Once again the National Endowment for the Arts is in hot water, and deservedly so. A musical entitled, “Jerry Springer, the Opera,” is now being performed in previews at an off-Broadway theatre, The New Group. The musical is ferociously and deliberately anti-Catholic, while The New Group receives substantial NEA funding.
The question being raised by Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, at his January 23 press conference is simple: if the government is forbidden from funding projects that promote religion, why is the NEA allowed to fund a project that directly attacks religion?
Donohue is no stranger to this debate. Over the years he has led the fight against government funding of other anti-Catholic artists such as Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, and David Wojnarowicz. His success in challenging all of them is a tribute both to his ability to influence public and elite opinion by razor sharp arguments rather than emotional outrage.
His strategy is this case is similar. Rather than calling for protests or boycotts, he has written a letter to President Trump asking that the next chairman of the NEA "not continue to fund anti-Christian grantees, exhibitions, or performances.” The present chairman, Jane Chu, will be stepping down in June, and Trump will likely be announcing his replacement nominee in February.
Donohue has also written to Dr. Jane Chu asking two questions: why she funded the “most obscene anti-Christian play ever performed,” and why she funded The New Group in a way that violates NEA guidelines which clearly state no funding can be provided for “general operations or seasonal support.” Yet, Chu signed off on a 2009 $50,000 grant to The New Group because of “the current economic downturn.”
This grant evinces blatant disregard for the responsible use of taxpayer money because some sort of favored status of the theatre group in the eyes of its chairman. Donohue has also written a letter to chair of the Congressional Committee responsible for NEA oversight, Cong. Ken Calvert pointing out Dr. Chu’s “clear violation” of NEA funding regulations.
“Jerry Springer, the Opera” is no opera, it’s a 2003 Broadway-style British musical first performed in London and eventually winning four Laurence Olivier Awards. That such an adolescent and musically-dull musical could have won such prestigious awards is bizarre. I watched the entire 2-hour BBC production. Its entire narrative is adolescent and it's musically completely undistinguished.
It relies on one repeated conceit: the juxtaposition of profanity in the context of a Broadway musical devoted to religious issues. In other words, when a character steps forward, Sondheim-style, to deliver a love song, we are treated to a description of how she urinates on a naked man in her bathroom. Yes, that kind of thing is repeated over and over until the BBC audience itself stops laughing out loud and fails to applaud at the “big moments.”
Act I of the show is an actual Jerry Springer TV show where the participants talk and sing about the various iterations of their sexual lives and their hatred of the Christian faith. One repeated refrain of all the characters is “Eat, excrete, and watch TV.” One male character, Montel, dressed in a diaper, sings to his girlfriend that he would prefer she treat him as her “baby,” and proceeds to defecate in his diaper.
After a brief Act II stop in purgatory, the show moves to hell in Act III, and the Montel character, still in a diaper, is now called Jesus. He squares off against Satan who declares the injustice afflicted upon him by God. Satan is joined by Eve who also complains of being too harshly judged and grabs Jesus by the genitals under his diaper. (I’m using the least offensive examples from the musical in order to spare the reader.)
The NEA funding to The New Group is an embarrassment on artistic grounds and a direct insult to Christians.
Established in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts reached its apogee of funding in 1992, over $170,000,000. Then it suffered a deep decline to under $1,000,000,000 due to similar controversies generated by its grants. Funding did not begin to recover fully until the appointee of President George W. Bush, Dana Gioia, became Chairman of NEA. Gioia, who served from 2003-2009, demonstrated how the NEA could fulfill its original mission, “to strengthen the creative capacity of our communities.”
Bill Donohue, like President Trump, believes the NEA should be eliminated. The Congress, however, disagreed with the president and included NEA funding in the 2018 budget. Thus, a new chairman will soon be appointed.
I strongly suggest the president and those responsible for choosing the nominee look closely at the extraordinary programs created by Dana Gioia at the NEA. Those include: “The Big Read” which was designed to address the national decline in literacy with a “one city, one book” approach reaching over 25,000 communities; “Poetry Out Loud” is a national poetry recitation contest attracting over 375,000 students each year; “NEA Jazz Masters” created the highest award in the jazz world and sought to raise the visibility of jazz artists; and “Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience” offered writing workshops for veterans and their families leading to the publication an anthology, Operation Homecoming.
I’m a Catholic conservative who believes passionately in the power of the arts to benefit all of us individually and collectively. The amount of federal money being spent is minuscule compared to the monumental waste of taxpayer dollars elsewhere. The NEA needs to be given another chance to prove the worthiness of its cause.
Dr. Deal W. Hudson took over Crisis Magazine in 1995, leaving in 2010 to become president of Catholic Advocate. While at Crisis, Hudson led the Catholic voter outreach for President George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and later advised the campaigns of both John McCain and Donald Trump on Catholic outreach. In 2014, he began his weekly two-hour radio show, "Church and Culture," on the Ave Maria Radio Network, and launched www.thechristianreview.com in 2015. His books include "Happiness and the Limits of Satisfaction" and "Onward Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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