Monty Python vs. the Religious Right

The Life of Brian tells us much about a period when disparate cultural values were battled over in a dramatic tug-of-war on the frontlines of society -- and for Monty Python, the threat of prison loomed.

In the annals of recent history, 1979 will surely go down as a zeitgeist year in the culture wars, a time when fundamentalist religious factions boldly asserted themselves on the public square in such ways that they could never be deemed apolitical again. It is perhaps inevitable that this juggernaut of religious polemicists should collide headlong with the comedy group most renowned for challenging institutional mindsets and systemic dogma: Britain’s Monty Python ensemble.

The (un)timely release of the comedy troupe’s most provocative film, Life of Brian (1979) produced a story within a story that was subsequently played out against a backdrop of cultural strains already stretched on both sides of the Atlantic. The life of Life of Brian tells us much about a time period when festering epochal tensions were reaching a breaking point and disparate cultural values were battled over in a dramatic tug-of-war on the frontlines of society.

The Islamic revolution that transformed Iran into a hard-line theocracy in1979 created another war of sorts—an inter-faith one—as Islamic Iran became pitted against the Christian and secular forces of the West. Ayatollah Khomeini’s extremist fundamentalist ideology provoked anxiety in the West, particularly in the US which, with the deposing of the Shah, no longer influenced the internal affairs of the nation. Ill feelings soon led to a showdown as the hostage crisis doomed the Carter re-election campaign and helped elect the more hawkish Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Despite some perceptions at the time, such fundamentalist uprising and politicization of religion were not unique to Iran. A right-wing Christian correlative was also emerging in the US, where a mass constituency of evangelicals began to coalesce, not only in response to the ominous Islamic forces in the Middle East, but also against what they perceived as enemies within at home. The Moral Majority, led by Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell, was founded in 1979 with the express purpose of serving as a political lobby group for evangelical Christians. Openly pro-Israel, pro-life, pro-defense, and pro-Reagan, the Moral Majority neither pretended nor intended to separate politics from religion. Unlike the largely economically-driven New Right forces of the Barry Goldwater era, Falwell injected more social issues into the conservative agenda, in the process pressuring political candidates (like Reagan and, more recently, George W. Bush) to adopt his platforms and postures accordingly.

Certainly, the root concerns of this conservative Christian community dated back to at least the 19th century, but never before had those concerns been so harnessed, organized, and marketed for political action. School prayer, abortion, pornography, homosexuality, and the “liberal” media all became wedge issues in political campaigns, as Falwell’s forces and their chosen candidates declared war on the so-called permissive society.

Amidst this climate and context, Monty Python’s satirical film about religion and power arrived as both ripe to be picked up and picked on as a choice illustration of the secular threat to the mores the Moral Majority vowed to uphold. Joining these largely Protestant protesters in the struggle were other denominations, too, as right-wing Catholics, Jews, and Mormons joined Falwell’s followers in a rare display of inter-faith unity, in the process spawning broad-based and like-minded groups such as the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and the Family Research Council. Putting differences aside, a consensus formed across these faiths committed to protecting their respective flocks from the kind of “blasphemy” represented by the likes of Life of Brian.

The year 1979 was equally significant in the UK regarding the burgeoning twin powers of conservative politics and religion. Elected to Prime Minister on a ticket that promised a return to “traditional” values, Margaret Thatcher, while less beholden than Reagan to her nation’s religious factions, was certainly not averse to courting (or paying lip service to) them for her own political advantage. For Thatcher, groups like Monty Python represented a (post) ’60s liberalism antithetical to the neo-Victorian dreams she had for restoring Britannia. Thus, around issues of values and morals, Thatcher was able to strike a convenient coalition with religious activists like Mary Whitehouse, the premiere watchdog of British cultural expression at the time.

Christian beliefs and conservative values were under assault, argued Whitehouse, because of the systematic secularization of society and its entertainment. Starting with the “Clean Up TV Campaign” in 1964, Whitehouse set her sights on the BBC as she sought editorial say (sometimes successfully) in shows with any whiff of sexual or violent content. Even seemingly innocuous fare like Doctor Who came under her censorious glare as she argued its potential for scaring and scarring vulnerable youth viewers.

Encouraged by a small but vociferous support, Whitehouse branched out, forming the National Festival of Light, a pressure group with a keen antenna for potentially corrupting media output. Their bombardment campaigns of letter-writing against all types of edgy art swiftly created an environment of fear in the UK, where writers were inclined to tone down their style and content should they incur the wrath of Mary. Rocker Alice Cooper, conversely, expressed gratitude for the attention she brought to his music by writing Whitehouse a special “thank you” note when his song “School’s Out” reached the top of the British charts.

The story behind the making of Life of Brian reveals that the Python team was consciously aware of the presence and influence of the Festival of Light and their ilk; indeed, it has been suggested in some quarters (though denied by Python members) that some last minute excisions to the film were made with such monitors in mind. Behind the scenes of Life of Brian, issues and instances of censorship provided a drama within a drama, one replete with subplots about artistic autonomy, institutional intransigence, and blasphemous rumors. These real life narratives provide parables about the culture war struggles that continue to this day, and which we appear incapable of moving beyond.

In the US, the First Amendment to the Constitution protects artists from charges of blasphemy; however, no such protections existed in late ’70s Britain, where in 1977 the editor of Gay News had been prosecuted on this very charge after publishing a poem by James Kirkup entitled “The Love that Dares to Speak its Name”. Imagining a homosexual encounter between Jesus and a Roman Centurion, the poem stirred Mary Whitehouse and others into pressuring for legal action. The Monty Python team, notably, helped fund the losing defense team. Understandably, a chilling effect set in amongst the country’s more envelope-pushing artists, as the establishment made clear that religion as a topic for one’s critical commentary was verboten and might ultimately lead to one’s re-housing in a prison cell.

For Monty Python, the Gay News precedent arrived at a time when the group were deep into the process of completing early drafts of the The Life of Brian script. Could the same thing happen to them? Two years earlier the idea for the movie had been spawned by Eric Idle, who, at a launch party for Monty Python and the Holy Grail in New York, had joked that Python’s next movie would be called Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory. In customary fashion, the other Pythons were soon riffing and ad-libbing on the concept. They considered the irony of Jesus, a carpenter, dying on a wooden cross he might well have made; they joked at the paradox of religion being instilled in everyone, yet only the Church being allowed to pass comment upon or joke about it.

By the time of the Gay News trial, the latter jibe had been embraced as a central theme, while all quips about Jesus had been jettisoned because, they noted, Jesus was just not funny (qtd. in Kevin Schilbrack. “‘Life’s a Piece of Shit’: Heresy, Humanism and Heroism in Monty Python’s Life of Brian“. Monty Python and Philosophy. Eds. Gary L. Hardcastle and George A. Reisch. Chicago: Open Court, 2006. p.14). His followers, chroniclers, and churches, however, were.

Despite this prioritization of the institutionalization rather than the personage of Jesus, fears still lingered that the script might provoke backlash and even prosecution. No strangers to censorship, the Monty Python team had often had to adapt, adjust, and edit its materials at the behest of the BBC since the debut airing of their sketch show in 1969. Moreover, the blasphemy laws were so vague and arcane that few knew what might constitute crossing the line. In the Gay News case, presiding Judge, Lord Scarman, had explained that the law existed to protect religions from insults and, thus, to preserve “tranquility in the kingdom” (qtd. in Robert Hewison. Monty Python: The Case Against. London: Eyre Methuen. p.66). Might Life of Brian fall foul of such criteria?

Anxieties heightened when it was discovered that sections of the script had been leaked to the Festival of Light, which, already exasperated by the recent releases of (what it regarded as) irreverent religious films in Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, looked upon Life of Brian as a step too far. Meanwhile, as the Festival of Light weighed its options, the Pythons sent their script to renowned defense lawyer, John Mortimer, for his assessment. He concluded that the material was unlikely to meet the levels of offense necessary for a blasphemy conviction and, furthermore, that the high profile of Monty Python would make any such charge unlikely. Members of The Festival of Light seemed to agree with at least the latter assertion, themselves concluding that any legal proceedings would only bolster the publicity and popularity of the movie.

Relieved that they were unlikely to be under siege from a Whitehouse crusade, the Pythons proceeded with plans to shoot the movie in Tunisia, where Franco Zeffirelli had recently wrapped on his Jesus of Nazareth TV film. Conveniently, sets had been left behind for Python to use. Back home, though, matters were not going so smoothly. Despite having already agreed to fund Life of Brian, EMI had green-lighted the project (in the Spring of 1978) without having cleared it by their 69-year-old chief executive, Lord Bernie Delfont. Now, on reading the script, Delfont got cold feet, perhaps concerned that his company might experience the kind of hysterical backlash from religious/conservative quarters that had embarrassed and haunted him after the signing (and prompt firing) of the Sex Pistols two years prior.

As had happened then, Monty Python were promptly paid off and told to go elsewhere for funding. After a frustrating subsequent six months of futile searching on both sides of the Atlantic, the financing finally came through from a most unlikely source,George Harrison. “He wanted to see the film” was John Cleese‘s explanation for why Harrison and his fledgling Handmade Films company came up with the necessary £2 million.

He had bought the “world’s most expensive cinema ticket”, added Terry Jones ( “Eunarchy in the UK: George Harrison’s first movie”, John Patterson, The Guardian). On 17 August 1979, Monty Python’s Life of Brian had its world premiere in New York City. Alas, the culture wars surrounding the film were far from over.

Any hopes that Life of Brian would be received in the US without incident were soon dashed as religious groups of all stripes swiftly criticized and denounced the movie—in most instances without having seen it. Biographer Robert Hewison wryly observed later that “the Pythons could only conclude that they had made an unwitting contribution to religious reconciliation and church unity” (79). Just a week after the opening, three Jewish organizations (the Rabbinical Alliance of America, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the US and Canada, and the Rabbinical Council of Syrian and Near Eastern Sephardic Communities of America) voiced their collective objections; apparently, they were particularly perturbed by the portrayal of a prayer shawl in the “Jehovah” scene.

“Blasphemous” and “a crime against religion”, cried spokesperson Rabbi Abraham B. Hecht, who further interpreted the film as “a vicious attack upon Judaism and the Bible and a cruel mockery of the religious feelings of Christians as well”. He concluded by prophesizing that “its continued showing could result in serious violence” (qtd. in Douglas L. McCall. Monty Python. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co. 1991. p.71). One wonders what Rabbi Hecht’s reaction would have been had Python not edited out scenes portraying a Zionist-type character called Otto, leader of the Judean People’s Front. Wearing a logo that morphed the Star of David into a swastika, Otto apparently also spoke with a German accent and sported a Hitler-esque moustache. Only a fleeting moment of this Eric Idle-played character was ultimately saved from the cutting room floor, when Otto made a brief cameo as part of the JPF’s suicide pact in the final scene of the movie.

As the critical flood gates opened, other church spokespeople piled on in ways and means that made it apparent that they had either not seen the film or at least had not bothered to consider its content. “A mockery of Christ’s life” which “holds the person of Christ up to comic ridicule” was the opinion of Eugene V. Clark, New York representative of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, about a film that actually portrayed Jesus only twice—and for a total of less than two minutes (qtd. in McCall p.72). The Catholic Film Office (formerly the Legion of Decency), while calling for an “X” rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, ended up giving Life of Brian their own designation of “C”—for condemned!

Before long, protests spilled onto the streets, such as on 16 September, when various religious groups gathered to demonstrate against the film outside the Warner Communications building in New York’s Rockefeller Center. Warner Brothers had attempted—obviously unsuccessfully—to calm the waters earlier by putting out this press release: “It was never our intention to offend anyone’s beliefs, and we certainly regret having done so. The film is a satire, it is a spoof, and it should be viewed in that context” (qtd. in McCall p.72).

By the time the film reached the “professional” critics, a protest industry had emerged such that much of their analyses became dedicated to addressing responses to the movie rather than the movie itself. Soon, critics were engaging in their own private culture skirmishes, as Paul Gambaccini wrote “The Persecution of Monty Python’s Life of Brian” for Rolling Stone, while National Review‘s William F. Buckley, Jr., a veteran of the culture wars, spurred on the conservative opposition by criticizing Time critic Richard Schickel for suggesting that adults sometimes need to have their basic values challenged.

As hostilities between dissenters and defenders were exchanged in the ensuing media frenzy, Falwell’s Moral Majority was busy making sure that the First Amendment did not get in the way of local constituencies’ rights to restrict viewings of the film. Particularly targeting the “Bible belt” states of the South, Falwell called in his political chips with politicians like Senator Strom Thurmond, who managed to pressure the theaters of South Carolina into banning the movie.

Ironically, an Alice Cooper-like situation soon manifested itself as the more the censors stepped up their campaigns, the more publicity the film garnered, and, as a result, the more popular this low budget comedy became. Within weeks of its release in the US, the six Pythons, it might be said, were laughing all the way to the bank as Life of Brian broke box office records with its New York run and thereafter became the largest grossing youth comedy since Animal House.

The Pythons had to wait until the film’s London opening on 8 November to discover whether a comparable dynamic was taking place in the UK. It was. Hymn-singing demonstrators lined Lower Regent Street on the night of the premiere, as local councils across the land set about strategizing ways of keeping the film out of their districts. As had happened in the US, few of these representatives had actually waited to watch the film before springing into voice and action. “You don’t have to see a pigsty to know it stinks”, argued a councillor from Sidmouth and Exmouth. A blanket of bans soon descended over England’s West Country and North, as well as throughout the predominantly Catholic Southern Ireland. Even liberal Norway blocked the film, to which publicists in rival Sweden responded, “This film is so funny that it is banned in Norway” (qtd. in Hewison p.93).

Conservative religious outrage even reached the small screen when and Michael Palin were invited to spar with the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge on the BBC2 talk show, Friday Night, Saturday Morning, hosted by Jesus Christ Superstar lyricist, Tim Rice. Despite not having seen the film, the Bishop was less-than-reticent in condemning it, suggesting over the closing credits that the Pythons could be assured of earning their 30 pieces of silver. Shell-shocked by the experience—not to mention, too, by the distortions and mistruths uttered on air about the film—Cleese later described it as a Python sketch in action, adding soberly, “I find it slightly funny that there are now religious organizations saying ‘Do not go and see this film that tells you ‘not’ to do what you are told'” (qtd. in Edward Slowik. “Existentialism in Monty Python: Kafka, Camus, Neitzsche, and Sartre”. Monty Python and Philosophy, ibid).

History has largely come to side with Cleese’s perspective on the film, and despite it still being banned in some districts, much of the sting has gone from the controversy. In 2007, the Church of St. Thomas the Martyr, in Newcastle-on-Tyne, even held a public screening of Life of Brian, complete with song-sheets and dress-up. “It raised important issues about the hypocrisy and stupidity that can affect religion”, said the Church’s Reverend Jonathan Adams about the movie (Wikipedia citation). He, like other recent dissenters from within and beyond the church, would no doubt concur with Roger Ebert’s wry observation in 1979 about the hoopla surrounding the film: “Life of Brian is so cheerfully inoffensive that, well, it’s almost blasphemous to take it seriously”.

As for the Python team, although battered from their induction into the frontlines of the culture wars, they were far from tamed, vowing to offend “absolutely everyone” with their next film ( Wikipedia citation). That one would be entitled The Meaning of Life.