Father Doesn’t Know Best

‘7th Heaven’ Dad Stephen Collins and the Christian Right’s Real Morality Tale

A man who allegedly touched little girls was the warm, smiling face of an effort to make the rest of us feel guilty about our non-abusive, consensual sex lives.

A mere month after releasing the security video footage showing Ray Rice committing a horrific act of domestic violence, TMZ has outed another celebrity who would rather keep his abusive behavior secret. The tabloid website released the purported audio of Stephen Collins, a long-time actor most famous for his role as the pastor-dad on the WB show 7th Heaven, confessing to his wife during therapy his repeated sexual abuse of underage girls. The NYPD is investigating and at least one woman, the daughter of his first wife, is coming forward with accusations.

The recording has come during Collins’s ugly divorce from his wife, Faye Grant, who accused Collins in her court filing of “living a secret life” and of having “narcissistic personality disorder with sociopathic tendencies.” Collins was subsequently fired from Ted 2, booted from the Screen Actors Guild, and reruns of his show 7th Heaven were pulled from syndication.

While it’s always alarming to hear about any child abuse allegations, this case has particular resonance because of Collins’s most famous role, that of Rev. Eric Camden, the Christian patriarch ruling over a brood of seven children with his wife Annie. The show was both inexplicably popular—running for over 10 years—and notorious for its conservative tone. Much of the series was turned over to moralistic preaching about the evils of premarital sex. The conservative Christian organization Parents Television Council routinely cited 7th Heaven as one of its favorite shows on TV, calling it “one of the most wholesome and inoffensive programs on television.”

Looking back, 7th Heaven is an amazing relic of the late ’90s and the Bush era, a time when fundamentalist Christianity that placed a special emphasis on sexual “purity” was on the upswing. The show’s heavy reliance on storylines where sexuality is treated like a danger to be stifled and heavily policed reflected a culture that was suddenly awash in megachurches, purity rings, and even pop stars like Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and the Jonas Brothers bragging about their virginity. It was an era where most high school kids were subject to abstinence-only education and over-the-counter sales of emergency contraception were stalled by the Bush administration for years over fears that it would create “sex-based cults.”

Of course, Miley Cyrus exchanged her purity ring for a wrecking ball to lick while naked instead and a full third of adults under 30 now have no religion at all. While we are still having to deal with the fallout from the anti-sex religious mania of the 7th Heaven era—witness how Texas is now down to a mere eight abortion clinics to serve the entire state—it’s clear that culturally, the tide is turning.

It’s not just that Americans have suddenly remembered that we actually like sex and don’t particularly like having uptight God-botherers scold us for having it, though that no doubt plays a role. It’s also because the very people who were holding themselves out to be moral leaders to guide us all away from our more animal urges and towards the light turned out, all too often, to be very bad people. While they were guilt-tripping us for our harmless and normal sexual desires, many religious right luminaries had secret lives that were actually dangerous and harmful to others.

Christian right leader Ted Haggard turned out to have a secret life of sleeping with male prostitutes and even smoking meth with them. Bible-thumping Louisiana Sen. David Vitter was outed as a john for the “D.C. Madam” in 2007. Christian conservative Sen. Larry Craig plead guilty for soliciting sex in the Minneapolis airport bathroom in 2007. George Alan Rekers, an anti-gay activist who worked heavily with the Family Research Council, was caught bringing a male escort with him on 10-day European vacation. South Carolina governor Mark Sanford was outed as an adulterer after he was caught lying about being on a hike through the Appalachian Trail. The list goes on and on.

But, in a sense, the sexual hypocrisies aren’t even the worst of it. The post-Bush era has been a gradual waking up to the fact that, contrary to the loving image of Christian conservatism put forward on shows like 7th Heaven, the reality is that conservative Christianity is downright mean-spirited. The war-mongering and lying of the Bush administration, for instance, makes the pious claims to morality of the former president and his supporters ring very hollow indeed.

The façade of “love” put forward by religious conservatives has been slipping, as well. The Southern Poverty Law Center declared the religious right luminaries at the Family Research Council a hate group, due to their attacks on gay people. Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student who dared speak out in favor of insurance coverage for birth control, was swarmed by these “loving” conservatives, attacked with sexual innuendo and outright declarations that she’s a “slut.”

Christian conservatives routinely make headlines by pushing punishing abortion restrictions that are clearly meant to make women suffer by forcing them to beg for abortions, undergo medically unnecessary vaginal ultrasounds, and drive for hours just in hopes of getting what is supposed to be a legal procedure. Prominent anti-choice politicians Todd Akin lost his Senate race after arguing that women can’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape.”

Stephen Collins is just an actor, of course, and no one should confuse him with a character he played on TV. That said, there’s something quite resonant about the fact that 7th Heaven, a show that was barely disguised religious right propaganda being broadcast into our homes for over a decade, used a now-accused child molester as the centerpiece of that push. That a man who allegedly touched little girls could turn around and put a warm, smiling face on an effort to make the rest of us feel guilty about our non-abusive, consensual sex lives is almost a little too perfect of a morality tale. Certainly it’s a more interesting story than any of the plots on 7th Heaven.

Hopefully, it’s a lesson Americans won’t soon forget: Behind the polished surfaces of the pious “family values” image lays, all too often, all sorts of abusive and hateful behavior. Maybe next time the Christian right tries to lure us in with images of perfect family harmony somehow caused by the suppression of normal sexual desires, we will exercise some skepticism.