Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies

by William Romanowski


Winter 2012

Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies by William Romanowski

Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies by William Romanowski

Christianity and Hollywood. It seems whenever those two terms intersect, there is a battle occurring. More recent disputes over movies such as The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Priest (1995), which instigated a Disney boycott by Catholics and evangelicals alike, all call attention to the sometimes contentious relationship between moviemakers and the religious.

But this antagonistic liaison has been overplayed, according to William Romanowski, Calvin communication arts and sciences professor, especially when it comes to Protestants.

“By tradition, Protestants are defenders of freedom,” Romanowski explained. “But in film histories they are typically cast as advocates of movie censorship.”

Reforming Hollywood offers a reassessment of film historians’ writings on the role that American Protestants played in shaping the film industry.

“It should be clear that, in presenting the Protestant story, one purpose of this book is to answer questions left unresolved by other studies and to provide a corrective to some of the oversimplification and misinterpretation that exists,” wrote Romanowski in the book’s introduction.

Romanowski’s interest in the subject was piqued more than 10 years ago shortly after his Pop Culture Wars (InterVarsity Press) was published in 1996. “I made a small discovery in an unpublished dissertation, actually, that led me to an article in a religious journal that claimed that Protestant leaders were involved in setting up the movie rating system in 1968,” Romanowski said. “I hadn’t heard that before.”

That brief reference sent Romanowski on a more than 10-year exploration of letters, journals, newspaper articles and personal interviews, piecing together the history of Protestant influence in Hollywood, including the efforts of James Wall, former editor of the Christian Century. Back in the day, Wall endorsed the movie The Graduate, despite calls from Protestant ministers for a boycott of the film.

Wall was then asked to speak at the National Association of Theater Owners meeting, and it was at this meeting that a tentative plan for a rating system was approved. “That the Protestant film buff commended adult and sophisticated movies like The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and The Pawnbroker as having ‘moral and religious significance, as well as artistic merit’ was an unexpected surprise,” wrote Romanowski.

Wall is one of many in a long list of individuals who played a role in shaping the motion picture industry by promoting self-regulation within the industry and individual conscience as opposed to government censorship.

Romanowski’s book tracks pivotal moments in film history throughout the 20th century and offers a fresh perspective.

“This is one of those important books which many change the discourse in a discipline,” wrote one reviewer.

Reforming Hollywood shows that Protestants should neither be caricatured as bluenose censors nor cast as Hollywood saviors, Romanowski said: “In accord with their religious principles, Protestants typically sought a measure of harmony between individual liberty, artistic freedom and the common good.”

In support of his research and travel to various archives, Romanowski received Calvin research fellowships and grants from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship and the Calvin Alumni Association. With this funding he was able to get far enough into the project to present a solid proposal and was awarded the prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities’ Fellowship and Faculty Research Award.

The book is intended for general readers who may have an interest in the intersection of religion and pop culture or the history of film.

Endorsed by numerous film historians and Christian scholars, the book is drawing rave reviews: “In this authoritative account, Romanowski reveals how Hollywood’s relationship with the Protestant establishment was crucial to debates around film regulation, and charts the erosion of its influence in post-war years. This is a well-told story, with new perspectives and information in every chapter,” wrote Richard Maltby, a prominent film scholar.

For Romanowski the book is about setting the record straight. “I started out to restore Protestants to American film history,” he said. “I ended up uncovering a remarkable story that offers us a different framework for understanding those periodic crises that erupt between Hollywood and the religious community.”