The proper place for religion on television is in fantasy and science fiction.
I know - most shows of any genre avoid religious topics like burning coals, unless that's the foundation of the show, as in the various angel shows and priest shows currently fashionable. And the science fiction of the Seventies steered clear, too. But look at what they've done lately!
In Deep Space Nine, Ben Sisko is, like it or not, a religious figure to the people of Bajor, and he's decided it's time to start acting like it. Before that, the whole first season's backplot was the struggle between Vedek Wynn and Vedek Beriel to become the Pope (I mean the Kai); you NEVER see ecclestiastical politics outside PBS, and here it is on broadcast TV!
Or consider The X-Files. Scully is a lapsed Catholic who is thrust into the world of the paranormal, including the demonic or miraculous. Those few episodes which took Christian myth seriously (as in stigmata, devils, Revelations, etc.) saw an interesting reversal of the usual Mulder/Scully chemistry; Mulder was the skeptic and Scully the believer. It was interesting to see Mulder be as dismissive of Scully's Catholicism as she usually is of his UFOlogy; it suggests the fascinating angle that Mulder's beliefs are just as irrational as Scully's. As Mulder might say, 'To-MAY-to, To-MAH-to.'"
And of course, there's Babylon 5. Functional prophecy and functional "gods" and "demons" in the persons of the Vorlons and Shadows lend this space-war series a real mythic depth, as in the Iliad where the gods show up on every other page.
Note than in all the above series, the writers treat the subject of religion (or near-religion) seriously. The way you feel and think about the gods matters; it can, in fact, be the difference between life and death. Now, there was the unfortunate matter of DS9 and B5's heroes having the gods as sort of a deus ex machina, but that's one of the hazards of mixing religion with your science.
And if genre TV doesn't ever go so far as to assert that the beliefs of any given Terrestrial religion are 100-percent dead-money accurate, well, what's wrong with that?
Much as I know the hazards of taking this position, there is a proper place for religion on just about any show on television. Not proselytizing. Not hitting people over the head with the preponderance of Christian teachings and symbols in our culture (speaking as a Jew, there's no such thing as Judeo-Christian; the Judeo- gets completely assimilated into and changed by the -Christian, and the tenets and values are really quite different among most branches of the two religions). Trust me, I don't want to see crucifixes in every home or Bibles in every hospital room, but I've also been in a lot more homes and hospitals which had those things than television ever indicates.
TV shows are caught in the position of being theoretically representative of our culture, and also pure entertainment. And let's face it, some of the values of the entertainment industry do come into conflict regularly with the values of a lot of religious people. So some of the more judgemental viewers make generalizations which affect the rest of us, like forming groups with the word "Christian" in their titles which suggest that television is inherently evil and needs to be monitored by some God-fearing censors, and various people in entertainment get angry and start making generalizations in which religion comes to equal the Moral Majority.
When we see people identified as Jews or Catholics on TV, it's almost always a cultural distinction, not a reflection of their spirituality; we recognize them by the neighborhoods they believe in and the icons they wear, not by their assertions of belief systems nor their expressions of their values. In fact, offhand I can think or more Catholic gangsters and more Jewish greedy managers on TV - two insidious yet pervasive cultural stereotypes - than I can of priests or rabbis who've appeared in popular features.
There's a schism of sorts in which religion is almost never portrayed as a positive, except in an occasional domestic show where people gather together for a holiday and spout cliches about family values. Even shows like Touched by an Angel are vague on the social acceptability of organized church work. Secular humanism is fine with me - in many ways it's preferable - but it's not a realistic portrayal of how most television viewers live their lives. A majority of people go to church or synagogue occasionally, a significant number have religious weddings (we generally see only religious funerals on TV), and a lot of people are dragged by family and friends to religious events which they would not choose to attend themselves, but accept without it becoming a big focus of controversy. Sure, I'd be pissed if the doctors on E.R. started advising people to pray and if Mulder decided the Hand of God rather than the work of governments and aliens was behind the signs of the apocalypse he's seen, but I also wouldn't mind an occasional Christian character who neither spouted platitudes nor represented a narrow-minded perspective.
As for science fiction...Star Trek expects us to believe that the millennia-old Catholic Church will be gone in three hundred years, that a religion as ancient as Judaism which has survived holocaust after Holocaust will vanish, that people will stop gathering in mosques and shrines and temples, without the bloodiest war the human race has ever seen? It's not just ridiculous, it's unpleasant to me. What good is infinite diversity in infinite combinations if people can't revere the beliefs of their ancestors, or take ethical positions which some of us might find too rigid or too uncertain?
Fine, let's not hear anyone babble about Christ being the savior of the Bajorans (though I expect someone would), but why can't we see Commander Vinzano with a crucifix in his quarters or Ensign Goldberg wearing a Star of David or Lieutenant Ali with her head covered? The intensely personal New Age spirituality of television science fiction is all right with me, but if Kira can worship the prophets and Chakotay can talk to the Sky Spirits, I want to know why there isn't a gospel choir on DS9.
TV needs more positive portrayal of the old religions co-existing peacefully and working out their differences through tolerance, not a pretense that they don't or won't exist. I don't know if anyone can write it well, but maybe if the entertainment industry got a little more diverse itself, there'd be a chance of it.
This column was originally written for AnotherUniverse.com.