The Simpsons as a Religious Satire

By Scott Satkin

"If cartoons were meant for adults, they'd put them on in prime time."
Lisa Simpson (7G12)

The Simpsons, created by Matt Groening, débuted on HBO's The Tracy Ullman Show in 1987 (Brumley 1). "The cartoon… premiered in 60-second snippets… before getting its first special, a half-hour Christmas show on December 17, 1989" (Keveney 2). "The Simpsons has always operated on two levels. On one level appealing to children as a fast paced cartoon and then for the older audiences for its wit and [satire]" (Batscha). "When Fox made The Simpsons part of its regular prime-time lineup, critics howled that the show represented all that was wrong with religion, TV, family values and civilization in general" (Brumley 1). However, The Simpsons' crude style is the leading cause for its longevity. For almost fourteen years, the show has sustained its popularity. "The Simpsons can be seen in 60 foreign countries, including most of Europe and Latin America as well as many countries in Asia, including Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia" (Sutel 1). A fascinating study of the influence of television on American children has proved that The Simpsons has had a drastic affect on youth. "More children could identify the cast of The Simpsons (93%) than could identify Al Gore as vice-president (63%)" (Al Gore vs. Bart Simpson 14).

One of the most satirized topics on The Simpsons is religion. The Simpsons "takes more satirical jabs at spiritual matters than any other TV show"(Dart 12). "According to a study by John Heeren of California State University at San Bernardino… religious content appears in nearly 70 percent of the shows" and 11 percent of The Simpsons' episodes main theme is religious (Dart 13). From houses of worship to religious leaders, The Simpsons ridicules every aspect of religion.

Homer Simpson is the epitome of a hagiophobic man. He fears that he has "picked the wrong religion" (9F01). Every Sunday, Homer does everything in his power to avoid going to church. "I have been having a wonderful day, and I owe it all to skipping church!" he says (9F01). However, when Homer is forced to go to church against his will, he likes to watch football afterwards because it "helps get rid of the unpleasant aftertaste of church" (8F12). He explains to God, "I'm not a bad guy… So why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how I'm going to hell?"(9F01). Homer later concludes, "So I figure I should try to live right and worship you in my own way." Therefore he creates his own religion and explains to God why he doesn't want to go to church. God replies, "Hmm, you've got a point there. You know, sometimes even I'd rather be watching football. Does St. Louis still have a team?" (9F01). This scene questions and satirizes the strictness of Christianity. God is portrayed as considerate and understanding. "Even He does not see much reason to attend church. The writers of the series are basically saying that being a good person should be enough in the eyes of God. They see many of the restrictions of the Church as wrong." (Mullin 3)

Homer Simpson's next-door neighbor, Ned Flanders, is the exact opposite of Homer. "His pious family is the perfect contrast to the Simpsons' jumbled household. Flanders' children, Rod and Todd, play games such as 'Clothe the Leper' and 'Build the Mission'" (Sohn 2). The Flanders' zealously religious lifestyle is deeply disturbing to Homer. He cannot tolerate Ned and his family's devout spirituality. During one episode of The Simpsons, Todd Flanders overhears Homer cursing. This influences Todd to defy his family's values and use profane language:

Maude: Todd, would you like some mixed vegetables?
Todd: Hell, no!
Ned+Maude+Rod: [gasp!]
Maude: What did you say?
Todd: I said I didn't want any damn vegetables.
Ned: All right, that's it, young man. No Bible stories for you tonight!
Todd: [leaves, crying] (8F16)

Critics voice that Flanders makes the Christian life too holy, and want people to know that "You can be a normal person and still love God" (Sohn 2). Clearly, Ned Flanders satirizes very religious people. He feels extremely guilty about anything he does that may not be one hundred percent moral. For example, Ned spends an entire day trying to track down a man who he accidentally gave only three quarters as change for a dollar (8F16). He drives through three states in order to give the man his insignificant quarter (8F16). Ned Flanders also cannot in good conscience deduct from his taxes what most people would routinely itemize as a business expense. He explains, "Let's see, cash-register ink. Well that's a business expense, isn't it? Oh, but then I do enjoy the smell of the stuff, don't I? Better not risk it" (5F14). "The Flanders may be righteous as parents but they are also self-righteous" (Cantor 749). Mrs. Flanders claims, "[she doesn't] judge Homer and Marge. That's for a vengeful God to do" (3F01). This passage illustrates that even the most devout people are only human and will deviate from the religious values they profess.

Reverend Lovejoy, the devout pastor of the First Church of Springfield, is often used to depict the hypocrisy of Christianity. While he preaches against "Gambling: the Eighth Deadly Sin," the church holds Bingo, Reno, and Monte Carlo nights. The Reverend is also criticized as being judgmental, calling Ned Flanders the "fallen one" when he receives a mere traffic offense. He also leads a mob, burning Krusty merchandise, when "the clown prince of corruption" is accused of a crime, for which he is innocent. (Mullin 2)

Most clergy would be honored to have such devout congregants as the Flanders. On the contrary, Ned Flanders' piety sickens Reverend Lovejoy. The Reverend deals with his anger towards Ned and his family by doing things such as having his dog defecate on the Flanders' lawn (3F18). He even goes as far as to try to persuade the Flanders family to convert. He asks them "Have you thought about one of the other major religions, there all pretty much the same?" (3F01).

Organized religions view marriage as a sacred bond. Divorce is always the last resort in most religions and a sin in Catholicism. Therefore, when a member of Reverend Lovejoy's congregation comes to him with marital problems, one would expect the Reverend to provide comfort and help the family repair their marriage. Homer expects this behavior from Reverend Lovejoy when he and Marge are having an argument. Marge tells him that she is going to Reverend Lovejoy for advice. He responds, "Oh, good. Reverend Lovejoy will make Marge take me back! He has to push the sanctity of marriage, or his God will punish him!" (1F20). On the contrary, the apathetic Reverend gives Marge a terse, sacrilegious response:

Rev. Lovejoy: Get a divorce.
Marge: But isn't that a sin?
Rev. Lovejoy: Marge, everything is a sin. You ever sat down and read [the bible]? Technically, we're not allowed to go to the bathroom. (1F20)

Clearly, Reverend Lovejoy's character satirizes religious leaders in America. He is disrespectful and impious instead of accepting and moral. Certainly, these characteristics are unfitting of clergy. Reverend Lovejoy also lacks respect and tolerance for other religions.

In an episode when Lovejoy is citing the various religious traditions of [Homer's neighbors]… the minister pauses in the case of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian who runs the Kwik-E-Mart. He finally labels him "miscellaneous." Apu objects, saying he is Hindu, and that "there are 700 million of us." Lovejoy says soothingly, "Ah, that's super." (Dart 14)

Homer also portrays the typical prejudicial American when he says to Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, his Hindu neighbor, "No offense Apu, but when they were handing out religions, you musta been out taking a whiz" (Groening 94).

This is a very sarcastic remark that may be funny on the surface, but is actually a very cruel and insensitive putdown. Many people often demean and degrade anything that is different. The writers are using Homer's crude and up-front mentality as a persona to display this form of bigotry. (Mullin 3)

This scene epitomizes the intolerance many Americans have for other religions. Not only do these passages mock Reverend Lovejoy and Homer's ignorance; they also are a prime example of the breadth and depth of satire on The Simpsons. The writers seek "an omnidirectional assault on anything that is sacred" (Dart 14). In fact, Bill Oakley, a former writer and executive producer of The Simpsons, claims, "I don't think there is anything or anyone we wouldn't make fun of" (Oakley).

This mentality has gotten the producers of The Simpsons into many quarrels with various religious organizations and leaders.

The Simpsons has received negative criticism throughout the nation from the church's pulpit, denouncing the series as immoral, sacrilegious, and damaging to traditional family values. Former President George Bush stated in 1992, "We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons." (Sohn 2)
"In the mid-1990s, when some Simpsons episodes made fun of a sculpture of Ganesha, the popular elephant deity in the Hindu pantheon, some southern California Hindus objected" (Dart 14). Prithvi Raj Singh, the president of the Federation of Hindu Associations lodged a formal complaint with Fox Television. A Fox representative explained that it was not a planned attack on Hinduism. "The explanation was accepted and the matter was dropped" (Dart 14).

"In a more severe case, [dialogue in] an episode [resulted in] a complaint from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (Sohn 2).

On January 31, 1999, an episode that followed Fox's broadcast of the Super Bowl showed a gas station scene in which a trio of buxom, scantily clad women greet a driver. One of the women bends over to reveal a large cross, then says, "The Catholic Church - we've made a few changes." This prompted the Catholic League to organize more protests. (Dart 14)

This incident flooded Fox's mailboxes with letters from outraged viewers. "Deluged with angry letters, [Thomas Chavez, Fox's manager for broadcast standards and practices], directed writers to 'lay off Catholics'" (Dart 14). Mike Scully, an executive producer of The Simpsons, "complained bitterly about the directive, but was told that any future episodes containing offensive lines should not be attributed to Catholics" (Dart 14). Scully was told it was okay to target Methodists, Presbyterians or Baptists, but not Catholics" (Dart 14). When the controversial episode was rerun, the scene was actually edited so that it would not specifically refer to the Catholic Church (Sohn 2).

Although the religious ridicule on the show has offended many people, "others defend that The Simpsons uses religion merely as a satirical element, with no harm intended" (Mullin 2).

Acknowledging the satire of The Simpsons, some have claimed that the series is actually the most religious, non-evangelical, show on television. While other programs avoid the issue of religion, The Simpsons takes religion's place in society seriously enough to do it the honor of making fun of it. (Sohn 2)

Religion is a regular part of the life of the Simpson family. We often see them going to church, and several episodes revolve around churchgoing, including one in which God even speaks directly to Homer. Moreover, religion is a regular part of life in general in Springfield. (Cantor 5)

Clearly, although religion is perpetually satirized in a sardonic manner on The Simpsons, the show demonstrates its strong moral foundation by acknowledging the importance of religion in people's lives.

For over fourteen years Matt Groening and his spectacular array of writers have dazzled, entertained and educated their audiences. "Many tribute this longevity to the witty and hilarious satire that is present in every episode" (Mullin 1). On one episode, Bart Simpson claims that, "Cartoons don't have messages… They're just a bunch of hilarious stuff you know, like people getting hurt and stuff, stuff like that" (3F03). Certainly this statement of his is inaccurate. Although most cartoons are rather childish and have little edifying value, The Simpson's with its insightful and satirical views on religion and other aspects of life proves to be sophisticated and quite educational. While watching humorous episodes, viewers question the hypocrisy of religious institutions and reflect on religious intolerance in their society. In conclusion, The Simpsons effectively employs satire to explore many aspects of religious life in America.


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© Scott Satkin, 2001.

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