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Should an actor's religious affiliation matter?

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Should an actor's religious affiliation matter? Well, no.

An actor's job isn't to teach about spiritual matters or advise people on moral issues. An actor's job is to play a part, portray a character. A character's religious affiliation might matter, and it's the actor's job to embody whatever that character believes or thinks or feels, whatever background that character comes from, whatever motivates that character.

When Ben Kingsley portrayed Gandhi it was his job to portray a deeply spiritual religious leader with a mixed Hindu/Jain background. Evidently people believed him in that role -- he won the Best Actor Oscar. But Ben Kingsley isn't necessarily a practicing Hindu, and had no Jain heritage.

An author's beliefs and background -- whether religious, philosophical, political or whatever -- inform and affect everything they write. A politician's decisions are invariably affected by their values, as they should be. Nobody is surprised when Senator Joseph Lieberman, a practicing Orthodox Jew, speaks out against pornography, porfanity and violence in media. His constituents expect this of him.

But an actor's job is different. Actors are expected to bring something of themselves to their roles. Directors are supposed to cast actors who are appropriate for a particular part. But audiences don't expect to see Richard Gere mention the Dalai Lama while playing a journalist in pursuit of Julia Roberts.

It seems that audiences have, for the most part, been unconcerned about the religious background or affiliation of actors. Loretta Young was a devout Catholic. Churck Norris is a Baptist. Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe were both Christian Scientists and converts to Judaism. Some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise, are Scientologists. Although they belong to one of the most persecuted religious minorities in the world, this fact seems to have had no affect on their box office success in this country. Tina Turner is a member of Soka Gokkai, a Buddhist denomination that few Americans have even heard of, and which has often been strenuously oppressed in Europe and Japan. Yet audiences here and abroad focus on her performances as an actress and singer. Mickey Spillane, who has both written and starred in hard-boiled detective films, has been a devout Jehovah's Witness for fifty years. He converted to the faith at the height of his popularity and remains popular, with over 100 million books in print and half a dozen movies to his name. Michael Jackson was an active Jehovah's Witness when he filmed "Thriller", one of the most important videos in MTV history.

Despite the prejudice or animosity that many Americans exhibit toward Jehovah's Witnesses, Chistian Scientists, Jews and other religious minorities, the public seemed not to care when their favorite celebrities belong to these groups. Even among religious conservatives in the United States there seems to be little call for focusing on the religious backgrounds of actors. This is a good thing, because that's not what should matter about a film.

Religious, political and cultural pay attention to the content of a film. One finds religious leaders and commentators commending positive religious values in films regardless of whether the actors belong to their faith or not. Jews, Muslims and Christians all praised DreamWorks' "Prince of Egypt": they didn't care that Val Kilmer, who played Moses, is an active Christian Scientist (a religious minority that many Evangelicals express animosity toward). Many people of faith praised the powerful impact of "Schindler's List," and nobody made a fuss when the Best Picture Academy Award for that film went to its producer, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

I have heard of occasions when actors, actresses, and other filmmakers have been denied jobs solely because of their religious affiliation. But I believe this is rare.

So should an actor's religion matter? For film audiences, it shouldn't matter, and it doesn't matter. An actor's beliefs might come up as a point of interest in interviews or biographies. An an actor may be able to have a real, positive impact as a role model within their faith community or ethnic community. Nobody can deny that young American Hindus might look up to M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense), or that Gary Busey can be a great role model for other young Evangelical Christians.

But the overall religious makeup of America's Hollywood elite shouldn't matter to anybody. Hollywood does not resemble America, or the world. Most Americans are not actors who want to direct one day and think they can sing. Gallup polls tell us that about 95% of Americans believe in God, and that about 40% of Americans attend worship services regularly. But you'll have a hard time finding a churchgoer or an actively religious person in most Hollywood movies or television shows.

But this is more the fault of the studio executives, writers, producers, and directors. A survey reported:

Hollywood really is different from the rest of the country. A survey of 104 top television writers and executives found that their attitudes toward moral and religious questions aren't shared by their audience.
  • Believe adultery is wrong: Hollywood 49%, Everyone else 85%.
  • Have no religious affiliation: Hollywood 45%, Everyone else 4%.
  • Believe homosexual acts are wrong: Hollywood 20%, Everyone else 76%.
  • Believe in a woman's right to abortion: Hollywood 97%, Everyone else 59%.
(Source: The Center for Media and Public Affairs, "The Elite and How to Avoid It", Newsweek, July 20; URL: http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/t/television.htm)

But the proportionaly non-representative beliefs and values of Hollywood executives and writers is not the subject being addressed here. As stated before, it's the actor's job to play a character -- not to represent themself or the American mainstream. Many actors would love to play more realistic, diverse characters, but the roles are few and far between, and they usually only go to the best actors. Morgan Freeman played a deeply religious U.S. president in Deep Impact, Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X in Death of a Prophet (1981), and another Muslim character in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). But the parts a typical working actor usually gets are more likely to be akin to "Charlie" -- Freeman's violent assassin in Nurse Betty (except without the intelligent dialogue).

Obviously the characters in movies are not a demographic mirror of America. The actors aren't either. Some groups, such as Jews, who founded the Hollywood studio system, enjoy greater representation in the film industry than in the general public. Most people are aware that there are many Scientologists among the Hollywood elite, more than in the general public. The number of A-list actors and actresses who have been Christian Scientists is astounding (Marilyn Monroe, Carol Channing, Robert Duvall, Alan Young, Jean Stapleton, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, Doris Day, Val Kilmer, etc.), yet statistically, Christian Scientists make up a very small segment of the American population.

Buddhism is also far more popular in Hollywood than it is in mainstream America. Particularly Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is actually not the head of Buddhism worldwide -- he is only the head of Tibetan Buddhism, which has only about six million adherents among the estimated 300-plus million Buddhists worldwide. But you wouldn't realize this just looking at the movies, and the Buddhist actors and Dalai Lama supporters.

But what one finds among actors and actresses more often than people who belong to minority religious groups is people who simply aren't religious at all. The reality is that actors and actresses, statistically, tend to be less religious than Americans in general. Acting is an extremely competitive field. There are approximately 98,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild. How many can you name off the top of your head? In trying to get to the top of the heap, many actors will sacrifice everything -- their other goals or careers, their families and friends, even their beliefs and their values.

Many fans look with admiration to big screen stars such as Jimmy Stewart and Harrison Ford who seem to have stable lives and real values behind off screen in addition to their artistry on screen. But the tabloids are also full of the tales of countless others who have forgotten friends, abandoned values they once held important, abused drugs while trying to fit in, or simply sold their bodies for a part. Many who have "made it" in Hollywood have done so because they made acting the only thing that mattered to them. So it is not surprising to find that a higher percentage of actors and actresses are "nonreligious".

A sociologist might point out that even the most doggedly "nonreligious" among Hollywood's mythmakers are actually very much a part of religion. They are the high priests and priestesses of one of America's favorite religions: the movies. For many Americans, movies are the most important source of myth and ideas and values. Nobody would say that movies are simply a science: their magic can not be duplicated with mathematical reliability. And clearly movies are far more than just an art. For good or ill, they are one of our most thriving, devoutly followed religions.

One of the wonderful things that happens when an actor or filmmaker is part of a religious community is that they remain grounded in a worldview and set of values shared by common, non-Hollywood people. They are exposed to who people who make a living outside the often insular film industry, and they are told that are things which are more important than their own egos and the celluloid fantasies they help create.

Some of Hollywood's greatest legends have been sincerely spiritual and religious. Jimmy Stewart, Ginger Rogers, Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Loretta Young, Gary Busey, Laraine Day, John Travolta, Terry Moore, Val Kilmer, Tom Hanks and others all seem to have benefited in their personal lives by being part of a spiritual community. Maybe it even helped them as actors by providing them with an added connection to humanity.

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Web page created 7 August 2001. Last modified 19 November 2005.