Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Why the Christian Right hates Hollywood

I’m an actor. Or at least I used to be until I fled California. One would have to have been living in a dark room for the last twenty eight years to not be aware of this facet of the culture wars…the tendency of the Christian Right to demonize the denizens of America’s entertainment capital. Here are a few examples of what some Christian leaders have said about Hollywood:
Jerry Falwell called " …movie stars “moral perverts”, while claiming that you “almost got to be a homosexual to be recognized in the entertainment industry anymore.”
Falwell again…“Movie stars not married to each other, having babies and making headlines all over the world as though they were doing some great thing. Big deal! Just another moral pervert. And for them to become heroes for our kids.”
Falwell once refered to Ellen DeGeneres as Ellen Degenerate. Nice. And during the 2008 Presidential campaign John McCain tried to arouse the passions of the natives by declaring that Barack Obama was off to Hollywood for a fundraiser. And you know what THAT means! Those evildoers will be plotting on how to demoralize and debase America even more than they have already. McCain, no Bible beater by any stretch, knew what would arouse his base even though it was a half-hearted attempt to remind evangelicals that Democrats are evil bedfellows of those Screen Actors Guild people. Ironically, McCain had a Hollywood fundraiser himself a month later to little fanfare.
Donald Wildmon of Focus On The Family, an evangelical organzation that campaigns for Christian issues had this to say…
"The television elite are highly secular," Wildmon wrote. "The majority (59 percent) in the Jewish faith."
I could list quotation after quotation but I’m sure you catch my drift. The Christian Right has had a bee in it’s bonnet for a long time when it comes to Hollywood. Watch what happens when a movie star weighs in with an opinion that drifts left of center, they will be vilified as another Hollywood loser with no moral compass and should just keep their mouth shut. Witness the apoplexia by Christian leaders when Alec Baldwin has something to say. This eventually filters down to Fox News which works hand in glove with the Christian Right to continue the right wing talking points in their own echo chamber.
The Moral Majority
My first personal remembrance of the Christian Right was in the late 1970′s when Jerry Falwell created the Moral Majority as a response to the fallout from what he viewed as the moral vacuum of the 60′s/70′s. I was a student actor in college at the time and I clearly remember arriving at the college to get into make-up for an 8 PM show only to see one of the other actors already in the green room sporting a button which read "The Moral Majority is neither". We smirked at his political statement and we both shared a laugh at this attempt at wit, both of us clueless of the eventual political movement which would cripple our country in the coming decades. A political movement which would see it’s genesis the following year with the election of Ronald Reagan. To many, this was the start. This is when the anger, the so called culture wars, would ignite like a wildfire. And for years after liberals seemed impotent in it’s wake. The opposition was always on-message, organized and the best we could do was elect Republican-lite politicians as a bulwark against this seemingly endless tsunami. Reagan forged a coalition of economic conservatives and evangelicals under one roof and their political effect would be felt in the next eight election cycles.
But all was not lost. Even Hollywood can give as good as it gets and by the middle of the 1980′s The Moral Majority dropped it’s moniker and buried itself within the more apt Christian Coalition. It seems that the very name "Moral Majority" was found to be a bit of a joke and the group finally decided to get rid of it in favor of the CC. Late night comics had been having a field day with such an arrogantly self-righteous title but the membership was still there and still determined to deliver on it’s political agenda. These were my first memories of the Christian Right and I’m sure many will agree that this is where it all started. But there is more, much more to this story. To follow it you will need to time travel with me for just a bit because this is an ancient battle.
The Shaman
Real power lies in hearts and minds. If you can influence them you can move mountains. In prehistory it was The Shaman that had the power. The Shaman was an elder, had the ear of the chief and could bend men to his will. In his book The Way of the Actor Brian Bates describes the ancient Shaman as the original artist, dancer, musician, singer, dramatist, intellectual, poet, bard, ambassador, curer, folksinger, weatherman and cultural hero.
Film director John Boorman journeyed deep into the rain forests of Brazil, researching for The Emerald Forest, his film about white American boy who is captured by and grows up with a native South American indian tribe. Boorman was flown into tribal lands, trekked through the jungle to a meeting with Takuma, a famed shaman. When they finally met, Takuma asked Boorman to explain his work: "It’s not easy to describe a movie to a man who has never seen one or watched television. I struggled and he listened intently. I told him one scene would stop and another begin, in a different place and time as it does in a dream. he lit up, grasping that. I told him of some of the tricks and wonders we got up to. Finally he was satisfied. "You make visions, magic. You are a paje like me."
Modern day actors have taken the place of the shamans of prehistory. They are the new storytellers. The Shamans were the first actors and like their modern day counterparts were thought to have transformative powers. They were thought to be able to communicate with the dead and to have the power to divine future events. Bates goes on to state that…
shamanic actors in performance becomes not another person, but another class of being. And the being is not a fictitious character, but a spirit. (Sounds like those damn Method Actors)
But the ancient shamans ran afowl of a new upstart religion. The early Christian church attacked the practices of the shamans as "paganism". Performances were restricted and banned. The one way to get rid of a competing religion is to demonize it into non-existence. Bates continues…
"The Christian missionary campaign in Europe was quickly allied to the political and military authorities and repressive measures were instituted against actors. Actors were declared from pulpit as outcasts. They were described as being possessed not by "spirits" but by devils and demons. Actors tumbled from their position as high status "performing mystics", interpreting the knowledge and power of the spirit world."
The conflict between these rival interpreters of competing spiritual realities continued well into the next millenium. In medeival England actors were still being persecuted. In 1372 an act of Parliament was passed designating "Roges, Vagabondes, and Sturdye Beggars all Fencers, Bearewardes and Common players in Enterludes and Minstrels." The act went on to categorize all the activities of actors as "lewd" and liable to punishment. Fast forward to Shakespeare’s time and the cultural discrimination still exists with the building of the famed London theatres on the "other" side of the Thames River where only the harlots and brigands live.
Fast forward now to modern times where a young Charlton Heston is performing theatre in Pennsylvania Dutch country, an area of conservative farmers. From The Way of the Actor
When Heston arrived, the director sent for him to have a quiet chat and explained that "The local townspeople like the theatre, they like to come to it, and they don’t want you mingling with their children or their wives. There’s a street in the town that marks the spot where the company is not allowed to go. If that upsets you, you’d better tell me now".
Now, none of this has anything to do with morality or our basic goodness, it has everything to do with power and who gets to write the history books. It’s about who gets to interpret the meaning of spirituality and on whose terms. This is a battle that didn’t start during the Reagan presidency, it’s merely the continuation of an ancient turf war that has been with us in one form or another for two thousand years. The modern day Christian Nationalist movement is seeing their power wane as secular ideas and mores take hold. Not only in our country but in Europe where the church is in full retreat. The modern day fundamentalist fears the modern world and the rational thought which is unweaving their medieval notions of reality. Only this time they don’t have the power of the state to enforce their edicts. They must persuade, and finding their argument lacking many are walking away from them. All they have left in their quiver is to attack the reborn concepts of the pagans. And as the world moves in a more secular and rational direction you can count on the rhetoric from the Christian Right to become more shrill, more desperate. They’ll fall into the old routine and blame Hollywood. After all, they’ve been doing it for two millenia.
I quoted freely from The Way of the Actor, A Path to Knowledge and Power by Brian Bates published by Shambhala. Look for it in a used bookstore near you.

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