group, the individuals who produce movies and TV programs are very much more secular in their own lives than the U.S. population at large. Regarding the personal religious convictions of those in the TV industry, for example, Lichter, Lichter, and Rothman write: “Television’s creative leaders have moved toward a markedly more secular orientation. Ninety-three percent had a religious upbringing, the majority (59 percent) in the Jewish faith. An additional 25 percent were raised in some Protestant denomination, and the remaining 12 percent as Catholics. Currently, however, 45 percent claim no religious affiliation whatsoever, more than six times the number of those who were not raised in any religious tradition. This is also greater than the proportion who currently profess to any particular religion. Defections have occurred from all faiths, so that only 38 percent now call themselves Jews, 12 percent remain Protestants, and 5 percent have retained their Catholic faith. Moreover, most of those remaining affiliations appear to be purely nominal. Ninety-three percent say they seldom or never attend religious services” (13, 14). What would we expect from a group that is so predominantly non-religious, if not a distortedly non-religious picture of American life in their “art

Whatever harmful effects their secular vision of America has done to our society, however, the TV and movie producers themselves deny any responsibility. They are quick to claim credit for any enlightening, uplifting effect entertainment has had on our culture  but they will have none of it when the public tries to hold them accountable for damage done. It does no good to point out the obvious connection between the glut of promiscuous sex and lawless violence in entertainment and the rampant growth of these things in our communities. Studio executives stoutly insist that the good messages they send out have a beneficial effect on America and the bad ones simply have no effect. Columnist Brent Bozell recently illustrated this vicious double standard by quoting an executive who had been involved in the production of Lethal Weapon 3, a movie full of brutality and violence. In one scene the stars fasten their seat belts, since it was thought that this would encourage young people to do the same. But what about the violence? Would not the young people imitate that too? No, said the executive: “If, when we send out any message that we consider good . . . people immediately imitate what they see. But when it comes to anything negative, anything destructive, no one imitates that.”

The truth is, however, nearly everything Hollywood does affects our culture, the bad as powerfully as the good. Homosexuality is a good example of how Hollywood can change public opinion for the worse on social issues. Who can deny that Americans in general have adopted a much more accepting attitude toward homosexual conduct as a result of “sensitive” movie and TV portrayals of homosexuals, the AIDS-related deaths of many popular Hollywood stars, and the frequent public appearances of entertainment figures with red “AIDS Awareness” ribbons conspicuously attached to their clothing? The simple, unpleasant truth is that Hollywood is systematically breaking down our social resistance to homosexuality. If the day comes (as by all appearances it likely will) when homosexual conduct is accepted as moral by the average American, we will in large measure be able to thank the entertainment industry.

George Gerbner, of the Annenberg School of Communication, is quoted as saying, “If you can write a nation’s stories, you needn’t worry about who makes its laws.” Art and entertainment are just that powerful in forming the character of a people. In a society like ours  one which is even more fascinated by entertainment and entertainers than most  citizens are even more vulnerable to the influence of things like television and movies. What is even more scary is that those who write our stories and those who make our laws consort together, and often are the same people! No aspect of the recent presidential election was more disturbing than the courting of Holly-wood movers and shakers by Bill Clinton. It makes a disturbing comment on the power of the entertainment establishment that a major presidential candidate felt the need to curry favor with it. During the campaign, the president is reported to have said in a speech on the West Coast that he wanted Hollywood to help “write the script” for a new America. Since his election, entertainment celebrities have had easy access to the corridors of power in Bill Clinton’s administration. Nothing should be more alarming to those who wish to preserve this country and the religious basis of its culture.

But we should not despair. The Christian is capable of literally turning off the secularistic influence of the entertainment business. When we have the courage to say “no” to anything that degrades rather than recreates, we will have a chance to make a difference in society. When it comes to TV and the movies, we can be “blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (Phil. 2:15).

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 3, p. 13-14
February 3, 1994