Film Regulation and the Church in America
- William D. RomanowskiWilliam D. RomanowskiCalvin College
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.
The church and its vicissitudes have been an essential part of the Hollywood story since the birth of the cinema at the turn of the 20th century. The film industry evolved in tandem with other social institutions; the government, judiciary, and church all had a part in the cinema becoming a legitimate art with its own institutional status. The cinema is a source of creativity and cultural vitality that has always made religious leaders wary of Hollywood’s effect on the moral and religious character of the nation and its influence around the world. Relations between the church and film industry varied: at times consonant, cordial, and contestable, an ongoing argument that was as much about cultural and religious power as the role of popular art and entertainment. Church negotiations with Hollywood reveal the complexity of religiously principled debates about preserving both freedom and public morality in the marketplace.
Church efforts in movie reform were variously shaped by theological differences, religious antagonisms, cultural changes, ideological conflicts, legal and political matters. Church leaders pursued a range of proposals: from industry reform and film education to boycotts and censorship. However varied in practice, these initiatives were in some measure attempts to fuse moral and religious principles with democratic values and market realities. The notion persisted that church patronage (or lack thereof) could effectively persuade profit-driven film producers to make movies that take religious concerns seriously—whatever that means given the uneven mixture of moral reproach and church promotion that has long characterized the religious community’s engagement with Hollywood.
Attitudes about the cinema embody deeply held religious principles that exist 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 approaches, rooted in different theological-cultural traditions, can be plotted along a spectrum of pietist and structural tendencies that find expression with some ebb and flow both within religious groups and between them. The pietist tendency is to focus on social problems primarily as personal, a matter of virtue, character, and individual responsibility, rather than an effect of detrimental social conditions. The structural motif stresses underlying causes in patterned social relations and emphasizes institutional change to foster individual and community flourishing. These two impulses—and related strategies—are not mutually exclusive. In practice, however, structuralists favor industry reforms and improving viewer discernment as ways to protect individual liberties and the common good; pietists are more interested in monitoring movie content and rely more on market tactics to influence producers as a way to exert control over film content, and in turn, public culture and morality.
Protestants and Movie Regulation
The early pioneers of motion pictures were Protestants, who, in their efforts to monopolize the business were outmaneuvered by enterprising Jewish immigrants of Eastern European origin. In an era of open anti-Semitism, Jewish entrepreneurs were savvy in advancing both the aesthetics and business of motion pictures. In a relatively short time, by the 1920s, Jews ruled an entertainment empire with a potential audience that was overwhelmingly Protestant and Catholic.
As the reigning religious and cultural establishment, Protestants spearheaded movie reform in the early 20th century. In their view, the primacy of the individual conscience and the biblical imperative of love of neighbor provided a bedrock for both faithful Christian living and the vitality of American institutions. Profiting from a business that was detrimental to people and society amounted to “commercialized iniquity.”1 They identified their ideals with those of democracy and assumed a God-given duty to preserve them—and Protestant power—in the face of rising religious competition, especially from Roman Catholics.
Modernity proved especially challenging. With massive immigration, urbanization, large-scale industrial and economic growth came the birth of a mass consumer society that movie culture would both foster and benefit from. The cinema was a new visual mass communication that defied conventional notions of “high” art and culture. Produced for profit, movies were about satisfying the whims of a consuming public—not aesthetic vision or contemplation—and contested word-based Protestant culture. Nonetheless, movies were a vital agent of enculturation and Protestant leaders wanted to thwart any negative influence of this “first art child of democracy.”2 Though wary of commercialization, they despised censorship while also believing that a reasonable measure of restraint on individual freedom was acceptable in the interest of the public welfare. Moreover, they were confident that their ideals and values would triumph in an open marketplace of ideas and prove profitable for film producers.
To resolve the tension between expressive freedom and public morality, Protestants emphasized structural remedies. As they saw it, film producers, mostly Jewish immigrants ostensibly unfamiliar with “Christian” values, were profiting from immoral movies that clergy judged to be socially harmful and, moreover, inconsistent with real public tastes. Ideally, they wanted film producers to regulate themselves with religious and civic organizations’ increasing demand for better movies by improving the appetite of moviegoers. “Selection Not Censorship” and “Promote the Best and Ignore the Rest” were watchwords for a democratic means of movie reform that likened tickets to votes as a way of improving the cinema.
The first attempt at voluntary regulation occurred in 1909 with the formation of the National Board of Censorship (later Review) of Motion Pictures. To fend off official censorship (and skirt Sunday ordinance laws), film producers enlisted a group of New York’s cultural custodians—mainly Protestants—to advise filmmakers, and in effect, certify movies for public consumption. The National Board’s modus operandi was only to minimalize sensationalism; it soon came under sharp criticism for passing adult-oriented movies that critics deemed inappropriate for impressionable young people. The board was stymied both by its conflicting purpose, by in effect censoring movies to guard against legal censorship, and its optimism about producers profiting from a sure demand for what would be widely accepted as morally uplifting movies. Maintaining a broad consensus on standards proved too difficult; the National Board eventually lost credibility with both film producers and the public.
States began passing censorship measures—the very thing the Board was established to prevent—leading to a decisive and far-reaching Supreme Court ruling, Mutual Film Corp. v. Ohio Industrial Commission (1915). The court defined film as commerce (“a business pure and simple”) and not a medium for the communication of ideas. Denying movies free speech protection rendered them subject to legalized censorship, which was commonly understood to be cuts made to the final print of a film by some external body, like a local, state, or federal board.3 Protestants continued their support for voluntary regulation with the threat of legalized censorship as a last resort to rein in film exploitation that might result in a repressive official censorship.
In 1922, studio executives persuaded Will H. Hays, a prominent Presbyterian layman and leader in the Republican Party, to head their new trade organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). Hays was a pivotal figure. His influence in religious and political circles weighed heavily in his selection; more than ever the studio heads wanted to protect their movie empires from zealous reformers and capricious government censorship. During World War I, the Hollywood studios consolidated their control over the U.S. market—the world’s largest—and began their domination of the business worldwide. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions during the 1920s, the major studios formed an oligopoly, cooperating to eliminate competition from independent and foreign producers. Contrary to public perception, the studios hired Hays to serve as an effective political lobbyist and public relations expert—not to monitor movie content. His power depended on simultaneously protecting the studios’ business interests and improving the movies. He took these as mutual aims; his co-religionists found them at cross-purposes.
Instead of relying on cooperation with an external agency like the National Board of Review, Hays persuaded the studios to adopt their own policies aimed at restraining sensationalism. His ideas reveal a pietist tendency: the way to expand film freedom was to couple producer self-restraint with increased demand for quality films, and not reform of the film industry’s organization or market orientation, which was essential to maximizing studio profits.
Hays wanted to position national religious, educational, and woman’s organizations as a bulwark against legalized censorship that would also bolster his influence with film producers. This public relations strategy centered on his relations with the Protestant establishment, and especially cooperation with the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, which represented the foremost Protestant denominations of the day. Federal Council officials, however, refused on principle to have anything to do with approving, endorsing, or promoting movies in churches and recoiled at Hays’s offer to play a role in production oversight—tantamount to a church’s prior censorship in their view. Nevertheless, the Federal Council cooperated with the Hays office in mutually beneficial endeavors that culminated in The King of Kings (1927). Ironically, the collaboration of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish advisers in the production of Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epic exposed conflicts between religious and commercial ideals in Hollywood moviemaking.4
Movie taglines alone were enough to convince Protestant leaders that film producers were more interested in attracting audiences with risqué subject matter that in eliminating immorality: The Hot Heiress (1930) “Will knock ‘em cold when she flashes her stuff across the screen.”5 Opposition to Hays’s leadership mounted, eventually exposing a deep rift between Hays’s strategy for reform and that of his Protestant brethren, who were vexed by corporate Hollywood’s challenge to their beliefs about business serving the public good.6 If not voluntary regulation, some proposed that a non-partisan federal commission provide oversight, which, though a common tactic during the Progressive Era, had limited support among Protestant leaders. Others concluded that the studios’ ironclad control of the market rendered consumer strategies (“Promote the Best and Ignore the Rest”) moot; theater owners had no choice but to screen whatever films the studios released. To make producers responsive to real market demands—without resorting to prior censorship—Protestants joined independent exhibitors in support of legislative efforts from the 1920s through the 1940s to break up the studios’ profitable oligopoly by invoking antitrust laws. Restructuring the industry became “the sine qua non of cinema advance,” as a Christian Century writer put it.7
Catholics and the Production Code Era
Synchronized sound in the late 1920s revolutionized the cinema; to make the most of the aesthetic and thematic potentials of the new technology, the studios wanted fewer restrictions in subject matter and more protection from censor boards. While MPPDA staff and film producers were working on a revised code of standards in the summer of 1929, Hays received a comparable proposal from Catholic representatives. From the start, agencies like the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC) and International Federation of Catholic Alumnae (IFCA) were involved in MPPDA public relations efforts. Having reached an impasse with Protestant leaders, Hays enlisted Catholic cooperation. The resulting 1930 Production Code incorporated a list of existing prohibitions (“Don’ts and Be Carefuls”) with general principles written by the Catholic participants.8
Catholic leaders conceived of the Production Code as a synthesis of the Ten Commandments and natural law—universally accepted principles available to all through human reason. The Code’s central premise required producers to refrain from presenting evil as “attractive and alluring” so as not to “lower the moral standards of those who see it.” In practice, it gave producers more latitude in theme while containing treatment within a framework of “compensating moral values.”9 In short, virtue had to be rewarded and sin punished, with good triumphing over evil. Hays hyped the new code as—yet another—uniform guide for producers and hoped it would curtail the Protestant-infused movement to dismantle the studio system.
Acceptance of the Code seemed to have little effect on studio releases, at least as religious leaders saw it. Catholics were frustrated by the violence in gangster films like Public Enemy (1931), the illicit sex in Red-Headed Woman (1932), and the risqué innuendo in Mae West vehicles like I’m No Angel (1933)—all box-office successes. Protestants praised Cavalcade (1933), a successful historical drama; and the Oscar-nominated biopic of the British prime minister, Disraeli (1929), which film executives pointed out was one of the most cancelled films of the year. They deflected church criticism by noting praiseworthy offerings like All Quiet on the Western Front and Abraham Lincoln (both 1930). That there were both wholesome and salacious hits and misses resulted in contrary readings of the public’s palate and whether producers were meeting proven demands. Everyone however, equated “good” movies with healthy box-office returns, claiming their share of successes and pointing out the other’s failures.
Catholic bishops and lay advisers were dismayed by what they perceived as the studios’ blatant disregard for the Production Code, which they believed represented their worldview. Government intervention was held in suspicion, as was Hays’s leadership and Protestant capability in moral matters. Catholic officials concluded that strict compliance to the Production Code was essential to keep movies in accord with accepted moral principles, and that it was time to take action.
In April 1934, the bishops announced the formation of the Legion of Decency and threatened a nationwide boycott of movies. Catholics represented only 20 percent of the U.S. population, but three-fourths lived in large cities and some of Hollywood’s most lucrative markets: New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Though greater in number, Protestants refused to restrict individual liberty by directing the viewing habits of churchgoers. Catholic officials assumed that was precisely their duty and that lay members were compelled to obey church rulings. Proscribing film viewing had to do with nurturing the individual conscience and safeguarding parishioners from false ideas and immorality. Against charges that the Legion’s methods were undemocratic, the bishops countered that they had a responsibility to protect church members from the “proximate occasion of sin.”10 In their view, whatever success the Legion had in eliminating immoral movies was a benefit to all, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. This highly publicized action created an unstable and short-lived interfaith alliance with Protestant and Jewish groups. The public groundswell was enough for Protestant leaders to affirm the Legion’s main objective and cooperate by asking churchgoers to withhold patronage from objectionable films—but only according to one’s conscience.11
Hollywood was especially vulnerable to a large-scale boycott. Weekly movie attendance had dropped from 90 million in 1930 to 60 million by 1932, there were increased calls for federal regulation, and the studios were heavily in debt from the staggering cost of the conversion to sound. To protect themselves, the studio heads agreed to institute the Production Code Administration (PCA) in July 1934. Joseph I. Breen, a tough-minded and religiously devout Catholic layperson, assumed leadership of the new agency with a mandate to provide a uniform interpretation and ensure that every Hollywood release met with the Code’s provisions.
This turn of events, Catholic cooperation and amped-up production oversight, was not just a pivotal moment in movie regulation, but it acquired larger significance as part of the epochal transition from Protestant to pluralist America that occurred from the 1920s to the 1960s. Hollywood’s alliance with Catholics was a visible sign of the erosion of Protestant power that occurred as disillusionment after the First World War, the onslaught of the Depression, and the failure of Prohibition eroded public confidence in the nation’s reigning religion.12
Creation of the PCA was a structural realization of the pietist impulse shared by Hays and Catholic officials; it wed voluntary regulation to the studios’ profitable oligopoly. Enforcement of the Code depended directly on the studios’ complete control of the domestic market. Catholic supervision restrained production to safeguard “decency,” and the studios prevented exhibition of any film without PCA approval. The way the system worked, producers conferred with Breen and his staff throughout the production process. Legion officials could require that changes be made to a film in order to issue a certain rating before national distribution; Catholics pledged to avoid movies rated C (Condemned). Scholars maintain that working in tandem with the PCA under threat of a nationwide boycott “turned the Legion into a national board of censorship.”13
By 1936, reports that box office was up and the family trade revived were proof, according to a Legion official, that “decency means dollars and dirt deficits.”14 The PCA brought stability to film regulation. Hollywood thrived providing escapist entertainment that protected the status quo, but with a skewed portrait that idealized and trivialized American culture as white, Christian, and united as individuals in collective pursuit of the American Dream. There was growing public skepticism, however, about Hollywood’s “half-truths” and “distortions,” and a religious body acting as official connoisseur for the nation’s moviegoers.15
Post-World War II Ecumenism
Momentous Supreme Court decisions changed church cooperation with Hollywood dramatically after World War II. In 1948, the court implicated the PCA in a ruling that dismantled the studio oligopoly as being in violation of antitrust laws—the eventuality for which Protestants had long advocated. Forced to divest themselves of their theater chains, the studios lost control of movie exhibition. In 1952, the court struck down a New York State ban on Il miracolo (The Miracle, 1952), which was shown without PCA approval, and declared that sacrilege was not constitutional grounds for censorship. This, and subsequent decisions, guaranteed movies the right to advocate ideas, even those considered immoral or unacceptable.
The combined effect of the court’s rulings was to gradually undermine prior censorship, and with it, church control of movie content. Censorship and boycotts were viewed by many to now be a violation of civil liberties. Film producers became bolder in defiance of church involvement in production and started exploring forbidden themes like religious hypocrisy, racial discrimination, drug abuse, and sexual seduction. Among Protestants and Catholics, there was division over a fitting course of action. Some church leaders were determined to maintain the current situation, while others pursued strategies to contend with the industry’s changing realities.
The Legion of Decency reported a rise in films rated “objectionable in part” and others—mostly foreign and independent productions—that were not even submitted for classification. Disagreements increased between PCA staff and Legion officials. Under strain and criticism, the Production Code underwent a major revision in 1956—the first since its adoption in 1930. Legion conservatives wanted to shore up the agency’s declining influence in Hollywood and with parishioners. Others thought the purpose of Legion was outmoded; in a pluralistic society, the church could direct its own members, but did not have the right to impose its religious beliefs and morals on others.16 A 1957 papal encyclical (Miranda Prorsus) changed the official Catholic stance from condemning immoral movies to highlighting praiseworthy ones, which was closer to the traditional Protestant position.
In 1950, the National (previously Federal) Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA created the Broadcasting and Film Commission (BFC), with offices in New York and Hollywood, as a means for Protestants to engage the film and media industries. Two conflicting outlooks existed that represented enduring tensions within Protestantism and divided sentiments over goals and strategies in the new era. A conservative faction centered in the West Coast Office in Hollywood displayed the pietist tendency. They were not against free expression, but believed a filmmaker’s freedom had to be restrained by the Production Code, a mindset compatible with that of conservative Catholics now. As Catholic advisers did, West Coast Office personnel wanted to consult with producers to ensure that Protestants received the same favorable treatment as Catholics in movies like Going My Way (1944), and then promote these films with churchgoers. Protestant-themed movies like A Man Called Peter (1955), however, were typically mediocre, garnering neither critical acclaim nor huge box-office returns in comparison to Catholic-themed releases.
Guarding the Protestant image and publicizing church-themed movies ran against the aims of those allied with the BFC’s main headquarters in New York. To engage the film industry without the onus of prior censorship or imitating the Legion of Decency’s methods, they fashioned a theology of the arts based on Paul Tillich’s dictum: “religion is the substance of culture, culture is the form of religion.”17 Theologically liberal and structuralist in outlook, BFC officials believed the industry’s organization itself embodied presuppositions about human purpose and values. They refused to accept Hollywood’s commercial ethos as the church’s modus operandi for reform, which in effect commodified religion.18 Instead, they valued a pluralistic media, and treated the cinema as a religiously revealing medium, focusing on a film’s vision rather than nitpicking at immoral incidents—an implied critique of the Catholic “decency” approach. The BFC pursued a two-pronged strategy. One was to promote film literacy (and change industry perceptions) by offering annual film awards that would draw attention to outstanding efforts and, in turn, encourage production of more movies that honestly explored the human condition. The other was to replace the Production Code with an age classification system—a goal they shared with their Catholic counterparts.
The 1965 BFC Film Awards signaled a profound change in church posture toward the cinema. The east and west coast factions each acclaimed one film as a quintessential illustration of its mode of religious film criticism, and the other as the antithesis. The awards committee prized The Pawnbroker, a gritty story of a Jewish Holocaust survivor, as a profoundly moral and religious film—even though it contained a scene with brief nudity that violated the Production Code. Despite the West Coast Office’s extensive advisory role, the committee refused to recognize The Greatest Story Ever Told, which they judged to be theologically vacuous. Ironically, this epic on the life of Christ ended the era of biblical spectacles like The Robe (1953) and The Ten Commandments (1956).19
In December 1965, the Legion of Decency changed its name to the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures (NCOMP) in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), and launched its own awards program. For several years afterwards, in a display of ecumenical cooperation, the BFC and NCOMP offered joint awards to movies like A Man for All Seasons (1966), on the martyrdom of Sir Thomas More; and In the Heat of the Night (1967), on Southern racism. The Synagogue Council of America joined them in a short-lived televised Inter-Religious Film Awards program in the early 1970s.
The transformation of the Legion and closing of the BFC’s West Coast Office effectively ended divisions within the two organizations; the stage was set for interagency cooperation with Hollywood to end the Production Code Era. In 1968, the Supreme Court recognized different obscenity standards for adults and minors and provided grounds for age classification of film. Protestant and Catholic leaders endorsed the film industry’s institution of an age-based rating system as a structural way to resolve the tension between expressive freedom and the public welfare. The purpose of the rating system was twofold: to safeguard a filmmaker’s artistic freedom and the right of adult to decide which movies to see; and second, to inform parents about the suitability of a film for children and adolescents. BFC and NCOMP representatives served in an advisory capacity and helped the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) publicize the new program. They had no role in rating films, but issued periodic performance reviews, and continued long afterwards to serve the public by monitoring the appeals procedure as observers.
By the early 1970s, the American cinema had secured an independent status as an “art world” with its own province, authority, rationales, and responsibilities.20 A “New Hollywood” emerged. Its realism reflected the political and cultural upheaval in the late 1960s and 1970s, and a broader range of styles and influences gave expression to the growing diversity of American culture with movies that foregrounded race, ethnicity, and gender in ways that were new to Hollywood. The renaissance was transitory, lasting a decade before giving way to a new era dominated by big-budget Hollywood spectacles aimed at youth and a global audience.
In the 1980s, the Catholic and Protestant film agencies shifted goals and priorities. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops subsumed NCOMP, which underwent another name change (Office of Film and Broadcasting), its function relegated to rating and reviewing films for parishioners in accordance with Catholic teaching. The BFC became the National Council’s Communication Commission and began investigating the emerging media environment with the growth of cable television and the VCR. An extensive study of exploitative sex and gratuitous violence in the media in the mid-1980s echoed the constant Protestant refrain; intense competition for profits was overriding the entertainment industry’s need to develop “a corporate conscience that would voluntarily curb visual excesses.” New technologies and delivery systems required not censorship, but “some adjustment to the conflict between artistic freedom and commercial exploitation,” the committee chair maintained, while noting the irony that Protestant aversion to censorship gave industry executives little to fear from mainline churches: “Thus, our greatest threat to the industry—government control—is undercut by our commitment to freedom.”21 The National Council’s proposals went unheeded, as much an effect of Reagan administration deregulation policies as it was a sign of the decline of mainline Protestantism—and with it the structuralist impulse. The ground shifted in Hollywood-church relations; the pietist approach moved to the forefront in concert with the “privatization” of religion in an increasingly diverse American society.22
Evangelicals and the Contemporary Era
Controversy over Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (both 1984) forced the MPAA’s adoption of the PG-13 rating and alarmed Protestant Evangelicals, who took the diminished role of the church in Hollywood’s affairs as evidence of secularization. Members of this conservative Protestant subculture identified themselves as a remnant of orthodoxy in an American culture they believed had become hostile to Christianity. Their approach to the cinema centers on a basic conflict: their desire to remain morally and spiritually distinct from the secular culture they seek to transform via personal evangelism.
In the early 20th century, Protestant Fundamentalists and Evangelicals (as they would eventually be known) avoided movie theaters. They attacked Hollywood as the purveyor of a “worldly amusement” that threatened their moral and spiritual values.23 Still, clergy recognized the ministry potential of film. Churches saw an uptick in attendance at sanctuary screenings that alerted exhibitors to potential competition, but was not enough to convince producers that there was a market for movies substituting as sermons. A cottage industry emerged to supply churches with nontheatrical films that would “preach, teach, and evangelize,” as one scholar puts it.24
In 1951, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association formed World Wide Pictures, which advanced and established the conventions of Evangelical filmmaking. These predictable conversion films harbored no artistic pretensions: a clear presentation of the Christian gospel in a dramatic context was what mattered. Evangelicals judged a movie to be “Christian” by its confessional appearance (explicit expression of Christian belief), moral standards, and evangelistic intent. In practice, that came to mean movies with overt religious content or a PG-rating indicating family-friendly entertainment. World Wide released its first theatrical feature, The Restless Ones, in 1965, the same year as the phenomenally successful The Sound of Music. Both served to draw Evangelicals into theaters and turn them into selective moviegoers who made an occasional mark at the box office for films like World Wide’s The Hiding Place (1975) and Warner Bros. Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire (1981).
The Evangelical movement that emerged in the late 1970s was partly in reaction to the social and political tumult of the previous decade. With liberal mainline churches in decline, theologically conservative Evangelical leaders assumed custody of America’s moral conscience. They opened a Hollywood front in the nation’s “culture wars” and, echoing early 20th-century reformers, charged Hollywood producers with being secular liberals now who were forsaking profits to undermine the traditional “family values” of God-fearing and conservative Americans.25 In resistance, they replayed tactics advocated by the old Catholic Legion of Decency and the BFC’s west coast group. Firmly on the pietist end of the spectrum, Evangelical “values” discourse was limited to concerns about moral entertainment, and not the commercial system that provided it. Market-based strategies have become a key feature of media regulation in postmodern culture dominated as it is by global media oligopolies.26 Identity groups, religious or otherwise, have few alternatives than to raise objections about specific programming and lobby producers as a way to exert some control over media depictions.
In a highly publicized demonstration, Evangelicals protested—and even tried to censor—The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) on grounds of sacrilege. During the 1990s, Evangelical organizations, the Southern Baptist Convention, and conservative Catholics boycotted the Walt Disney Company over controversial movies (and company policy providing health benefits to same-sex partners of employees). These campaigns paradoxically contributed to the film industry’s growing awareness of the existence of a “Christian” market for religiously themed films, or at least family-friendly ones.
Studios started courting Evangelicals for select releases like the C. S. Lewis biopic, Shadowlands (1994), The Prince of Egypt (1998), and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–2003). Despite controversy, the stunning commercial success The Passion of the Christ (2004), fueled as it was by Evangelical and Catholic attendance, galvanized Hollywood’s interest in the church market. In 2005, Disney partnered with Evangelical-owned Walden Media to bring the C. S. Lewis children’s story to the screen, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which finished second in annual box-office returns. The Evangelical boycott of Disney ended that year. At the same time, despite poor production values and lackluster reviews, many independent Evangelical films were successfully niche marketed, including Left Behind (2000), Facing the Giants (2006), and Fireproof (2008).
Movie marketers began employing the labels “Christian” and “faith-based,” although surveys revealed there was hardly a difference in the moviegoing tastes and habits of practicing Christians and the nonreligious. Producers hired Evangelical companies to promote a range of movies hoping that churchgoers would boost the box office for an assortment of films from Elf (2003) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), to Ratatouille (2007) and Soul Surfer (2011). Heralded Hollywood’s “Year of the Bible,” 2014 saw the release of biblical epics, Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings; the Jesus biopic, Son of God; and the Evangelical production, God’s Not Dead.
The “religious” audience has always been unpredictable, leaving film producers with a skewed track record of box-office hits, disappointments, and outright failures. Critically acclaimed and religiously profound movies, from Tender Mercies (1983) to Tree of Life (2011) and Silence (2016), struggled at the box office. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a hit, but two sequels—Prince Caspian (2008) and Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)—stalled, ending the franchise. Noah had respectable worldwide earnings, but a big-budget remake of Ben-Hur (2016) flopped.
The contemporary landscape is a montage (to use a cinematic term) of practices and perspectives long at play in the history of movie regulation. Evangelical websites, like PluggedIn, offer moral and spiritual ratings of movies; the Catholic News Service rates and reviews films to reflect Catholic values. Various religious publications have in-house critics and, with online reviewers of all theological stripes, maintain a lively cinematic discourse. The study of film and theology/religion has become a recognized academic subdiscipline in religion studies.
Controversies occasionally erupt with producers charging the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) with infringing on artistic expression; film critics have accused the rating agency of being more stringent on profanity or sexual content than violence; groups interested in protecting children have criticized CARA for permitting “ratings creep” (material once designated R was now being rated PG-13, for example). Online streaming services like Netflix have outpaced enforcement of the industry’s rating system, which is limited to theatrical exhibition. The debate over “net neutrality” revived the structural impulse with concerns about the effects that corporate media ownership might have on consumers, innovation, civil liberties, diversity, and cultural values. If variously motivated, Protestant, Catholic, and Evangelical organizations all supported equal treatment of all traffic to ensure open access to the Internet as critical to the functioning of democracy. These issues and debates show the persistence of dynamics that have preoccupied church leaders since the dawn of the cinema.
Review of the Literature
The earliest film histories depict the church as a hostile critic of Hollywood in a struggle between artistic freedom and censorship or for hegemonic control over movies. They were written by industry insiders whose views were shaped by personal experience and prevailing attitudes during Prohibition. Their reports focus on certain publicized efforts to regulate the film industry, which led them to cast Protestants collectively as “professional reformers and fanatics” agitating for censorship and having no real influence in the film industry.27 Raymond Moley, an adviser to Will Hays, perpetuates the stereotype. Moreover, in Moley’s The Hays Office and Hays’s 1955 autobiography, Protestants go pointedly unmentioned even concerning events that centrally involve them.28 Together these early accounts obscured the complicated role of the church in movie regulation for future historians and marginalized the import of religious perspectives.
Two significant studies bookending the Supreme Court’s transformation of Hollywood in the decades after World War II acknowledge the importance of church perspectives. The recommendations in Ruth Inglis’s consequential 1947 report display traditional Protestant sensibilities and anticipated the Supreme Court decisions that dismantled the studio system and expanded film freedom.29 Richard S. Randal provides a definitive analysis and proposes alternative measures to replace prior censorship in 1968 that were in accord with court rulings and subsequent MPAA action to institute age classification.30
In the 1970s, scholars began expanding their sources and making use of cultural studies methods to present a more complex understanding of the cinema as art, industry, culture, and to examine its social functions. Whatever their shortcomings on the religious front, ambitious studies by Robert Sklar, Garth Jowett, and Lary May offer new interpretations that include church initiatives in the complex landscape of film regulation.31
The bulk of historical research on church relations with Hollywood has focused on Catholics during the Production Code Era. Among the best studies are two volumes by Gregory Black (1994, 1997) and especially Frank Walsh (1996). Both are informative and thoroughly researched utilizing film industry and Catholic sources. Studies of Catholic influence benefited more recently from Thomas Doherty’s revealing biography of Joseph Breen (2007).
The field of inquiry expanded with two valuable edited volumes: Couvares (1996) and Bernstein (1999) include insightful and nuanced analyses of a broad range of efforts by religious and social groups to regulate the cinema. A book by Terry Lindvall (2007) and another with Andrew Quicke (2011) chronicle the history of church film production and provide essential background and context for contemporary Evangelical filmmaking. Judith Weisenfeld (2007) breaks new ground with a penetrating analysis of the representation of African American religion in film, as does a study by Gerald R. Butters, Jr. (2007) of state censorship in the Protestant environs of Kansas. Theological debates factor signficantly in William Bruce Johnson’s (2008) comprehensive history of film censorship. A seminal study by William D. Romanowski (2012) reframes the Protestant narrative and corrects the overemphasis on Catholic influence in histories of movie regulation.
As these titles suggest, various avenues remain open for investigation, especially studies reflecting on geography, race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and specific religious groups. One key issue for further exploration is the relationship between religious perspectives, related strategies, and their effects in movie regulation. Another involves the similarity between church and cinema: two institutions that propagate values and viewpoints that often rival one another. The movie industry values freedom, choice, and commercial success; and on the other side, aesthetic merit and provocative themes. The religious discourse emphasizes film content and its effects, social responsibility, and the public welfare. This conflict plays out as much in the movies themselves, as it does in matters regarding their production, distribution, and reception. Understanding the complex interaction of film aesthetics, industry economics, marketing, and demographics with cultural values like diversity and matters of representation can benefit studies in history as well as those in the broader field of film and religion.
The Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences preserves the preeminent collection of materials devoted to the film industry. The UCLA Library Film and Television’s “Special Collections & Archives” maintains a webpage listing Studio Archives and repositories mostly in the Los Angeles area. Most Protestant denominational archives can be found online. Materials related to the Legion of Decency are located in the papers of various Catholic officials associated with the organization. Here is a representative list of major repositories.
Archives of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Mission Hills, CA.
Cecil B. DeMille Archives, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.
Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, CA. The library’s Special Collections, which includes records of companies, personnel, and the Production Code Administration files, are only available to researchers by appointment.
Martin J. Quigley Papers, Special Collections Division, Georgetown University Library, Washington, DC.
MPPDA Digital Archive: Documents from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc., 1922–1939. An online database of the MPPPDA’s correspondence files from 1922 to 1939.
New York Public Library, New York, NY. National Board of Review of Motion Pictures Records.
National Catholic Welfare Conference Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.
Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, PA. The national archive of the Presbyterian Church USA holds archival and published materials including the records of the National (formerly Federal) Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA.
Warner Bros. Archives, USC Warner Bros. Archives, Los Angeles, CA.
Will H. Hays Papers, Indiana State Library, Indianapolis, IN.
- Bernstein, Matthew, ed. Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.
- Black, Gregory D. Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- Black, Gregory D. The Catholic Crusade Against the Movies, 1940–1975. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
- Butters, Jr., Gerald R. Banned in Kansas: Motion Picture Censorship, 1915–1966. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007.
- Couvares, Francis G., ed. Movie Censorship and American Culture. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.
- Doherty, Thomas. Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen & The Production Code Administration. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
- Johnson, William Bruce. Miracles & Sacrilege: Roberto Rossellini, the Church, and Film Censorship in Hollywood. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.
- Jowett, Garth. Film: The Democratic Art. Boston: Focal Press, 1976.
- Leff, Leonard J. and Jerold L. Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.
- Lindvall, Terry. The Silents of God: Selected Issues and Documents in Silent American Film and Religion 1908–1925. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2001.
- Lindvall, Terry. Sanctuary Cinema: Origins of the Christian Film Industry. New York: New York University Press, 2007.
- Lindvall, Terry and Andrew Quicke. Celluloid Sermons: The Emergence of the Christian Film Industry, 1930–1986. New York: New York University Press, 2011.
- Lyden, John, ed. The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film. New York: Routledge, 2009.
- Lyons, Charles. The New Censors: Movies and the Culture Wars. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.
- May, Lary. Screening out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
- Mitchell, Jolyon and S. Brent Plate, eds. The Religion and Film Reader. New York: Routledge, 2007.
- Romanowski, William D. Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies, rev. and updated ed. New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1975, 1994.
- Walsh, Frank. Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.
- Weisenfeld, Judith. Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929–1949. Berkley: University of California, 2007.
1. Charles S. Macfarland, The Progress of Church Federation (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1917), 14.
2. Lewis Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939), 271.
3. See Garth Jowett, “‘A Capacity for Evil’: The 1915 Supreme Court Mutual Decision,” in Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era, ed. Matthew Bernstein (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 16–40.
4. See Richard Maltby, “The King of Kings and the Czar of All the Rushes: The Propriety of the Christ Story,” in Matthew Bernstein, ed., Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 60–86.
5. Quoted in “The Hays ‘Moral Codes,’” The Churchman, July 5, 1930, 9.
6. See The Public Relations of the Motion Picture Industry (New York: Department of Research and Education, Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, 1931).
7. “A Fateful Hour for the Movies,” Christian Century, May 27, 1936, 757.
8. A version of the 1930 Production Code is available online at ArtsReformation.com.
9. Richard Maltby, “The Production Code and the Hays Office,” in Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise 1930–1939, ed. Tino Balio (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993), 47.
10. John T. McNicholas, “The Episcopal Committee and the Problem of Evil Motion Pictures,” Ecclesiastical Review 91, no. 2 (August 1934): 118. The same argument could be applied to prior censorship that eliminated material considered offensive based on the church’s teaching.
11. L. O. Hartman, Editorial, “Keep Away from Bad Movies,” Zion Herald, July 11, 1934, 651–652.
12. See William D. Romanowski, “Freedom Safe-Guarded by Self-Discipline: Will H. Hays, Protestantism and Movie Censorship,” Fides et Historia 49, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2017), 47–64.
13. Gregory D. Black, The Catholic Crusade against the Movies, 1940–1975 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 2.
14. Legion Executive Secretary Joseph A. Daly quoted in “Profit in Decency Is Seen for Films,” New York Times, Feb. 14, 1936, 23.
15. Robert Forsythe, “Who Speaks for Us?,” New Theatre, August 1936, 6–10. See also “The Legion of Decency and the Big Eight,” Christian Century, March 20, 1940, 373.
16. John Courtney Murray, “Literature and Censorship,” Books on Trial 14 (1956): 393–395, 444–446.
17. Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, ed. Robert C. Kimbal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 42.
18. Everett C. Parker, “Christian Perspective on Mass Communication,” Social Action 24, no. 8 (1958): 3–9.
19. F. Thomas Trotter, “The Church Moves Toward Film Discrimination,” Religion in Life (Summer 1969): 264–276.
20. Howard S. Becker, Art Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).
21. James M. Wall, “Fighting the Media’s Eroticizing of Violence,” Christian Century, October 3, 1984, 891–892. See also “Violence and Sexual Violence in Film, Television, Cable and Home Video,” Report of a Study Commission of the Communication Commission, National Council of the Churches of Chrsit in the U.S.A. (New York: National Council of Churches, 1985).
22. Robert N. Bellah et al., eds. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California, 1985), 224.
23. William D. Romanowski, “John Calvin Meets the Creature from the Black Lagoon: The Christian Reformed Church and the Movies 1928–1966,” Christian Scholars Review 25, no. 1 (September 1995): 47–62.
24. Terry Lindvall, Sanctuary Cinema: Origins of the Christian Film Industry (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 4.
25. James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991).
26. Francis G. Couvares, “Introduction,” in Movie Censorship and American Culture, Francis G. Couvares, ed. (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), 1–15.
27. Benjamin B. Hampton, A History of the Movies (New York: Covici Friede Publishers, 1931; reprinted Arno Press, 1970), 283.
28. Raymond Moley, The Hays Office (New York, Bobbs-Merrill, 1945); and Will H. Hays, The Memoirs of Will H. Hays (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1955).
29. Ruth A. Inglis, Freedom of the Movies: A Report on Self-Regulation from the Commission on Freedom of the Press (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947).
30. Richard S. Randall, Censorship of the Movies: The Social and Political Control of a Mass Medium (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968, 1970).
31. Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies, rev. and updated ed. (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1975, 1994); Garth Jowett, Film: The Democratic Art (Boston: Focal Press, 1976); and Lary May, Screening out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).