They've Got ReligionBy David Briggs
© The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 13, 2001.
Surprisingly, Homer, Marge and company show more interest in faith than many of their TV predecessors.
Homer Simpson on swearing: "Maybe I curse a little, but that's the way God made me, and I'm too old to stop now."
Homer on God: "He's always happy. . . . No, wait, he's always mad."
Homer's ideal religion: "No hell, no kneeling."
The religious humor on "The Simpsons" may veer between the sacred and the profane, but the show, now in its 12th season, remains unique among situation comedies in the central role faith plays in the lives of its characters.
In the cultural debate over Hollywood values, a show once maligned for steering America's youth astray is garnering serious attention for its groundbreaking attitude toward the importance of religion in Middle America.
The writers of "The Simpsons" actually deal with religion more substantively than did shows like "Father Knows Best" or "My Three Sons," where it was assumed characters went to a nondescript church but religion was treated with such reverence it was off-limits, scholars say.
"We see it more (on 'The Simpsons') than we did in the 1950s, that religious decade," said California State University Professor John Heeren, who reported on a study of religion in "The Simpsons" last fall in Houston at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. "They think religion is important in people's lives, and that's why they put it in the center of the work they do."
The enduring popularity of the cartoon family and the almost cultlike devotion of some of its followers have led to exhaustive documentation of the show's dialogue by fans who might otherwise have to get a life. Typing in "religion" and "The Simpsons" on a Yahoo search engine will result in thousands of hits.
What is developing is serious research into the comedy hit as it becomes an icon of American culture.
" 'The Simpsons' is one of the most important common experiences in the American home," said Stewart Hoover, a religion and media scholar at the University of Colorado. "The program and its writers are remarkably sophisticated in their understanding of the nature of American religion and American religious practice."
In his study, Heeren watched 71 of the 248 episodes that had been shown since "The Simpsons" began in 1989. He then documented the religious content of each program.
"The first thing that emerges in looking at 'The Simpsons' is the sheer prevalence of religion in the program," he told the religion scholars at their meeting. More than two-thirds of the shows had at least one religious reference, while religious issues were the context for more than one in 10 shows.
Heeren said this is news in itself. In a separate study of newspaper cartoons, Heeren found that less than 1 percent contained "religious content of a significant sort."
What is also new is the irreverent attitude taken toward organized religion.
In the sign outside the First Church of Springfield, one will see such announcements as "No synagogue parking" and "Private Wedding: Please Worship Elsewhere."
In an episode in which Springfield is taken over by a cult, the Rev. Lovejoy, seeing the leader fly off in a space vehicle, throws his collar on the ground and says, "Oh mercy! He's the real deal." When the vehicle crashes, Lovejoy quickly gets his collar back, saying, "How did that get down there?"
God is omnipotent and omnipresent in the lives of the characters who inhabit Springfield. When trouble strikes, it is God to whom Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa turn for help.
Most of the characters have a personal relationship with God, who responds to human entreaties, from answering Marge's request to save Springfield from a nuclear meltdown to sending a sign to Homer to encourage Lisa in her musical ambitions. "All in all, it seems to me a quite religious message," Heeren said.
The show's producers say the series attempts to reflect the idea that faith plays a major role in the life of a community. In a 1999 interview with Mother Jones magazine, cartoonist Matt Groening said, "Right-wingers complain there's no God and religion on TV. Not only do the Simpsons go to church every Sunday and pray, they actually speak to God from time to time."
Not that "The Simpsons" always takes religion seriously.
In his Thanksgiving prayer, Homer says that he is "especially thankful for nuclear power." He also tells his daughter that watching football "helps get rid of the unpleasant aftertaste of church."
Nor should you expect Homer to think any deep theological thoughts. In one episode, with the foundation of his house crumbling, Homer is urged to take action. Not wanting to be disturbed while he is relaxing, Homer replies, "It's all part of God's great plan."
Rev. Lovejoy of the First Church of Springfield
Last updated on February 21, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)