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Why is it So Hard to Do Religion in Prime Time?

Photo by Karen Neal/ABC via Getty Images

Still from upcoming 'GCB' episode. Photo by Karen Neal/ABC via Getty Images

Many TV network executives, advertisers and producers would sell their souls to get the kind of audience God has. But giving religion a starring role in prime time? Not so much.

Religion, God and spirituality have made cameos across the dial from "The Sopranos" to "The Simpsons" -- though usually as a prop or walk-on role. But shows where religion is a central part of the premise are rare, and the ratings are generally far from heavenly.

Short of touchy-feely shows like "Touched By an Angel" or "Highway to Heaven," why is religion so radioactive in Hollywood?

This month, cable network TLC canceled "All-American Muslim" after only about 700,000 viewers watched the season finale of the reality show featuring Muslims in Dearborn, Mich.

Meanwhile, ABC's saucy new drama "GCB" -- think "Desperate Housewives" in choir robes -- that's based on Kim Gatlin's novel "Good Christian Bitches" has been panned by critics and called "anti-Christian" by Newt Gingrich. The "GCB" premiere on March 4 lost the coveted 18-49 demographic, but climbed back during its sophomore episode.

Top Ten Reasons Why I (Heart) Kristin Chenoweth

Mizz Chenoweth (with Elmo) at the Drama Desk Awards, 2012. Bruce Glikas/FilmMagi

Mizz Chenoweth (with Elmo) at the Drama Desk Awards, Feb. 2012. Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic.

If you've ever seen or heard Kristin Chenoweth sing, you know she is a pint-sized ray of sunshine. She oozes joy and grace and love for her audience from every pore of her 4-foot-11-inch frame. Plus, girlfriend has a spot-on, finely calibrated sense of comic timing. (I dare you to watch her perform and not at least crack a smile. She is enchanting, her natural ebullience utterly infectious.)

What you may not know is that Chenoweth, 44, is a Christian. Born and raised in the Southern Baptist tradition where she accepted Jesus into her heart at the tender age of 8, "Cheno," as she is known to her legion devoted fans, now describes herself as a nondenominational "non-judgmental, liberal Christian." Her devotion to Jesus and His Way is something she's never been shy about, both before and after she took Broadway by storm in her early 20s.

“I'm sick of people who've never been to church telling me that church is full of hypocrites, and people who've never read the Bible telling me that it's baloney," she wrote in her 2009 memoir, A Little Bit Wicked. "I'm a very controversial figure in the Christian world. I don't believe if you're gay or you have a drink or you dance, you're going to hell. I don't think that's the kind of God we have. The Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of the world are scary. I want to be a Christian like Christ — loving and accepting of other people."

It's the Comedy, Stupid.

 Photo by Richard Foreman / ABC via Getty Images

A married couple on ABC's "GCB" attends a church-sponsored marriage workshop. Photo by Richard Foreman / ABC via Getty Images

Over the weekend, Newt Gingrich decided to wade into a minor cultural skirmish by claiming that the new ABC dramedy GCB is an attack on faith fueled by anti-Christian bias.

As Gingrich is, from my perspective at least, prone to flights of intellectual fancy, I was at first prone to roll my eyes and ignore his latest sojourn into the ridiculous. But upon further reflection, I thought it merited a response because his notion that a satire could be the latest cannon fodder in the alleged war on religion (which usually means “war on Christianity” to those who invoke it) speaks to a larger cultural conundrum: Christians and our sense of humor (or, rather, the lack thereof.)

Christians Can Find Humor in 'GCB'

Still from upcoming 'GCB' episode, Photo by Karen Neal/ABC via Getty Images

Still from upcoming 'GCB' episode, Photo by Karen Neal/ABC via Getty Images

It’s a television show that 1) follows “Desperate Housewives” and 2) only got “meh” ratings for its Sunday premiere, so I was slightly taken aback by the mini-firestorm over ABC’s new “GCB.”

The show, based on the book Good Christian Bitches by Kim Gatlin and starring Annie Potts and Kristin Chenoweth, is getting heat from conservatives and Christian groups for portraying Christians in a poor light for their cattiness, opulence, and overall … well, bitchiness. (Don't worry; I'm female. I get to say that.)

New York City Councilman Peter Vallone is going so far as calling for a boycott of the show, saying,” the title of the show alone is yet another outrageous attack on the Christian faith. Charlie Sheen will be back on ‘Two and a Half Men’ before we see a similar title targeting another religion.”

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