Summer/Fall 2007, Vol. 10, Nos. 1 & 2

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

Table of Contents

From the Editor:

Beating Up on the New Atheists

Romney and the Mormon Moment

The Democrats Get Religion

No More Mr. Nice Pope

Establishing Religion by Executive Order

The Gospel According to South Park

People Who Loved Tammy Faye



The Gospel According to South Park  
y Abe Silk

Religion has been a staple of the animated sit-com since The Simpsons burst onto the scene in the late 1980s. As a result, it’s probable that the most famous evangelical Protestant in the world today is next-door-neighbor Ned Flanders while the most famous Hindu is Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. So prevalent have religious messages been in Springfield, USA that they have spawned several books, including The Gospel According to the Simpsons and The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh of Homer.

Subsequent examples of the genre have followed suit. King of the Hill features a Methodist family in fictional Arlen, Texas, and deals with “real life” issues that sometimes cause characters to question their faith. Family Guy frequently refers to the Griffin family’s Rhode Island Catholicism, and in one memorable episode, father Peter enrolls son Chris in a Bar Mitzvah class in hopes that it will help him be successful in later life. 

But no animated sit-com has the religious range or bite of South Park, which recounts the lives and times of a group of third-grade boys in a Colorado suburb. Written, produced, and voiced by Trey Parker (Catholic) and Matt Stone (Jewish), South Park has, it is not too much to say, put religion at the center of its iconoclasm.

As executive producer Anne Garefino put it in a June 20, 2004 interview with the Newark Star-Ledger, “In writers’ meetings, we spend 50-75 percent of our time talking about religious themes.”

A mainstay of Comedy Central since 1997, South Park began as an exercise in vulgarity, with an emphasis on the scatological. “The round-headed protagonists may look like cruder versions of the ‘Peanuts’ gang, but ‘crude’ is the operative word,” sniffed Gail Pennington in an August 13, 1997 review for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “These politically incorrect, potty-mouthed little so-and-sos make Beavis and Butt-head look like good role models, and most of their jokes can’t be reproduced in a family newspaper.” 

The most notable religious phenomenon in the early episodes was Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo, an anthropomorphized turd who comes out of the toilet during the holiday season to bring presents to those—regardless of denomination—with diets high in fiber.

Early episodes also featured a local cable access show called “Jesus and Friends” starring host Jesus Christ; a boxing match between Jesus and Satan where Jesus gets beaten up and only wins when Satan takes a dive; and fat boy Eric Cartman being poked by a cattle prod every time he sings the wrong words to “O Holy Night.”

But by its fifth season in 2001, South Park had morphed into a running commentary on current events in politics and popular culture. Although the shift took a while to sink in, the critics eventually took note and their regard for the show went up accordingly. Cathleen Falsani’s commentary in the March 17, 2006 Chicago Sun-Times was not atypical: “The biting, often maddeningly smart social commentary that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone weave into otherwise sophomoric dooky-humored plot lines is brilliantly subversive.”

Not surprisingly, contemporary evangelicalism takes its lumps. In last season’s “Cartman Sucks,” for example, one of the boys (Butters) is sent to an evangelical camp for gay and “bi-curious” boys after Cartman tricks him into having a picture taken of him with his penis in Cartman’s mouth.

At the camp, the boys are forced to learn Scripture and “pray the gay away.” Although the camp directors claim great success, most of the boys end up committing suicide. In the end, Butters—who is not gay—proclaims that if all of humanity comes from God, then “God must be a little bi-curious himself.”

South Park’s encounters with up-to-the-minute religion have been highlighted by some widely publicized controversies—most famously a November 2005 episode entitled “Trapped in the Closet.” Stan (Parker’s alter ego in the show) scores so high on a Scientology personality test that he is acclaimed as the reincarnation of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Amidst a running account of the Scientology belief system, a media circus descends on the town, bringing with it prominent Scientologists Tom Cruise and John Travolta. When Stan says that he is not a fan of his acting, Cruise becomes despondent and locks himself in the boy’s closet, where he is eventually joined by Travolta. The running double entendre is how both “won’t come out of the closet.”

Comedy Central had second thoughts about re-broadcasting “Trapped in the Closet” when corporate parent Viacom, which also owns Paramount Pictures, expressed concern that Cruise would retaliate by declining to promote Paramount’s Mission Impossible III. After Stone and Parker publicly threatened to end the show (“Dude, we’ll leave tomorrow,” Parker told Cleveland Plain Dealer July 15, 2006), Comedy Central relented.

The episode did provoke the departure from the show of actor Isaac Hayes, a Scientologist who supplied the voice for the popular character Chef. In a subsequent episode in which Chef is impaled and torn to pieces by wild beasts, Kyle (Stone’s stand-in) implores those attending a memorial service not to be mad at Chef but instead at “that fruity little club for scrambling his brains.”

Another high-profile clash with the network brass was provoked by a 2006 double episode that wrapped a spoof of the rival Fox network around the Muhammad cartoon controversy. The story gets off the ground with Fox announcing that Family Guy will air an episode with Muhammad as a character.

The country fears that a terrorist attack is imminent, and Cartman decides to ride his big wheel from Colorado to Los Angeles to have the episode pulled. Kyle, fearing that his friend only wants to get Family Guy cancelled for good, decides to stand up for free speech and sets off to stop him.

Citing safety as its primary concern, Comedy Central decided to censor the image of Muhammad depicted in South Park’s “episode” of Family Guy. The decision infuriated Stone and Parker, particularly since the network had not objected when, in 2001, they portrayed Muhammad as a super hero who turns himself into a beaver and kills Abraham Lincoln.

This time, when Muhammad is supposed to appear, there is a blank screen with a message reading, “Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their network.” The episode’s final scene shows Jesus and George W. Bush defecating on each other and an American flag—the obvious rhetorical question being: Why is this grotesque display able to get past the censors while a simple image of Muhammad is not?

Not everyone was amused. “Like little whores, they [Parker and Stone] will sit there and grab the bucks,” William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, told The New York Post April 14, 2006. “They’ll sit there and they’ll whine and they’ll take their shots at Jesus.”

It was not the first time South Park had provoked Donohue. A 2002 episode called “Red Hot Catholic Love” shows Catholic priests as drunken child molesters and culminates with the destruction of the Vatican. A 2005 episode entitled “Bloody Mary” centers on a menstruating statue of the Virgin Mary. In both instances, the Catholic League chose to react with a letter-writing campaign, calling on Comedy Central and Viacom to be more sensitive to Christians and not to re-air the show—to no avail.

“We realized that it is useless to appeal to Comedy Central on any kind of moral level,” Kiera McCaffrey of the Catholic League told the Boston Herald December 15, 2005. In the process, however, Donohue did earn himself a spot in the South Park pantheon of bêtes noires. In an episode this past season titled “Fantastic Easter Special,” Jesus is shown being brutally murdered by Kyle so he can regain his super powers and kill Donohue, who has overthrown Pope Benedict and sentenced Jesus to death.

Yet as sacrilegious as South Park can be, it is something else to accuse the show of being anti-religious. Although eccentric faiths like Scientology are called into question, the central tenets of mainstream Christianity and Judaism remain unchallenged. What draws most of the show’s assaults is the abuse or trivialization of religion. 

The “Fantastic Easter Special,” for instance, begins with Stan refusing to paint Easter eggs without an explanation as to why they’re relevant to the holiday. A 2001 episode retells the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel by way of the boys’ effort to build a ladder to heaven to retrieve an all-you-can-grab candy prize. The ladder gains worldwide exposure and chaos ensues.

Meanwhile, the bona fide anti-religious were on the receiving end in two November 2006 episodes entitled “Go God Go.” The boys’ schoolteacher, Mrs. Garrison, who underwent a sex change in Season 9, refuses to teach evolution, and characterizing the theory as stating that “humans are the offspring of monkeys and retarded fish-frogs.” As a result, noted atheist and Darwin proponent Richard Dawkins is invited to teach the class instead. Mrs. Garrison becomes romantically involved with him, and after hearing him describe God as a “big spaghetti monster” declares herself an atheist.

Meanwhile, Cartman is sent time-traveling 500 years into the future when everyone is a science-worshipping atheist. Unfortunately, three atheist factions—two groups of humans and a group of sea otters, all of whom revere Dawkins—are at war over whether they should be known as the Allied Atheist Alliance, the Unified Atheist League, or the Unified Atheist Alliance. When the Wise Old Otter declares that he is against war because “maybe just believing in God makes God exist,” the otter mob cries “Kill the Wise One.”

The point is that atheists’ claims that war is caused by religion are incorrect, and that humans—or super intelligent otters—will always find something to kill each other over.

Perhaps the quintessential South Park religion episode is “All About Mormons,” which aired in 2003. In it, the boys show up at school and learn that a new student named Gary has moved to town from Utah. He proceeds to incur their wrath by answering all of the teacher’s questions correctly.

At recess, Stan decides to beat Gary up, but instead finds him to be kind and understanding and ends up with an invitation to dinner at his house. After dinner, the family spends time in a ritual called “family home evening” where they play board games, enjoy each other’s company, and read from the Book of Mormon.

When Stan asks what Mormonism is, there ensues a history of Joseph Smith, told with the help of sing-song lyrics that convey a robust skepticism regarding the founding of the Mormon faith. (“Joseph Smith was called a prophet / Dumb-dumb-dumb-dumb-dumb.”) As has been customary in outsiders’ accounts of Mormonism for nearly two centuries, skepticism is registered regarding the existence of the Golden Plates on which Smith claimed the Book of Mormon was written.

In short order, Stan’s father Randy decides to convert to Mormonism because he wants his family to be as polite and perfect as Gary’s. Stan, unable to accept the truth of the Joseph Smith story, yells at the Mormons for believing it without empirical evidence.

At the bus stop the next day, Gary tells Stan, “Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life and a great family and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is: loving your family, being nice, and helping people…and I choose to believe in that.”

As a 21st century version of the 1950s slogan, “The family that prays together, stays together,” that’s hard to beat. But the best account of South Park’s approach to religion in 100 words or less can be found in an interview with Stone that appeared in the December 2006 issue of the magazine Reason.

“I think we’ve always had religion in the show because it’s just funny,” said Stone. “I mean, there’s just a lot of funny stuff. We’ve done stuff that’s really anti-religion in some ways. But it’s such an easy joke to go, ‘Look how stupid that is,’ and then stop right there. Religion’s just much more fascinating than that to us. So from the very beginning, we always thought it was funny just to flip it on its ear and show how screwed up it is, but also how great it is. People couldn’t tell if we were kidding.”


Hit Counter