Stunned by the increasing acceptability of humanist dogma (such as moral relativism and socialism), conservative Christian leaders since the 1970s decided there was too much at stake for them not to voice a Bible-based morality in the public square. One of the biggest challenges for Christians is the movie industry and its disturbing tendency to promote promiscuity, homosexuality, and blasphemy. One particular showdown between Hollywood and conservative Christianity offers much food for thought.
In recent decades, the most serious battle between Bible-believing Christianity and Hollywood occurred over Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, a very controversial film released in 1988. What is especially stunning about this clash was how oblivious Scorsese and his supporters were to the pain that such a film would cause conservative Christians.
As told in Thomas R. Lindlof’s Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars (2008), Scorsese became interested in adapting Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation to film. Writer Paul Schrader, from a Dutch Reformed Church background, used liberal Christian literature as he drafted a screenplay. Seeing Jesus as a true subversive, Schrader wrote shocking scenes such as Jesus and Mary Magdalene making erotic love. Initially, Paramount studio president Michael Eisner and president of worldwide production Jeffrey Katzenberg supported the project. Katzenberg recalled later: “I don’t think any of us thought that it was going to have the level of controversy that it did have.”
In order to get a better sense of the delicate nature of the topic, Paramount launched a theological seminar of four liberal theologians to discuss the film. On the issue of opposition from conservative Christians, the advice of one was to “ignore the lunatics.” One of the four theologians was a Catholic feminist who suggested that the film put the sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene “in the context of marriage and family so that becomes the predominant matter….” The conclusion of the four theologians was that the screenplay was not blasphemous.
Conservative Christians, however, did score a victory. Mainly due to an onslaught of letters opposing the film project, Paramount canceled it (after having invested about two million in the project). Scorsese was angry. However, he did not give up. The next stop was Universal, the flagship label of the MCA Motion Picture Group. Supportive of Scorsese’s idea, Thomas Pollock, chairman of Universal, expected The Last Temptation of Christ to be a religious version of It’s a Wonderful Life.
One formidable Christian opponent was Donald Wildmon, a folksy Methodist minister who founded the National Federation of Decency (NFD), a nonprofit organization that fought anti-Christian biases and the “mind-poisoning junk food” of television. In 1981, his organization joined with the Moral Majority and created the Coalition for Better Television. Wildmon showed Jerry Falwell a dollar bill and said, “The networks don’t care about your moral values, but they do care about this.” From his headquarters in Tupelo, Mississippi, Wildmon and the American Family Association (formerly the NFD), followed the trade coverage of the resuscitated Scorsese project. In 1987, letters of protest began streaming to the MCA/Universal at a rate of hundreds per week.
In 1988, Wildmon received a bootleg version of the script and responded:
Never in almost 12 years of fighting the media’s bias against Christian values had I ever come across a more blatant attack on Christianity than this movie. I realized that if there ever were a time for Christians to let the Hollywood elite know that the entertainment industry’s constant Christian-bashing should stop, this was it.
The American Family Association, Campus Crusade for Christ, Focus on the Family, and Mastermedia International were several Christian organizations that increased their opposition to the film. On his radio program, heard on over 1000 stations across America, Dr. James Dobson declared:
If you’ve been reading your papers, you are aware that this movie was coming. You may not have known how bad it was. I will confess to you I had no idea how evil it was. I still have not seen it. And yet I am getting bits and pieces now of what’s in this film. And it would appear to be the most blasphemous, evil attack on the church and the cause of Christ in the history of entertainment.
You know, I would hate to be in their shoes, to tell you the truth. Because they really haven’t taken on us. I mean, who cares? They’ve taken on the king of the universe. God is not mocked. And I don’t know how long it will take him to speak. But he will speak. The universe has a boss. And you don’t do that to him.
To assist in the project, Universal enlisted the services of Josh Baran, a former Zen Buddhist. In an interview years later, Baran stated:
It became clear to me that this was going to be the most controversial film ever released by any studio in the history of the movie business…. In fact, I couldn’t sleep a couple of nights. I just thought, this thing is going to explode. They have no idea what they have here. They have no clue. And my initial reaction was a little bit like – I can’t believe they’re making this movie. And the thought was – Who approved this, and how did this happen? What was going through their minds when they decided to make this film?”
Interestingly, this Zen Buddist knew better than liberal Christian elites how hurtful this film would be for many Christians. Baran prepared a positioning paper that offered a First Amendment freedom of religion argument. The studio believed it could claim the moral high ground. In fact, most of the national media responded favorably to the First Amendment argument.
Universal also sought to gain the approval of mainline churches and other bastions of liberalism. Those in liberal religious circles who Universal approached to get their opinion on the film found it difficult to fathom why the film was being called blasphemous. Secular liberals concurred. Actor Willem Dafoe, who played Jesus, could not comprehend the negative reactions to The Last Temptation of Christ. He thought it was “a beautiful, powerful, positive film.” Hollywood director Michael Mann referred to the dissenting Christians as “thought police.” One journalist referred to the Christian protesters as “a bunch of holier-than-thou twits.”
But ordinary Americans believed Hollywood had gone too far. General Cinema Corporation, the third largest theater operation, did not show the film. The film was never shown in commercial release in many southern cities such as Louisville, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Orlando, and Nashville. Where it opened, hundreds of protestors gathered. Universal had to foot the bill of approximately $1 million for security guards. As a comparison to the American experience, the Canadian opening at Toronto’s York Theater was peaceful with only seven protesters.
Scorsese admitted that he did not realize that the film would be as controversial as it was in the United States. Playing in only 140 theaters, the film made less than $1 million in profit. As a result of its opposition to the film, the American Family Association reported an income of $3.2 million in 1988, which represented a more than 30 percent increase from the year before. Many American Christians desired to help those organizations willing to take a stand for biblical Christianity. In one assessment, Christianity Today wrote: “If the goal of protests against The Last Temptation was to discourage people from seeing the movie, it failed…. On the other hand, if the goals of the protest were to increase public awareness of the importance of Christ’s divinity to American Christians, the protest was a rousing success.”
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