Safeguarding America from Christianity
Puritanism, Proselytism, and the MPAA
In 1993, animator Phil Vischer debuted VeggieTales with the novel idea that “Saturday morning fun” could be compatible with “Sunday morning values.” For a good long time, it appeared that Big Idea Productions, Vischer’s company, was on to something.
This fall, idealism ran into reality. VeggieTales indeed became Saturday morning fun—but with many of those Sunday morning values stripped out.
For those who don’t know the history, Vischer lost control of Big Idea and VeggieTales in 2003, following the release of Big Idea’s Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie. The company had become financially overextended, and a breach-of-contract lawsuit from Big Idea’s original distributor put the company into receivership. Classic Media, Inc., salvaged Vischer’s brainchild from bankruptcy; but the company—which owns media as disparate as Little Golden Books, Rankin-Bass, and Harvey Comics’ animated programming—forced Vischer to relinquish creative control.
So when NBC licensed the broadcast rights to VeggieTales, Classic Media allowed NBC to edit the programs—and Vischer was given the job of making the cuts. He admits he might not have agreed to do the work had he known how deep the cuts would go. “Most of the shows I wrote in the pre-bankruptcy days don’t really teach lessons about values at all,” he wrote on his blog late in September, “but rather about God. And those shows don’t hold up very well if you try to take God out. So I probably would have declined to participate simply because there aren’t enough veggie shows that could be made acceptable to NBC without significantly compromising their message.”
But NBC’s attempt to avoid “programming that offends or excludes any individual religious group” is defensible, Vischer clarified. “Whether or not you agree with their standards or the other shows they air is really a separate issue. They obviously have the right to set their own standards and apply them however they choose.” And NBC applied those standards by asking Vischer to not only cut the show-ending Scripture quotes, but other content as well.
Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association, among others, was incensed by the development. “The real reason the religious content is being censored,” he said in an AFA Action Alert, “is that the networks are run by people who have an anti-Christian bias.” The AFA sees NBC’s Saturday morning betrayal not as an isolated incident, but as part of a trend.
Other watchdogs agree. Earlier this summer, the MPAA slapped the independently-produced, Christian-themed film Facing the Giants with a PG rating. Spokeswoman Joan Graves initially told producers that the film’s overtly evangelistic tone—which the film’s pastor-oriented publicity materials openly trumpets—was partly to blame. “Usually, a PG rating would include violence or sexual content or profanity,” the AFA’s director of special projects, Randy Sharp, commented. “There is none of that during this movie, so the MPAA has basically said, ‘We’re going to warn parents that it has a Christian theme—and it may be offensive.’”
The resulting furor, fanned by a Focus on the Family CitizenLink alert, even got congress involved. “This incident raises the disquieting possibility that [the] MPAA considers exposure to Christian themes more dangerous for children than exposure to gratuitous sex and mindless violence,” commented Missouri’s Republican congressman Roy Blunt.
So broadcasters, studios, and exhibitors all seem to agree: religious content, Christianity included, has the potential to offend people.
Why do we find that so surprising? And why do we expect secular organizations to be looking out for America’s Christians?
Hollywood, America, and the MPAA
The Motion Picture Association of America attempts to protect the interests of both the family and the industry. Originally founded in 1922 to serve as the “trade association of the American film industry”—that is, as a promotional and public-relations extension of the studios—the MPAA says it has since “broadened its mandate” to become the “voice and advocate of the American motion picture, home video and television industries.”
So where do families come in? The ratings system that the MPAA administers is a “voluntary system” which depends on the cooperation of the National Association of Theater Owners. According to the MPAA’s website, “The ratings are given by a board of parents who comprise the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA). CARA’s Board members view each film and, after a group discussion, vote on its rating. The ratings are intended to provide parents with advance information so they can decide for themselves which films are appropriate for viewing by their own children. The Board uses the same criteria as any parent making a judgment—theme, language, violence, nudity, sex and drug use are among content areas considered in the decision-making process.”
In a strange twist of fate, we actually have the Church to thank for an industry trade association—the MPAA—combining public relations with family advocacy. During the early years of the film production, there was no industry or government regulation of cinematic content. Filmmakers, in the best tradition of open market competition, were free to make films about whatever they chose; they made their money only if audiences chose to see the films.
And many audiences chose to get an eyeful. The salacious content of films and Hollywood’s growing reputation as “sin city”—as well as a 1915 Supreme Court ruling that First Amendment rights did not extend to motion pictures—led to the rise of local censorship and a public outcry for regulation of the film industry. So arose the first incarnation of the MPAA.
But not until 1934 did the industry finally move toward rigorous self-regulation with the formal adoption of the Will Hays-authored Movie Production Code. For almost thirty years, administrator Joseph Breen and his successors held the industry accountable to the Code’s guidelines, which stipulated that “no picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” Further, the code advocated “correct standards of life,” and directed that “law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.” The latter guideline was, at the time, a pretty clear declaration that films should respect religion, as the concept of “natural law” is one of the central tenets of the enlightenment-era Church.
The religious community, naturally, did not entirely trust the industry to regulate itself. The National Legion of Decency was founded in 1933 to combat “indecent and immoral motion pictures” and to “strengthen public opinion against the production of indecent and immoral films.” Originally formed with Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish constituency, by 1966 the organization had become an extension of the Roman Catholic Church. Films banned by the Legion of Decency included Jane Russell’s steamy The Outlaw (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and M (1951)—all films released without certification in open defiance of the Hays Code.
In 1956, Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll passed Code muster, yet was still condemned by the Legion. The following year, Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon followed suit—and the studio bowed to the Legion’s action by recutting the movie according to the Legion’s standards rather than the Code’s. The clout and effectiveness of the Code was waning; filmmakers were growing more rebellious, and the Legion was taking no prisoners.
Something had to change. In response, the industry decided to co-opt the Legion’s practice of rating classifications and in 1968 instituted the first version of the ratings with which we are familiar today.
Ratings and Puritanism
Jack Valenti’s gambit with ratings paid off. In 1973, the Legion issued its final “C” rating for The Last Tango in Paris, and shortly after, the Legion and its mandate were folded into the work of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The MPAA’s G rating is now essentially equivalent to the USCCB’s A-I; the PG to A-II; the PG-13 to A-III; the R to L; and the NC-17 to O (for “morally offensive”). The MPAA’s ratings have become standard, and no one talks much any more about movies being “banned” in the U.S. Even Brokeback Mountain, which earned an O rating from the USCCB for “the physicality of the men’s [homosexual] relationship and the film’s inherent sanctioning of their affair,” failed to garner such official status.
But does the MPAA really advocate for family values?
One segment of the public clearly thinks so—those who regularly produce and enjoy films rated R and NC-17. In addition to Facing the Giants, September saw the release of This Film is Not Yet Rated, a documentary “exposing” the MPAA’s ties to industry while focusing on the MPAA’s double-minded handling of “mature” content in films. Director Kirby Dick pretty clearly (and graphically) demonstrated that the MPAA is much quicker to grant an R to films either made by the major studios or exhibiting graphic heterosexuality. At the same time, roughly equivalent independent or homosexual-themed films are labeled by the MPAA as NC-17.
Dick’s conclusion? That the MPAA’s CARA board is not made up of representative American parents but puritanical lackeys of the studios. This conclusion is wholly dependent on what one considers “puritanical,” and on a one-sided analysis that leaves the G end of the scale completely out of the picture.
Yet Dick clearly documents the constituency of the CARA’s appeals board: not parents at all, but distributor and exhibitor representatives—plus Catholic and Episcopalian priests who, by varying accounts, either wield no or equal influence in the voting process.
So the Legion of Decency earned the Church an explicit seat at the industry table, and this involvement is actually the only secret that Dick’s film discloses (aside from the names and faces of specific ratings and appeals board members). The rest is fully disclosed on the MPAA’s website.
Ratings and Proselytism
Double standards and sexual squeamishness aside, however, the MPAA’s agenda is not puritanical; it’s protectionist. The industry has a great deal invested in convincing the American public (and the Church, obviously) that it cares about “traditional values.”
So how has the television and motion picture industry come to the point of trimming VeggieTales and considering Christian teaching worthy of parental guidance?
First is the double-edged sword of economic influence. Once you earn a seat at the table, you have a vested interest in perpetuating that influence. Conflict of interest naturally arises. Ongoing Christian involvement with the MPAA actually serves to mute the Christian voice, not aid it.
Second, the Christian heritage of our country only has a shelf life as long as the public memory of obscure religious phrases. Most Christians today couldn’t even begin to define “natural law” or how the doctrine arose; so when the words disappeared in the transition from the Production Code to the MPAA ratings, no one really noticed or cared.
Third, American society is less homogenous today than it was in 1934. Yes, America was always a melting pot—but it was originally a pretty European pot with pretty Christian ingredients. That’s changed a great deal in the last fifty years, so advocacy for “American family values” means something quite different from what it did when the Code was created.
Fourth—and this is a huge factor—the religious tolerance widely advocated in America today is becoming increasingly uneasy with exclusivist claims. Hence, the flap over Facing the Giants is not really about the film’s Christian content; it arises because Giants makes no bones about Christianity’s claim that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life—that no one comes to God except through Christ.
MPAA ratings bear this out. If a film simply depicts people who live according to Christian values—as in, say, Joshua—the ratings board is more than comfortable with a G rating. But when Jesus’ name gets explicitly introduced and the speechifying turns into evangelism, the MPAA can see that one faith is being advocated over another. This gets the big old PG.
Isn’t this appropriate? If, for instance, a children’s movie preached the merits of Islam, wouldn’t Christian parents want a warning such as, “This film is rated PG for Islamic thematic elements”? From this perspective Giants’ MPAA rating doesn’t go far enough. It never identifies the offending “thematic elements” as specifically Christian. Why not?
To me, Facing the Giants dares to be really Christian and not just generically so; it tells Christian truth the way Scripture does, unapologetically. I would expect the MPAA to do nothing less than what they did.
The USCCB apparently agreed, too. It rated Giants A-II.
The Gospel of Safety
The Church has really gotten itself into a knot over these ratings issues, allowing itself to be distracted by the cares of the world and misled by sloppy theology.
First, concern for our families has somehow led us to believe that safety is of primary concern. Yes, God is concerned with even the sparrows, so He knows when even a hair on a child’s head is endangered. But Jesus never promised that embracing the Gospel would lead to peace. Quite the opposite. And the vision presented by the writer of Hebrews is quite graphic; no, the perceived injustice of a PG rating for Giants does not quite measure up to being sawn in two.
Second, America’s long and justifiable embrace of “Judeo-Christian” values has led us into the illusion that these values still represent the overwhelming majority of Christians. They do not. Further, we’ve forgotten that the label “Judeo-Christian” describes those elements that Judaism and Christianity share—elements explicitly leaving Christ outside the door. So recent developments with VeggieTales and Facing the Giants only shed light on the unique claims of Christianity, not undermine them. We should be glad that Christian values are finally distinguishable from the merely Judeo-Christian sort.
Third, none of this is about us. It’s about God, and it’s about others because God cares about non-Christians too. Even a cursory reading of Scripture tells us that we should consider others at least as important as ourselves. So when it comes to movie ratings and Saturday morning shows, “What’s right for the Buddhist family down the street?” is as appropriate a question for Christians as “What’s right for me and mine?”
The Gospel divides. It separates believer from unbeliever, mother from child, sister from brother, sheep from goats, wheat from tares, gold from dross.
But God does that through His Word and through His Spirit.
We, on the other hand, are ambassadors in the very unsafe ministry of reconciliation. We’d best get used to the idea. The moment Christianity has become safe in any culture, the Word of God has lost its teeth. Of what use is a “safe” Gospel, anyway?
No Double Standards, Please
A couple of weeks ago, I sat down for a talk with novelist Neale Donald Walsch and director Stephen Simon, the creative minds behind the October 27 release Conversations with God. As I talked with them, I made it clear that my own very Christian pastoral convictions differed markedly from the more generically theistic worldview represented by their film.
I pointed out that many Christian critics were likely to attack the film for its casual appropriation of God and Jesus for its own ends. The film, after all, argues pretty ardently that God is already within us and speaks to us directly. It has precious little use for a Redeemer or an Advocate.
Not surprisingly, Walsch and Simon were perfectly happy having their beliefs distinguished from mainstream Christianity.
And they didn’t even mention the fact that their film, too, was rated PG “for thematic elements.” Go figure.
But shouldn’t we be glad the MPAA saw it that way?