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'Satan's Favorite TV Show': The False Moralism of '7th Heaven'

On the 20th anniversary of America's longest-running family drama, we look back at the show as a reaction to the sacrilegious media of the 1990s.

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Aug 26 2016, 4:10pm

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I was seven years old when the Christian family drama 7th Heaven debuted on the WB in 1996. The show follows the Camden family, a suburban middle-class tribe of seven, including two picturesque parents, their five children, and a dog wishfully called Happy. The patriarch, Eric Camden, is a reverend in the Christian church, which distinguished 7th Heaven at a time when pop culture was secular, profane, and at times outright blasphemous.

The year before 7th Heaven's debut, Larry Clark's Kids conjured an apocalyptic tableau of godless adolescence. Kids showed drugged-up youths cutting their teeth on the streets of New York City like it was a modern-day Sodom or Gomorrah; they brutalized strangers, raped unconscious friends, and got HIV from serial acts of unprotected sex. Fueled by reckless grunge bands like Nirvana, teen spirit was anything but divine in the 90s.

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The Camdens are a starched caricature of an American family that probably doesn't exist. But despite their khakis, the show was accidentally really good in a Twilight Zone kind of way: Each episode is a PSA on steroids. In one, a teen boy on a school rooftop threatens to throw himself off because his mom bought him lame jeans. Reverend Camden is on the scene, and for some reason the police designate him to talk the jumper down. In another, Matt, the eldest son, is given a marijuana cigarette by some random guy at school who is supposed to be 17 but is portrayed by someone who appears to be 35. Matt doesn't want the joint, but he nervously accepts it. When it falls out of his pocket at home, the family dog Happy gets a hold of it, and delivers it to dad.

In a desperate bid to illustrate the dangerous path of drugs, the mother, Annie Camden, risks everything by confessing to her eldest son that she once smoked pot as a young person. Oh, what fun she'd had—until that choice led to the bloody, violent death of her friend, whose corpse she saw mangled in a shattered windshield. Not even dad had heard this story before, and he felt totally betrayed both because she'd kept it from him and because she'd ever smoked pot at all. "How could you?" Reverend Camden screamed.

This is what made the show weird as hell, but perhaps it is also what made it feel cutting-edge to more conservative viewers, and interesting enough to capture America's attention for 11 years. Despite the fact that the kids were always getting into trouble, or hanging around others who were, they always kept one foot planted on sacred ground. The parents did the best they could, and they were funny. Eric was lighthearted, not always an uptight minister of God. Plus, there are many scenes where Eric and Annie steal away to have sex or kiss, which helps make them real to the audience. Yes, they navigated an exaggerated stream of life's hardships and moral dilemmas, but they did so with a compass of faith.

Fueled by reckless grunge bands like Nirvana, teen spirit was anything but divine in the 90s.

Christian oddities inundated American culture between the early 90s and the mid-2000s. The Christian-themed cartoon VeggieTales debuted in 1993, and is still running. The Left Behind series, an iconic Christian doomsday saga, came out in 1995 and quickly became a bestseller, spanning 16 novels that ended in 2007, the same year that 7th Heaven aired its final episode. And of course, no one can forget the mind-numbing destroyer of worlds, Christianity's spokesperson, our born-again 43rd president, George W. Bush.

"I am driven with a mission from God," Bush once reportedly said to the Palestinian foreign minister. "God would tell me, 'George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.' And I did. And then God would tell me, 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.' And I did. And now, again, I feel God's words coming to me, 'Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.' And, by God, I'm gonna do it."

Screengrab via Hulu

Before God created the war in Iraq, Left Behind, and 7th Heaven, he invented bracelets stitched with the acronym WWJD, which stands for "What Would Jesus Do?" Developed in the early 90s, WWJD paraphernalia was prolific by the Christian media boom. "Media consumption shapes identities," says Scott Draper, a sociologist at the College of Idaho who focuses on Christian phenomena, such as the popular belief that angels are real. "Our tastes in art and media serve as status symbols that identify us with particular social groups. Consuming Christian products is a symbolic way of establishing and conveying one's Christian identity; it's a type of social currency."

Religious media has a long history. "Historically, American evangelicals, in particular, have tended to be pioneers of religious media, from radio programs like Charles Fuller's Old-Fashioned Revival Hour to TV programs like The 700 Club, to films like The Great Commandment," Draper says. "Some have more explicit Christian content, whereas others favor more broadly palatable 'Christian themes.'"

The latter describes 7th Heaven well; this type of religious media, which aims to advocate for the beliefs of Christianity without arguing for them explicitly, is considered "pre-evangelism," as opposed to heavy-handed, full-on proselytizing. "In other words, viewers might not immediately fall on their knees and convert during the credits, but a seed is planted that might grow into faith later." While most Christian media appeals to a small consumer niche, 7th Heaven—and, Draper notes, films like The Passion of the Christ—is an exception that achieved mainstream success.

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Casual indoctrination, or, for the cool Christians, much-needed entertainment. In the 90s, MTV was church for many young people, and Marilyn Manson and Dennis Rodman were its ladies in elaborate hats. The same year that the Camdens came into being, a closeted lesbian named Rosie O'Donnell got her own talk show, launching goodies into her audience with a slingshot the same way that she disseminated the gay agenda to the American public through cheeky interviews with celebrities. The year after, in 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out on national television. 7th Heaven must have been a breath of fresh air to Christian parents; in a sea of godlessness, 7th Heaven was all about right and wrong, with lots of prayer and the occasional sermon. One viewer asked others on Amazon discussions in 2007, "Any gays in 7th Heaven?" and one avid fan responded: "I've never seen any gay characters in 7th Heaven before. I like the show a lot, and i don't know who wouldn't, but if you're looking for a show with characters that are gay I don't think this is one of them sorry."

I remember those godless years leading up to Y2K. In 1997, Natalie Imbruglia released the music video to her hit cover of random band Ednaswap's song "Torn." I was eight years old, it was summer, and my siblings and I kept the television tuned to MTV. "Torn" would play regularly while my parents were at work, and I had taken to its easy sound and emotive lyrics. One weekend I skipped through the kitchen singing my new favorite song.

"I'm all out of faith," I sang, louder than the hymns at church. My mother, at that time a devout Methodist, looked up from the skillet of bacon she was frying. "This is how I feel," I explained in song, pouring myself a glass of milk. Her eyebrows shot up as my melody elaborated. When her third grader said, "I'm cold and I am chained, lying naked on the floor," the spatula fell from her hand.

Viewers might not immediately fall on their knees and convert during the credits, but a seed is planted that might grow into faith later.

I told her that it was a song I'd heard on MTV; she forbade us from watching the channel for the rest of that summer. My siblings were not pleased, but I hadn't realized it would be a big deal to sing about being chained up, faithless, and nude on Saturday morning. We would have to find something else to watch. I can't remember when I first saw 7th Heaven, but I have early memories of that weird family dancing lightly around life's dangers.

The two teenage daughters, Mary and Lucy, were constantly dating one boy or another. Sometimes the girls pine for their beau to say, "I love you," or are obsessed with some guy who might not have wholesome intentions. Both Eric and their dear brother Matt are apparently tormented by the idea that young men are interested in these girls. In one early episode, Matt punches a boy who is interested in one of his sisters, threatening him. "She's my sister," Matt cries. "Do you know what that means?"

No, not really. This sense of ownership over Mary and Lucy's sexuality is strange, but in the first season, the guys are always quacking on about it. In one scene, Eric and Matt negotiate the eldest daughter's romantic rights. At 16, is she old enough to kiss? To date someone older or taller than herself? Though the parents later allow Mary to date someone a year or two older than she is, Matt initially says she shouldn't, because he knows what boys his age want to do to women.

Two years after 7th Heaven's release, 16-year-old Britney Spears, a Christian innocent of Disney fame, became a pop icon with the release of her debut album ...Baby One More Time. Raised Southern Baptist, Spears made the all-American girl aesthetic raunchy as her music transfixed a generation. One cover image of her inaugural album features an angelic Spears in a white T-shirt on a white background, her hands mockingly pressed together in prayer. Soon she was making out with Madonna in front of millions of viewers, inspiring sorrowful blog posts from Christians mourning the corruption of Britney. Her innocent past was discarded like a chrysalis abandoned by a butterfly.

Screengrab via Hulu

Draper says that Christian media is always at risk of alienating its target audience. "There's a big potential to offend in religiously themed media," Draper says. "If the theology is even a little 'off,' or if the language is just a little too coarse, many devout consumers will want to spend their entertainment dollars elsewhere. This is probably a big reason why so many religious media projects seem to play it safe and end up feeling bland."

But if 7th Heaven tried to be bland to appeal to all Christian consumers, it failed. In 2013, Sammy Rhodes, the campus minister at the University of South Carolina, blogged about Satan's TV favorites. Apparently the prince of darkness is way more into 7th Heaven than he is into the more obviously evil-seeming Breaking Bad, in which a Southwestern high school teacher becomes a drug lord.

Rhodes's critique is that 7th Heaven presents itself as a show about moral choices from a Christian family perspective, but that it deceives its viewers in doing so. "Each show was like a moral lesson, usually ending with some vague inspirational thoughts from Pastor Camden's sermon that week encouraging us to be good, or kind, or self-controlled," Rhodes writes. "Like when Ruthie got addicted to gum. Remember that episode? She needed to show more self-control with her Juicy Fruit. There's a whole lot about being good, but not so much as a whisper about Jesus.

"This is why Satan loves 7th Heaven much more than Breaking Bad: it lies," he continues. In Rhodes's view, 7th Heaven lies because the show is always trying to correct bad behavior by making people good, and that's not realistic. "It deals with the world not as it really is, and with people not as they really are," Rhodes writes. "The Apostle Paul said if you could be good enough to be worthy of God's love then Jesus totally died in vain." Rhodes calls this moralism, and 7th Heaven is nothing if not that.

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The Camden horde is obsessed with saving anyone who crosses their path, whether that's a dirt-covered orphan hiding in the Reverend Camden's office, a little girl being called stupid by her mom in the grocery store, or a black family whose church burned down. They're saviors, but more than these acts of saving, they are constantly twisted around moral quandaries that, while always ending happily, don't really talk about Scripture, or Christ. That is precisely Rhodes's conception of a world ruled by the anti-Christ: "It would look like 7th Heaven. Nice, clean, moral, and totally Christ-less."

Though Reverend Camden's authority often seemed to transcend the laws of men. When a boy the reverend had once tried to save from addiction is caught shoplifting by a security guard, Eric intervenes like a Jedi master altering the minds of storm troopers. With a wave of his hand, he tells the security guard that the boy simply forgot to pay for the item. "Whatever you say, Reverend," the guard replies. And so it is.

In 2007, after 11 seasons, 7th Heaven finally ended, but the series came back into view in 2014, when Stephen Collins, the man who played America's beloved moralist Reverend Eric Camden, came under investigation for—and eventually confessed to—three incidents of molestation of young girls in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Perhaps that's the problem with ideologies obsessed by the appearance of correct, or good, behavior. Collins portrayed a good man, who comfortably judged others' actions as right or wrong. But while Reverend Camden was staggered by the evil of smoking pot, Collins had a history of actions that are actually deplorable. So what does a show like 7th Heaven sell to its consumer? We already know that faith can be a mask to religious leaders whose personal lives are wicked. The series feels desperate in its attempt to reconstruct an American life it felt was in jeopardy. While much of religious media feels like it consists of caricatures of real families, 7th Heaven felt exceptionally crude—so clean it was obscene.