Making Movies Moral
Here is the narrative we all think we know: Protestants, those dour entertainment-haters, have been the scourge of Hollywood throughout the history of film—boycotting and condemning whatever they deem inappropriate on the silver screen, and praising the occasional (and often poorly-made) film with positive religious themes that happens somehow to slip past the gatekeepers.
Of late, the narrative continues, some Protestants have moved toward "cultural engagement" and begun to recognize the validity of film as an art form. It will take much time to undo a century's worth of damage.
But in his new and highly readable book Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies (Oxford University Press), William Romanowski (a professor at Calvin College and noted commenter on religion and pop culture) challenges this narrative, demonstrating that it is not simply reductionist—it's almost entirely wrong (and frequently wrongheaded). Film history has dealt Protestants a bad hand, and Romanowski's meticulously researched book is a valuable contribution to a richer narrative, one that recognizes the profound contribution that Protestants have made to the shape of the American film industry. And, furthermore, the book traces how Protestants have coped with a rapidly pluralizing society. As Romanowski points out, "the film industry is an important catalyst for examining how this socio-religious group coped with a dramatic loss of power."
'An ally of home, school, and church'
Film was growing out of its infancy at the turn of the twentieth century, just as the United States was embarking on its slow migration from Protestant cultural hegemony to pluralism, away from an emphasis on a "shared ethos of self-restraint and public responsibility" and toward a higher regard for individualism. Protestant church leaders (among others) instantly recognized the new form's potential to powerfully influence public conversations. As with other still-new forms of mass media (such as radio), at the movies, people all over the country could experience the same stories and encounter the same ideas—it was a new sort of "highly commercialized urban folk art." But film's immersive power renders it especially potent for influencing public opinion and dialogue.
With an eye toward the common good, and operating on the (correct, at that time) presumption that they were the primary gatekeepers and caretakers of American culture, church leaders began discussing how film might bring about the most good. Reformers concerned with the middle class saw film as a way to "satisfy working-class leisure needs, foster community and public discourse, and advance a reform agenda"; it was their aim to "counteract any negative influence and turn this mechanical marvel into an ally of home, school, and church."
From here, Romanowski carefully traces the often surprising paths and recurring assumptions of reformers, church leaders, and others who concerned themselves with how best to corral and guide the movies toward having the greatest influence for good. The story moves through halting and sometimes successful efforts at establishing review boards, toying with the difficult ethical issues around censorship, changing understandings of the purpose of film (as simple, cheap entertainment versus a legitimate art form), discussions of free speech and obscenity, fear and then embrace of classifications systems (which led to our present-day MPAA ratings system), and the eventual decline of Protestant mainline influence as evangelicalism's star rose. Throughout, Romanowski is careful to deal an even hand to everyone, pointing out the good along with the bad and linking statements and movements that seem shocking to us today with prevailing cultural attitudes at the time.