Ya gotta give GLEE credit for not backing down from the Big Issues. It’s not every light entertainment program that will tackle a heavy subject like religion – let alone address it in a mostly balanced fashion that did not implicitly endorse organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. In fact, it was so even-handed that no particular belief system was demonized.
Finn (Corey Monteith) got the ball rolling by trying to make lunch one day. He tried to make a grilled-cheese sandwich, but what he got was a charred piece of bread upon which he perceived the image of Jesus Christ. Being Finn, he dubbed his lunchtime apparition “Grilled Cheesus,” wrapped it in plastic, and began praying to it.
Finn wanted to sing about it in choir practice, but the other kids expressed allegiance to a number of faiths – and Kurt (Chris Colfer) explained that since he wasn’t welcome in most religions, religion was not welcome in his life. Mr. Schue (Matthew Morrison) was a little uneasy about appearing to endorse any particular religion, so he encouraged the kids to develop songs about spirituality – which is to say, faith without calling it faith.
And then we saw the obligatory crisis: Burt Hummel (Mike O’Malley) suffered a heart attack and slipped into a coma. The other kids rushed to Kurt’s side with words of support and encouragement – and talk of religion. And, to his credit, Kurt would not hear of it. They say there are no atheists in foxholes, but Kurt proved there was at least one in Ohio.
Make that two: Sue (Jane Lynch) stepped forward and unmasked herself as an atheist and moved to protect everyone’s personal rights by filing a complaint about Will endorsing religion in the classroom. And, as difficult as it to side with Sue, she had a point. We home viewers know (thanks to our omniscient point of view) that Will is sincere in wanting to address spirituality in an open an honest way, but too often religion is indoctrination. Sue is tough to like, but she was right. A school cannot favor one religion over another – even a majority faith. Rachel (Lea Michele) perfectly represented a common view in the United States. She said she was in favor of religious freedom, but insisted that her child could only be raised Jewish; never mind Finn’s belief system. In other words, she believed in religious freedom – for herself. Meaning she should be free to impose her religion on Finn and any future children.
Remember Finn and his Grilled Cheesus? Well, he was a little confused, because it appeared that his prayers were being answered by his sandwich savior. He prayed for the football team to win a game, and they did. He prayed to get to second base with Rachel, and he did. And he prayed to regain his job as starting quarterback, and Sam (Chord Overstreet) was knocked out of a game. Remarkably, this winning streak unsettled him, and sought out guidance counselor Emma (Jayma Mays) for…well, guidance. (What does it say about Finn’s spiritual life that he doesn’t turn to a minister? Perhaps he feared being rebuked for having a false idol?) Emma was pretty level-headed, and suggested that God doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to talk to people through sandwiches. (Though there are plenty of people who believe that Jesus and his mom delight in placing their images in foodstuffs and water stains around the globe.)
Meanwhile, Burt stubbornly resisted proffered prayers and rational hopes by not stirring from his coma. And then came the bravest point in the episode: Probably any other show would have had Kurt break down and desperately ask God for help – y’know, “just in case he really exists” – and then reward the newly faithful with a “miracle” recovery. But not GLEE. Sure, Kurt enjoyed his visit to Mercedes’ church, but that was clearly more about his stylin’ chapeau than saving anyone’s soul. No, Kurt remained true to himself and his beliefs. “I don’t’ believe in god, dad, but I believe in you,” he recited. “You and me: That’s what’s sacred to me.” And then, purely by coincidence, Burt woke up. Mr. Hummel didn’t recover with divine assistance and a heavenly host after his son had humble himself before a higher power; his body simply recovered enough to wake up. And no matter what Kurt was babbling about, no one heard him. Not even Grilled Cheesus.
And that, reader, is how GLEE managed to talk about religion without offending people. No one’s belief system was exalted as superior, and no one’s superstitions were denigrated. Okay, so the-powers-that-be were not quite brave enough to introduce any followers of, say, Thor, or Wiccans – who are a fixture in many real schools – but it was cool that TPTB included atheists and showed them as capable of being reasonable, not ironically rigidly dogmatic. So no one was dissed. Unless you’re the sort who feels anything short of total, blind obeisance demonstrates disrespect. In which case, you probably don’t watch a lot of American TV.