Since the dawn of the cinema at the turn of the 20th century, the church and its vicissitudes have been an essential part of the Hollywood story. There is a basic affinity between film and religion; both propagate values and offer visions of life that can—and often do—rival one another. For that reason, religious leaders have always been wary of Hollywood’s effect on the moral and religious character of the nation and its influence around the world. The film industry evolved in tandem with the church and other social institutions as it became integrated into society as a legitimate art. Negotiations with Hollywood were complex as church leaders sought to resolve enduring tensions between profits and the public welfare, freedom and control, art and entertainment, morality and marketing.
Approaches to the cinema embody deeply held religious principles held in some tension. The one stresses freedom of expression and individual conscience; the other a concern with protecting the church and the moral and religious character of American society. Various perspectives that are rooted in different theological-cultural traditions exist along a spectrum. At one end is an emphasis on the individual as the genesis of social change; at the other is a concern with transforming institutions that influence and govern people’s lives. These two tendencies, which are not mutually exclusive, find expression both within religious groups and between them.
In the history of Hollywood-church relations, Protestants favored industry reforms to protect individual liberty and the common good based on a shared recognition of the need for self-restraint and public responsibility. While Protestants stressed the individual conscience in movie matters, Catholics emphasized ecclesiastical authority. Proscribed film viewing and production oversight were deemed necessary to develop the individual conscience and protect parishioners from false ideas and immorality. Evangelicals, in turn, utilized film to evangelize and expected to restrain film production with highly publicized protests and a demonstrable consumer demand for family-friendly movies. Though motivated by different goals and perspectives, these strategies are all in some measure attempts to fuse moral and religious principles with democratic values and market realities: persistent dynamics traceable from the origins of the cinema to contemporary debates.