Greenbelt Interfaith News
    U.S. News

    September 20, 1997

    Advertisers Getting Attention After ABC Priest Drama Airs
    By Art Toalston
    Baptist Press

    TV advertisers were in focus after ABC, the network subsidiary of The Disney Company, aired Nothing Sacred a drama about a priest much ballyhooed by ABC and the secular media and much criticized by cultural conservatives.

    Nothing Sacred in many quarters had been called a sitcom but actually is a one-hour drama, with doses of religion-related humor and other content decried by cultural conservatives.

    The show's lead character, "Father Ray," given an opportunity to give pro-life counsel in the confessional to a young woman considering an abortion, for example, fails to do so.

    "You're an adult, with your own conscience," Father Ray tells the young woman. "I can't tell you what to do. I can only tell you what the church teaches . . . (or) if you want, what I think." The camera shots shift to the woman's side of the confessional, where she is holding a tape recorder. "What are you saying, Father? That my conscience is more important than what the church teaches?" It is apparent what Father Ray's answer is, when a copy of the tape is sent to the bishop and the priest is called to give account. His response to the bishop, "I can't say things I don't believe," prompts only a warning that Father Ray could be asked to leave his vocation and that he should be careful.

    The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Liberties released a list of 27 organizations Sept. 19 it said will be boycotting Nothing Sacred's sponsors. And on Sept. 16, the Catholic League announced it was sending signatures from 500,000 people to Disney chairman Michael Eisner asking that Nothing Sacred be dropped.

    "Parishes signed the petition, as did groups of priests, nuns and religious," said William Donohue, Catholic League president. "Without solicitation, Protestant churches made the petition available, and Jews and Muslims also supported the drive.

    "Everyone knows that more is at stake than just a show that pushes the envelope against Catholics," Donohue said.

    From cultural conservatives, concerns abound: Nothing Sacred "takes religion to the liberal woodshed and ridicules Christianity like no other prime-time drama has ever done," the American Family Association said, for example.

    Secular TV critics, however, devoted little attention to the show's handling of moral issues raised by cultural conservatives.

    New York Times critic Caryn James wrote that Nothing Sacred rises above other network shows on religion "by the thoughtfulness of its writing, its ambiguity, its refusal to preach. Though the series offers a complex study of faith in the real world, its great strength is that it works as engaging human drama, apart from religious concerns."

    James commented that CBS' Touched by an Angel and Promised Land, by comparison, "hammer away at the reassuring notion that God will help those who help themselves. They are tailored to an era of 12- step programs and self-help gurus. At the other extreme are glib sitcoms like 'Soul Man' (ABC) and 'Good News' (United Paramount Network, UPN), based on the apparently stunning idea that clergymen are people too."

    Ted Baehr, chief executive officer of the Christian Film and Television Commission, in a review of Nothing Sacred, noted: "In the Golden Age, when the 'Bells of St. Mary' rang out, it was a given that you would never mock anyone's religion or portray a spiritual authority in a derogatory, negative or demeaning manor. This Motion Picture Association guideline for movies came out of a sensitivity to what had happened in Nazi Germany, wherein one of the first steps taken by the National Socialists towards the Holocaust was the public media ridicule of Jewish spiritual authorities. This guideline did not mean that there were not authorities who were fallen, mistaken, foolish or corrupt, but it did insist that faith is such a delicate matter and so open to ridicule, bigotry, offense and backlash that it should be treated with the utmost respect."

    If such a guideline had been applied today to Nothing Sacred, Baehr wrote, "it would have been a much better program and less likely to arouse the ire of concerned Roman Catholics."

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