When the animated television series The Simpsons first appeared more than a decade ago, it was denounced by many across the nation, nowhere more vigorously than from America's pulpits. Moral leaders said that this nuclear but dysfunctional family was the latest evidence of cultural decay.
"We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons," President George Bush told the National Religious Broadcasters in 1992.
As cartoonist Matt Groening's show approaches a new season Sept. 26, it continues to be a source of controversy, now drawing criticism from a Roman Catholic watchdog organization. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights cited several jokes about the church. In one case, pressure from network officials this past season forced the show's producers to alter a line about the Catholic Church from the original show when the program aired in rerun this summer.
But both the initial denunciations and the recent controversy obscure the fact that God, Christianity and Christians are more a part of the Simpsons' daily lives than any other prime-time network series, at least shows not specifically devoted to religion, such as Touched by an Angel.
"Right-wingers complain there's no God on TV," Mr. Groening said in a recent interview in Mother Jones magazine. "Not only do the Simpsons go to church every Sunday and pray, they actually speak to God from time to time. We show him, and God has five fingers -- unlike the Simpsons, who only have four."
The Simpsons, which airs locally at 7 p.m. Sundays on Channel 4, is consistently irreverent toward organized religion's failings and excesses -- as it is with most other aspects of modern life. But God is not mocked. When characters face crises, they turn to God. He answers their prayers. The family believes in heaven and hell and ridicules cults. The next-door neighbors are committed fundamentalists.
Some in the religious world have recognized this phenomenon. Three years into the series, in 1992, the show was the subject of a favorable master's thesis at Pat Robertson's Regent University. "While it may not completely resonate with the evangelical Judeo-Christian belief system," wrote Beth Keller, "The Simpsons does portray a family searching for moral and theological ideals."
William Romanowski is looking for a video of Homer the Heretic, an episode of The Simpsons, to use in a class he teaches at Calvin College, a Christian school in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The author of Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life, Mr. Romanowski said the episode is instructive because "it tries to get at the role God and religion play in people's everyday lives."
Homer, who works at a nuclear-power plant, often expresses gratitude at the dinner table, even extending well beyond sustenance, thanking God "most of all for nuclear power, which is yet to cause a single, proven fatality, at least in this country."
The Simpsons' blessings are decidedly mixed. After a particularly disastrous Thanksgiving, Homer loses it as he offers thanks "for the occasional moments of peace and love our family's experienced ... well, not today. You saw what happened. Oh Lord, be honest. Are we the most pathetic family in the world or what?"
In Bart Gets an F, the boy is threatened with repeating a grade if he fails a test for which he is not prepared. Desperate, Bart asks God for one more day to study. "Prayer, the last refuge of the scoundrel," Lisa scoffs as she overhears her brother. Nonetheless, a freak snow storm closes school the next day, saving him.
"I heard you last night, Bart," Lisa tells him. "You prayed for this. Now your prayers have been answered. I'm no theologian. I don' t know who or what God is exactly. All I know is: He's a force more powerful than Mom and Dad put together, and you owe him big." Bart acknowledges, "Part of this D-minus belongs to God."
Homer's understanding of theology is undeniably hazy. Asked by Bart what his beliefs are, Homer answers, "You know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don't work in real life. Uh, Christianity."
Homer does not doubt the existence of God, even when he decides not to go to church. Instead, he wants to start his own sybaritic religion, which occasions a divine visitation.
"I'm not a bad guy," he tells God, who wears a robe and sandals but whose visage is unseen. "I work hard, and I love my kids. So why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how I'm going to hell?"
God replies: "Hmm, you've got a point there. You know, sometimes even I'd rather be watching football."
"So I figure I should try to live right and worship you in my own way," Homer concludes. But he changes his mind about church and religion a few minutes later when he is dragged from his burning house by Ned Flanders, a neighbor.
Ned is a doofus -- there is no other word for him. He is such a goody-goody that he doesn't let his equally devout children use dice when playing board games because the playing pieces are "wicked." Ned is righteous but not self-righteous. He is fired from Springfield Elementary School, where he is filling in as principal, for saying "Let's thank the Lord" over the intercom.
Abused constantly by his oafish next-door neighbor, the relentlessly upbeat Ned returns only love and good works. When Ned suffers a breakdown and is condemned by the church, Homer tells members of the congregation: "This man has turned every cheek on his body. If everyone here were like Ned Flanders, there'd be no need for heaven: We'd already be there."
The Flanders family is portrayed "fallibly but sympathetically, " said Michael Glodo, professor of Old Testament and preaching at Reformed Theological Seminary in Oviedo, Fla. "They are simple, sincere, earnest -- a good package of virtue, especially in a postmodern culture where cynicism and irony and satire are the prevailing sentiments."
No one would mistake Homer and his family for saints. In many ways, they are quintessentially weak, good-hearted sinners who rely on their faith -- but only when absolutely necessary.
"They have captured a very common understanding of who God is," said Mr. Glodo, of Reformed Theological Seminary. "It's a very functional view of religion."