Religious Films That Caused Major Controversy

Blasphemous. Offensive. Sinful. Those are just a few of the adjectives hurled at controversial religious movies over the years. Tackling religion on-screen is always a risky proposition. People have very strong feelings about their faith, so they are more likely to become outraged by anything they perceive as running counter to those feelings. A slight discrepancy from a Bible story or the inclusion of anything provocative can be enough to generate anger.

The following religious movies all created major controversy. The reasons vary, as do the groups who found themselves up in arms. In some cases, the filmmakers intended to be provocative in order to make a point. In others, the uproar came as a total surprise. Also differing is the level of impact the controversies had. Some were helped by the resulting brouhaha, while some were undeniably hurt by it.

No matter the outcome, these religious-themed movies created some of the biggest cinematic controversies ever. 

  • William Friedkin's 1973 horror masterpiece The Exorcist tells the story of Regan MacNeil, a 12-year-old girl possessed by the devil. Her worried mother Chris brings in a priest named Father Karras to drive the devil out. When that task proves more difficult than he imagined, the Catholic Church recruits a more experienced priest, Father Merrin. 

    The way Friedkin told the tale scared the heck out of American moviegoers upon its release, causing it to become a word-of-mouth blockbuster. Fainting and nausea were common at showings of the film due to its sheer intensity. On a different level, some of the events portrayed, including Regan using a crucifix to perform an inappropriate act, struck some viewers as blasphemous. As a result, young star Linda Blair began receiving death threats from people who thought The Exorcist was glorifying Satan by portraying such things in a piece of mass entertainment. 

    Of course, it's these shocking moments that have helped the movie earn its status as one of the greatest fright flicks ever.

    • Actors: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn
    • Released: 1973
    • Directed by: William Friedkin

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  • Martin Scorsese wanted to make a movie about faith, but didn't want to do so in a traditional manner. He therefore chose to adapt Nikos Kazantzakis's novel The Last Temptation of Christ. Like the book, Scorsese's film depicts Jesus on the cross, imagining what his life might have been like were he not the son of God. Part of that includes marrying Mary Magdalene and even engaging in sexual relations with her.

    The very suggestion that Christ would consider disavowing his chosen role set off many Christians. Some theater chains refused to show the movie. Protestors picketed outside the cinemas that were willing to show it. An organization called the Campus Crusade for Christ offered to buy up all the prints of The Last Temptation of Christ so they could destroy them. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, declared the movie "morally offensive," and Mother Angelica of the Eternal Word Television Network went so far as to claim that people risked going to hell if they saw it. "Blasphemous" and "sacrilegious" were repeatedly used to describe the film by its detractors.

    At the time, critic Roger Ebert responded in this way:

    But of course Christianity teaches that the union of man and wife is one of the fundamental reasons God created human beings, and to imagine that the son of God, as a man, could not encompass such thoughts within his intelligence is itself a kind of insult. Was he less than the rest of us? Was he not fully man?

    The uproar does seem to have had an impact, as the picture earned just $8 million at the domestic box office. 

    • Actors: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Paul Greco, Verna Bloom
    • Released: 1988
    • Directed by: Martin Scorsese

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  • After Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy, writer/director Kevin Smith chose to take on a subject far bigger than anything he had to date. His 1999 comedy Dogma finds two fallen angels (played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) trying to get back into heaven by taking advantage of a Catholic loophole. All they have to do is walk through the doors of a New Jersey church and get a "plenary indulgence," a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card that wipes away one's record of sin. 

    Taking some jabs at the Catholic Church didn't go over so well with many Catholics. Among their objections were the "buddy Christ," a reimagining of Jesus as a smiling figure giving the thumbs-up gesture. Depicting God as a woman - played by singer Alanis Morrissette, no less - was another sticking point, as was the constant stream of profanity and lewd jokes. Also controversial: the protagonist is a descendant of Christ employed at an abortion clinic and Jesus is explictily said to have been Black. As a result, Christian activists protested the film. Chief among them was the Catholic League, which called for the faithful to boycott Dogma for being anti-Catholic. 

    Smith was laregely unfazed by the whole controversy, mocking picketers by joining them outside a theater showing his film. Still, Disney declined to release the film, instead selling the rights, and Smith was called upon to add a "disclaimer" as the movie begins.

    • Actors: Ben Affleck, Linda Fiorentino, Matt Damon, George Carlin, Salma Hayek
    • Released: 1999
    • Directed by: Kevin Smith
  • Based on a science-fiction novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Battlefield Earth focuses on an evil race called the Psychlos, whose megalomaniacal leader Terl wants to take over all the world's resources. A human named Jonnie "Goodboy" Tyler helps organize a revolution to stop them. That's the short version of the plot. One of the common criticisms of the movie is that the story is excessively muddled. 

    On the surface, Battlefield Earth doesn't appear to be a religious movie, and that's where the controversy came in. Adapting the book for the screen was a longtime passion project for star John Travolta. Since he's the second best-known Scientologist after Tom Cruise, there was speculation that the film was designed as a recruiting tool for Scientology. Allegations arose that it contained subliminal messages and that the Church of Scientology helped to finance the production with the intent of bringing new members into the fold. Given the religion's long-standing controversy for its unusual beliefs, questionable fundraising efforts, and insistence that people separate themselves from family members who are critical of the church, it was enough to put a cloud of suspicion above the movie.

    Scientology denied all of those claims. Even if they were true, the plan backfired, as Battlefield Earth became one of the most notorious box-office bombs of the 2000s. 

    • Actors: John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker, Kim Coates, Sabine Karsenti
    • Released: 2000
    • Directed by: Roger Christian

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  • Water is the story of an 8-year-old widow - and yes, you're reading that right - who is sent to live in an ashram with other widows. She becomes friends with two of them in the process. The film pulls no punches in depicting the often-appalling living conditions young Indian girls in this situation were forced to endure during the 1930s. Included in that are scenes where Hindu priests force girls into prostitution.

    The Shiv Sena, a right-wing Hindu group, called Water "anti-Hindu" and attempted to prevent people from seeing it by burning pirated DVD copies of the film. That same group had also protested director Deepa Mehta's previous movie, Fire, smashing cinema windows and lighting posters on fire. That made theaters reluctant to show Water, despite India's Supreme Court offering protection. It took two full years before Mehta could secure a theatrical release.  

    • Actors: Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray, John Abraham, Sarala Kariyawasam, Manorama
    • Released: 2005
    • Directed by: Deepa Mehta

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  • The Passion of the Christ is an unusual example of a controversial movie because it became immediately revered by many Christians upon its release in 2004. The dramatization of the days leading up to Christ's crucifixion portrayed those events with a level of realism never before seen in a religious motion picture. Entire church groups went to see it together, helping turn the film into a $612 million-grossing smash.

    However, it was that same quality that put it into a firestorm. Many film critics and pundits suggested The Passion of the Christ was too violent. They argued that lengthy scenes of Christ being whipped and flayed were almost horror movie-like in their goriness, to the point of being exploitative. 

    Others had a different complaint, lodging accusations of anti-Semitism against writer/director Mel Gibson. It was argued that the movie perpetrated an old stereotype blaming Jews for the death of Jesus. Subsequently, there was concern that younger viewers in particular would take the wrong lesson from it. 

    • Actors: Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Maia Morgenstern, Claudia Gerini, Sergio Rubini
    • Released: 2004
    • Directed by: Mel Gibson

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