Wednesday, October 28, 2009
- Religion and conservatism in the entertainment industry: a welcome voice or undeclared war?
Jefferson Smith went to Washington.
He arrived on a colorless speeding train into the city of lawyers and legislators, where cotillions are democratic and committees are fanciful, a courtyard of antics where the clowns carry briefcases and entertain youngsters with blatherings.
Smith stepped out of the train and into the political jungle armed with his American ideals in one hand and a cage of pigeons in the other.
Lincoln called to him. Standing at the toes of the national monument, Smith awed at the gleaming whiteness of it all, the shining brilliance of historic words – like “life” and “liberty” and that harried “pursuit of happiness” – and the gaze of America’s 16th President beckoning every man into the servitude of truth.
The Lincoln Monument would call him back once again on an evening of lean shadows and whispered lies when Smith had lost a battle he didn’t even know he was fighting.
“Mr. Smith Goes To Washington”, a 1939 film staring James Stewart, was a tribute to American idealism, a call for integrity, and the troubling journey of an average man set with an unimaginable task – to resurrect the conscience of Washington.
He would do it.
Drenched in sweat and musty hope, Smith would beat back decades long corruption with a passion for American history and a hoarse voice.
The movie was three parts patriotism, one part faith, creating a main character who, to filibuster the Senate, would read from his bible and defeat his nemesis by defining the greatest lost cause as “Love thy neighbor”.
And perhaps, for many Christians in Hollywood dangling above the chasm between faith and success, he spoke the rallying battle cry with his last chalky rebuke, “You think I’m licked. You all think I’m licked. Well, I’m not licked and I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause, even if this room gets filled with lies like these….somebody will listen to me. Someone.”
In Hollywood, many may be listening but are conservative Christians free to speak?
Pop culture religiosity
“In Hollywood, like in any industry, you kind of make your own way,” said Philip Wagner, pastor of Oasis Christian Center in Los Angeles. “If Christians go in waving a bible or pointing a finger, it doesn’t matter if you’re a musician or a carpenter, you’re going to have trouble.”
Religion is an open field, full of daisies and milkweeds and land mines. Step lightly and you just might make it. Don’t water down the message, he explained, just control the flow of the approach.
“The more you earn their trust, the more you have a right to share what you believe,” said Wagner.
Christianity, in and of itself, is tolerable. The image of an all loving, all forgiving Savior of mercy and acceptance is embosomed, said Mel Ayers, former actor and pastor of In His Presence Church in LA. As long, however, as you aren’t a Republican.
“It’s more threatening to say you’re a Republican than to say you’re a Christian,” said Ayers, who often sees more evidence of political convictions than religious ones. “If you have faith in Christ, you have a life that looks like Him. Jesus was not just nice to people, helping old ladies cross the street. His life had power.”
Political convictions in Christians inside the entertainment industry garner rebuke, Ayers said.
“A very well-known actor, someone you’d know instantly if I mentioned their name, said to me, ‘I’ve been labeled a cross-dresser, homosexual, adulterer, but I still get work in the industry all the time. But if I told them I was a Republican, I’d never work again,’” he said.
For the industry of glitz and glamour and gossamer convictions, the adherence to passionate conservative belief is outside the line of tolerance. In Tinseltown, your political belief has more authority because “you live life a certain way,” he explained.
If you want to be a patriot, work undercover.
Lionel and his buddies decided to stop for coffee on their way to a fundraiser.
It isn’t an interesting story unless you know the fundraiser was for Republican Rudy Giuliani, the friends were Emmy-Award winner Gary Sinise and Aussie comedian Tom Gleeson, the hero of our story is Oscar and Emmy nominated screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd, and the coffee was just coffee, minus or plus some sugar and creme.
The meeting, however, started something all its own. It was the birthplace of an idea, a movement, maybe even a cruscade, called Friends of Abe (FOA).
“FOA isn’t a group. It’s an individual, a person who is a friend of Abe,” as in Lincoln, Chetwynd said. “It describes a state of mind, someone who is not a liberal.”
Friends of Abe are individuals in the entertainment industry seeking a place, as well as comrades, who want to express their beliefs in a welcoming environment.
“We have lunches, and we sit around and talk about common experiences,” Chetwynd said. “I remember when it was sometimes just two of us. Now it’s about 1,000, or 800 last time I checked, and always growing.”
He said meetings have attracted names like Jon Voight and Tom Selleck, Kelsey Grammer and Patrician Heaton, James Caan and Pat Boone, and many others who have decided to keep their attendance private.
“The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club,” Chetwynd said.
The meetings are for those in the entertainment industry to seek advice, talk about difficult experiences with confrontational liberals, and find support.
“I was invited to a (FOA) luncheon and thought, ‘Man, it’s terrific!’,” said entertainment icon Pat Boone, taking a moment during the Republican National Convention to speak with me. “It was like a vestibule to Heaven. Very heart-warming. Very encouraging. I looked around the room and saw actors I respected, like Jon Voight. You look around and it’s a real ‘who’s who’. A lot of us didn’t know the others were conservative.”
The main purpose of FOA, which is not an activist group, is simply to prove conservatives in Hollywood aren’t extinct and aren’t alone.
“At the lunches you have 40 to 50 people. Then you get to the dinners. There are all these people around, the sheer numbers are a support group,” said Chetwynd.
Other groups, like Hollywood Republicans, have also seen the binding of their members, around 700, clinging to each other like survivors lost at sea.
“As Republican organizations go, we’re a younger crowd. We have young people struggling in the business, working for Disney, Warner Brothers, and Universal,” said Mark Basil Vafiades, president of Hollywood Republicans. “We have to be careful about being really outspoken.”
During their monthly meetings, it’s a different story.
“There’s so many Christians in our group, it’s totally cool to talk about it,” he said.
This day in history
Like our man Stewart, a Brigadier General, many Hollywood legends were also war heroes, like Captain Clark Cable, Flight Officer Gene Autry, and Lieutenant Junior Grade Henry Fonda. Their era of films often reflected tales of moral relevance and American greatness, a time of patriotism and religious stability.
Then the scene changed.
“If you are a Christian or conservative in Hollywood. You have to be destroyed,” said Bob Parks, of black-and-right.com, who worked as a graphic designer for over a decade in Hollywood.
He lost a network job and a post house job, both after his political and moral views became known.
“If you are Bruce Willis or Clint Eastwood or Chuck Norris, you’ll be fine. But if you are a lower tier person, you better not open your mouth. That saying, ‘You’ll never work in this town again,’ that is probably the only thing honest in Hollywood,” he said.
The sentiments for conservative Christians in Hollywood shifted during the anti-establishment movement of the 60s, said Phyllis Chesler, Emerita Professor and author of 13 books, including bestsellers Women and Madness and The New Anti-Semitism.
“There is a devaluation of born-again Christians, evangelical Christians, Baptists, conservatives, Republicans, this is what is happening on the world stage,” said Chesler, an expert on anti-Semitism, jihadic terrorism and Islamic gender and religious apartheid.
In the world, Christians are being persecuted. In the West, they are simply victims of “slander and hate speech,” she said, with discrimination against Christians or people of faith most intense “in the academic world, in the world of media, in the world of entertainment, and in the world of Hollywood where dreams are propagated.”
She traces the shift in religious perception to changes in American academia starting in the 60s.
“They (academia) didn’t start out with evil intentions or communist values or ideas to bring down America. They wanted to improve America, not bring it down,” said Chesler. “All these liberating forces in academia became rapidly Stalinized.”
Slowly, belief in God has been pushed out, leaving no basis for principles and no room for dissent, said Chesler, who’s books use to be front-page stories in the New York Times until she wrote, The Death of Feminism, which was only reviewed by conservative publications like the Washington Times and Weekly Standard.
“If you have a universal principle that human rights belong to all human beings, and may be even given by a Godly endowment, if you think America is the last best and first best hope for humanity and say, ‘look at what Saddam Hussein did to people, the genocide, the raping of women…,’ if you say that then you are branded a racist by academia secularism, who believe the greatest crime today is racism, not sexism,” said Chesler.
Now America is seeing the tainted views of academia in the students matriculated, she explained.
However, Chetwynd said in his dealings with youth entering the entertainment industry, there is free thought and rebellion against the academic propaganda.
“The new generation tends to be independently thinking and more on our side. It’s very clear, we are the majority in the under 30s,” Chetwynd said.
Perhaps more revealing in the root of anti-American sentiments in Hollywood is the fact the industry is no longer an American industry, he said.
“My first job was with Columbia in distribution, back in the 70s. Then, 65 percent of our revenue was domestic, the rest foreign. Today, it’s more like 15 to 20 percent is domestic, the rest foreign. It’s shifted dramatically,” he said.
And with the movement of money came the movement of ideals. Suddenly, films enjoy a larger foreign market with a broadening of the labor pool, themes made for international audiences, and the integration of international views.
“They are opposed to crafting scripts and ideas to the American audience and instead craft scripts and ideas to appeal to the foreign box office,” said Andrew Breitbart, author of Hollywood, Interrupted and founder of Breitbart.com.
Foreign bankers and investors are supporting the film industry, with films being hyped and promoted through international film festivals held in Toronto, Venice, and London. The global sentiment has even prompted some entertainers to refer to themselves as “citizens of the world” with a “euro socialist mindset,” Breitbart said.
“A lot of Hollywood actors and writers and directors are starting to ask, ‘Did we give it all away?’”
Storming the castle
It isn’t gone yet.
And there are subtle hints and movements by conservatives in the film industry to slowly interlace messages of patriotism, as well as Christianity, into the story line. It’s subversive but there, said John Nolte, editor of the up and coming Hollywood blog, BigHollywood.com, a joint project with Breitbart, and blogger at www.dirtyharrysplace.com
“Dark Knight, in my opinion, was an open love letter to President Bush,” Nolte said. “Look at the heroism and what he is going through. Gotham City didn’t get the hero they wanted, they got the hero they needed. Whether they wanted him or not.”
The parallels are there, he said. You have Joker, a terrorist, saying if they give up Batman, he’ll stop.
“The cowards believe Joker. Like they say, just get out of Iraq, we’ll stop. Or get out of Saudia Arabia, and we’ll stop. The idea is if you stop fighting terrorist they will not be a terrorist and do something like join a community college,” Nolte said. “You know the Joker wouldn’t stop and terrorists won’t stop either.”
The appearance of various messages is a movement appearing more and more, he explained.
“300 was very conservative,” Nolte said. “It talks about how you have to stand up for freedom, not only by facing the overwhelming evil – the Persians – but also facing the Senate who wanted to appease the enemy.”
Then you have Juno, which portrayed abortion clinics as ugly and uncomfortable, or I Am Legend, whose heroin was driven by Christianity and convinces Will Smith’s character some things are worth dying for. Or, you have Spiderman, who always seems to swing past a massive and pristine American flag on his way to save the day.
“Themes showing up in films are all very subtle. If you do it outright, they make you take it out,” Nolte said, explaining the ‘they’ could be producers, actors, or even the directors not wanting to be tagged patriotic, conservative, or Christian.
One bold movie, An American Carol, debuted Oct. 3, with actors Kelsey Grammer, Jon Voight, James Woods, Dennis Hopper, Robert Davi, and even a special guest appearance by Bill O’Reilly, is using a no-subtlety-here approach to anti-American and anti-Christian films. It could be the first of many or the last of one.
Roll the credits
The fat lady hasn’t sung yet, though she’s been warming up her lungs for generations. Instead, an opening is broad and wide and ready for conservative Christians to enter.
“The industry, not wanting to violate the code of multi-culturalism – which is a bad thing – and political correctness – which also is a very bad thing, it’s hamstrung Hollywood into an inability to make firm, moral statements,” said Andrew Klavan, Edgar award-winning author of Don’t Say A Word and True Crimes, both adapted into movies. “There is real hostility in approaching religion in a serious and definitive way.”
That leaves a large, gapping, unfilled hole for intelligent films about Christianity to step in and step up.
“One of my real pet peeves with Hollywood is not what movies say or where they start or end. It’s the underlying assumptions from the left. Anyone truly religious is small minded, bigoted, deceptive and evil. I use to watch Law and Order. And after awhile, you knew if a guy walked in carrying a Bible, he was guilty,” Klavan said. “To have an evangelical who is a good guy, thoughtful, and decent person, doesn’t happen.”
The audience, however, is there, even if the films are not. Passion of the Christ proved that beyond question.
“The Passion of The Christ woke some studio executives up to the fact that they were leaving billions of dollars on the table by ignoring the interests and values of the American heartland,” said Mark Joseph, a multi-media producer, columnist and author who produced the rock soundtrack for the Passion of the Christ and has marketed 18 films including The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
When done right, from production to marketing, the success is astronomical. The movie made Mel Gibson $610 Million, a feat that could happen several times a year for the phenomenally filmed Christian movie, Joseph said.
“The key thing is for people who understand the heartland values of America to come up with great stories and then get into positions of influence where those stories can be brought to market,” he said.
One major blunder in major Hollywood productions to entice the conservative Christian base, Joseph explained, is the basic lack of knowing them.
“Christians are not stupid. They see a project dear to their hearts is in the hands of people and it’s being disrespected,” Joseph said.
Breitbart took it one step further, saying the impression of Hollywood concerning conservatives is polarized into a stereotype from an 80s movie.
“The Hollywood Left does not understand what being a conservative is. They believe a conservative is the movie, Footloose, and the town elders won’t let Kevin Bacon dance,” said Breitbart.
It might just take a movement, or at least a major gamble, to change the message emanating from the big screen.
“The Left works through vindictiveness, seclusion and disdain,” said Klavan. “They’re bullies. Punch them in the nose and they run away.”
For an accurate representation of conservative Christian values in Hollywood, Klavan said it’s going to take courage from individuals in the industry.
“We can’t creep about and whisper like we’re saying something naughty,” he said. “It’s scary. It may make it harder for you to get work…but we’re just going to have to take it.”
And then it takes support. When patriotic, conservative, Christian films are produced, money still talks and the language is universal.
“Too many conservatives write Hollywood off. They don’t like Hollywood people. I understand that, by the way,” said Chetwynd. “But it’s wrong to write it off. There are good films out there and it’s important to talk about them, sensitize people about them and embrace them.”
In the middle, with the industry pulling in one direction and their beliefs the other, many conservative Christians in the entertainment industry are isolated, separated from the country by misconception, separated from Hollywood by conviction. They are outsiders in and out of the industry, not knowing if their convictions are welcome or shunned, not knowing when to speak or just shut up.
“There is a general sense of isolation from the rest of the country, like no one knows we’re here. It’s a feeling of aloneness,” said Chetwynd.
Conservatives and Christians are out there, behind that camera, writing that line, directing that shot, slipping in a mysterious ingredient of optimism and American exceptionalism. The truth is out there, though it may come first in understated pieces.
“This is joy, just joy to watch this happen,” Chetwynd said, concerning the growing conservative base. “Gary’s (Sinise) efforts are just fantastic. Things are really changing. There’s change in the industry, in the profile, in the attitude, but in it’s approach to the world? I don’t know.”