Holidays bring up exploration of religion

In marketing terms, Christmas has something in common with Xerox and Kleenex, whose signature products became so ubiquitous people forgot they belonged to somebody — in one case companies, in the other religion — and began using them generically.

In media terms, Christmas has become not only a time for Christians to celebrate, but also one to voice simmering grievances against cultural elites many see as being openly hostile toward their faith and hell-bent on insulting them.

Strictly in census terms, presenting Christians — who account for more than three-quarters of the U.S. population — as a downtrodden group is a feat of political and cultural jujitsu. After all, just being pragmatic, any exec in the mass-entertainment business would appear ill-advised to consciously alienate so many potential consumers.

Nevertheless, the conservative pundit class — tapping into the aforementioned distrust of Hollywood — finds no shortage of media outrages perpetrated against Christians, including chronic disrespect from Hollywood and a recurring war on Christmas itself.

Even the sacred altar of football has been drawn into the fray, via debate over Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. Although analysts remain divided regarding how well the Heisman Trophy winner’s skills translate to the pro game, more heated discussion has centered on criticism (or exaltation) of Tebow because of his outspoken evangelical Christianity than on his on-field exploits.

For the most part, broadcast networks shy away from programming that deals with religion, viewing it as a no-win proposition.

“Because they don’t really know how to be Christian, they avoid it,” says Frank Desiderio, a former chairman of the Humanitas Prize now working as a pastor in Boston. “You have to straddle this line between believers and commercial success, which is very difficult to straddle.”

Exploration of religion tends to turn up more frequently in narrower cable confines, which can afford to be more provocative. As a consequence, the pious are often depicted in a less-than-flattering light — from the bible-motivated serial killer in the current season of “Dexter” to the hypocritical, tormented FBI agent in “Boardwalk Empire.”

Of course, a key mandate of cable — and pay TV in particular — is to push boundaries beyond traditional TV, and nothing does that better than braving taboo topics. In that sense, irreverence is as much a branding exercise as an antagonistic gesture.

That said, it doesn’t engender trust when a major network, ABC, provides religious critics with ammunition by ordering a series titled “Good Christian Bitches.” Even if the cheeky Texas-set soap (since shortened to “GCB”) is based on a book by that name, those in the indignation business will inevitably have a field day with that.

If these programs are offensive to the Christian faithful, though, so too are assertions by some of its most vocal, easily riled representatives that “liberal Hollywood” — with disproportionate representation among secularists, Jews and gays — is inherently “out of touch” with “regular Americans.” Fringe groups like the Florida Family Assn. do their brethren no favors by protesting TLC’s “All-American Muslim,” triggering a well-deserved backlash against their own religious bigotry.

The media’s metamorphosis into an unending, point-scoring political campaign — with forces on the right and left on perpetual high alert — presents another obstacle to intelligent dialogue, in the same way ex-jocks tackling the Tebow phenomenon look to be over their heads dealing with nuance.

Like the Humanitas organization, others have sought to bridge the divide between the entertainment community and religion, including Mastermedia Intl., a group whose evangelicals seek to influence media leaders through prayer, consultation services and outreach.

Mastermedia chairman and founder Larry Poland says the relationship between Hollywood and Christians has always been cyclical and “incident-driven,” with some show or another “raising the ire of the campaigners in the community.”

By contrast, part of Mastermedia’s mandate is to lower the decibel level and demystify the Christian community — in part by conducting seminars for media companies — and getting beyond the rhetorical bomb-throwers on both sides. As Poland puts it, “Every constituency has what I call a jerk factor.”

If that sounds like a small step, with the latest Christmas “war” heating up, it’s a welcome one. Righteous indignation and knee-jerk victimization are commodities we’ve got in abundance. Tolerance and constructive engagement — on all sides — remain in short supply.

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