Oprah, 'Babe' and Religious Liberty

It's hard to debate religious liberty issues with a superstar pig from Hollywood.

The star of "Babe, the Gallant Pig" made a cameo appearance during the recent taping of an Oprah Winfrey show about Bible readings and prayers in public schools in Pontotoc, Miss. The talking pig -- on video -- interrupted the host's opening narration about "people who have been made to feel like outcasts in their own communities."

While plugging the movie, "Babe" stressed its timely message -- the importance of loving one another and having an "unprejudiced heart." Sure enough, this sound bite later fit perfectly in yet another television drama about the Religious Right. The episode is scheduled to air Tuesday, March 19.

"There's really not much you can do," said Michael Whitehead, a Southern Baptist attorney representing the school district. "You can either play their game and look like a cad or be silent and not defend yourself. ... If you choose to take them on, then it's really hard not to appear angry. After all, the whole game is set up to produce fireworks."

In this case, the local school board allowed student-led prayers and Bible readings, resulting in a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and People For The American Way. In addition to attorneys, the "Oprah" show featured citizens who back the school board as well as those who contacted the ACLU, Lisa Herdahl and her son, Kevin.

Beforehand, Whitehead said that Winfrey's staff seemed surprised that many in the studio audience supported voluntary prayer. Thus, they hunted for those willing to take the other side in a "spontaneous" debate.

Producers have to find out who will do the best job of stating strong opinions on the air, said Jill Almquist, an "Oprah" publicist. Also, it's customary to move these people to designated chairs, to help the camera crews. "We do ask, `Who can we go to?'... But we don't like people to do too much talking ... because we want to save the excitement for the show itself," she said.

From Whitehead's perspective it appeared that the producer, after generating "passionate and heated exchanges," then set out to tape a show about "how awful it is that people in Pontotoc have ... strong, passionate convictions." Also, Winfrey's script suggested that Christian activists engaged in, or condoned, alleged death threats and harassment.

"People are seeing images of students praying around a flag pole or holding a rally," said Whitehead. "But Oprah's doing a voice-over that says something like, `How would it feel to get up in the morning not knowing if this day would be your last or to wonder if you'll be shot on the way to the supermarket?' "

Ironically, recent research -- including work by conservatives -- indicates that "Oprah" is now one of talk TV's least sensationalistic shows. Also, Winfrey openly embraces religion. While her beliefs may be unorthodox, and her personal life is tabloid territory, she often goes out of her way to use language such as "the God that I love loves all of us, no matter what" or to say that she is a practicing Christian.

"The studio audience always ends up applauding as Oprah defends Christianity," said Whitehead, who was making his second appearance on Winfrey's show. "She's the champion of a loving Christianity and, obviously, anyone who takes a different approach represents a mean, judgmental Christianity."

The result is a powerful form of television that addresses serious public issues, while emphasizing entertainment, opinion and, above all, visual images. While it's hard to know what editors will choose as a finale for this show, Whitehead predicted it will be an emotional statement by Kevin Herdahl, followed by Winfrey's reprise of the gospel according to "Babe."

"It's a classic. You have a teen-ager saying `Can't we all just get along?', with tears running down his cheeks," he said. "You can't argue with a teen-ager's tears. So much for student-initiated, student-led prayers and Bible studies. So much for a fair debate. ... It all comes down to tears and a Hollywood pig."