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What Denomination Is the Simpsons’ Church?

What Denomination Is the Simpsons’ Church?

“I’m not a bad guy!” Homer Simpsons once declared. “I work hard and I love my kids. So why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how I’m going to Hell?”

Not the most charitable read on church but if you’ve spent much time with The Simpsons, you know it’s a pretty fair review of the church attended by America’s premier cartoon family. The church appears to be well-attended and well-funded, but it’s not the most celebratory event. Maybe Homer stumbled onto half a point.

Back in the 90s, American Christians were wary of The Simpsons. Organizations like Focus on the Family fretted about Bart’s attitude and Barbara Bush called the show “the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen” — though she softened after Marge herself “wrote” the former First Lady a polite but firm letter in The Hollywood Reporter“Ma’am, if we’re the dumbest thing you ever saw, Washington must be a good deal different than what they teach me at the current events group at the church.”

There’s that word again. Church. Despite some early conservative queasiness about the show, The Simpsons is very old fashioned when it comes to faith. It’s one of the few shows on TV in which religion is portrayed as a normal part of American life. The Simpsons go to church regularly if not necessarily cheerfully. The pray before they eat. They may not be as faithful as their doofily goofily neighbor Ned Flanders, but it’s safe to say they would qualify as what most researchers call “engaged Christians.” That is, the word “Christian” isn’t just a nominal label — it’s something that has a real impact on their life, including where they spend Sunday morning.

But what kind of Sunday morning service are we talking about here? For all the many appearances of church on The Simpsons, we know precious little about its background. The show has always liked to stay deliberately vague on specifics, including a Joker-like series of answers on which U.S. state the Simpsons’ Springfield is actually in. That makes determining the actual denomination of the church on The Simpsons nearly impossible. But not entirely.

First thing’s first. The church’s “denomination” is actually given as the Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism — another nod series creator Matt Groenig’s penchant for keeping things broad. But let’s see if we can’t narrow it down a little.

Let’s start with what we know. It’s called The First Church of Springfield, pastored by Reverend Tim Lovejoy, Jr. The church is Protestant, as Lovejoy is a proud graduate of Texas Christian University and once got into a brawl with a Catholic priest. Yes, Lovejoy definitely has it out for Catholics (when Abe Simpson asks for last rites, Lovejoy tells Marge he might as well do a Voodoo dance) and went so far as to kidnap Bart when he heard the kid was thinking of converting to Catholicism.

Also worth noting: Lovejoy’s also shown to be jealous of the Episcopalian church across the street, and its more commanding steeple.

So, definitely Protestant. Probably not Episcopalian.

When in preaching church or officiating weddings, Lovejoy wears white preacher’s robes. This is a little unusual in the U.S., where black is often the preferred color for Sunday mornings, but there’s no law against it so, unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us much.

But we also know that Lovejoy wears a reverend collar — a big clue. While clerical collars are most commonly associated with the Catholic tradition, they are worn by church leaders in some Protestant denominations, such as Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran. So we can rule out Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in the country.

So. Not Southern Baptist. Not Episcopalian. And since neither Anglican or Methodist show up in the church’s denominational mashup, let’s rule those out too. That leaves us with Presbyterian and Lutheran. There are obviously other denominations it could be. Protestant churches are a wild and unruly bunch, with deliberately few governing bylaws. But statistically, Presbyterian and Lutheran are looking good.

We can learn a little more from Lovejoy’s own behavior, which isn’t always becoming of a preacher. He can be dismissive of the Bible (he calls it a “two thousand page sleeping pill”) and brushes Marge’s concerns about sin away by holding up a Bible and saying “Marge, everything is a sin. Have you ever sat down and read this thing?”

This sort of cynicism can creep into pretty much any faith tradition, so it doesn’t narrow things down too much. A little more telling is that Lovejoy seems to have grown more cynical over the years. In flashbacks, we see that he used to be passionate about his faith and excited about ministry — only to grow increasingly grouchy and disillusioned. Where he used to care about Flanders’ skittishness about sin, he now treats both Ned and many other members of the congregation with thinly veiled contempt.

Again, not exactly a unique development. Many pastors could tell the same story about friends of theirs who’ve worked in the ministry. In fact, a few congregation members could probably do the same.

This is where some of The Simpsons’ deliberate vagueness starts to work in its favor. By staying above poking fun at any one faith tradition, it can kind of satire them all. In The Gospel According to the Simpsons, show writer Al Jean recalled that the producer, Sam Simon, didn’t want Lovejoy to be a bad person, just a flawed human. He was not a “cartoony hypocritical preacher,” according to Jean. Instead, Lovejoy is “a realistic person who just happened to work as a minister.”

In other words, Lovejoy isn’t unique. Neither are the Simpsons themselves. They are, like everyone on the show, painfully recognizable, and not always in ways that are very flattering but definitely in ways that come from a general place of affection. What denomination is the First Church of Springfield? It doesn’t really matter. Whatever church you happen to attend, it’s probably got plenty in common with it — warts and all.

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