As a conservative Christian, I’ve felt an obligation to dislike ABC’s controversial new television drama Nothing Sacred. Since before the first episode aired, the show has been vigorously condemned by groups and individuals in the Christian community whose views I usually share.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights denounced Nothing Sacred as an “outrage,” and called for its 350,000 members to boycott ABC and its parent Disney Corporation. Twenty-seven multidenominational para-church organizations such as Focus on the Family and Morality in Media support the boycott.

As much time as I usually have for these good people, I think their reaction to Nothing Sacred is hopelessly wrongheaded, and if they succeed in killing the series it will be a pity, because it is by far the best new show of this fall’s crop.

Liberal humanism

The series centres around Father Ray, played brilliantly by Kevin Anderson. Ray is a liberal priest, pastor of a struggling inner-city parish. The ethos presented most sympathetically on Nothing Sacred is unmistakably liberal humanism, a philosophy Christian conservatives detest.

So why do I like Nothing Sacred? Well, aside from the high-quality writing, acting and production values, it is the first TV series in recent memory that treats religion and faith as serious concerns for hip, thinking people. The message it tries to convey may be humanist, but it is
absolutely not secular humanist.

Hollywood, as a rule, deals clumsily with religion. For the most part it ignores faith entirely. When Christian characters do appear on the tube, they are routinely caricatured as naive, sentimental and not quite with it; or pathologically dysfunctional; or as hypocritical moralists and/or charlatans; or as the butt of jokes.

None of the above applies to Nothing Sacred, with its cast of believable characters who take their faith seriously. They also have flaws and failings – not unlike you and I. Father Ray struggles with doubt and the temptations of the flesh. Fr. Leo – a crusty older and more traditional priest – is a recovered alcoholic. Sister Maureen is a feminist nun who resents male imagery applied to God.

It is the show’s failure to present an idealized portrait of Christian vocations that probably bothers conservative Catholics most. However, the “warts and all” portrayal is part of what makes the show powerful and compelling.

In the first episode, Ray encounters a former lover from college days, and considers resuming his sexual affair with the (now married) woman. Ultimately he honors his vows. Like this sort of thing doesn’t happen, often with a less commendable outcome?

Serious issues treated

Nothing Sacred chose not to pussyfoot around the abortion issue either. Ray counsels a pregnant high school girl to follow her conscience, and gets chewed out by Father Leo for contradicting Church teaching. Leo assures the girl that the Church will be there for her and her baby. In the end she has the abortion, but not without suffering lasting consequences, including estrangement from her mother. Ray is tormented by the thought that he may have given bad advice. The most memorable line of the episode – perhaps of the season – is uttered by an older nun who declares, “It was better when we had shame instead of choice; It was easier on everyone.”

While the story’s outcome was distressing to pro-lifers like myself, it was no whitewash of abortion.

Despite the show’s unfortunate and misleading title, Christian faith, ritual and tradition are all treated with respectful reverence. Nothing Sacred brings serious discussion of Christian issues to prime time TV, and that is something to celebrate – not denounce.

The October 30 episode included a debate over holding a Hallowe’en party for parish children at the church. “A pagan celebration,” Fr. Ray pronounces, echoing my own view. The party goes ahead anyway, as could be expected in a TV plot line. What was unexpected, and delightful, is that Fr. Ray shows up at the party and recites St. Patrick’s Breastplate: “I bind unto myself today, the strong Name of the Trinity …. By power of faith, Christ’s Incarnation … Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger…”

You just don’t expect to hear that sort of thing on network prime time. In spite of its many liberal warts, Nothing Sacred is, in its better moments, preaching the Gospel. Christians should give it a chance.