A recent episode of Glee had many viewers singing its praises. “Grilled Cheesus” explored contemporary ideas on prayer, God, and why bad things happen to good people. TV critics and bloggers admired the episode’s honesty (and humor) in grappling with serious issues of faith; Facebook and Twitter were positively, um, a-twitter. A few dissenters, though, lamented the banal predictability of the all-too-familiar TV god whose nature and will can usually be summed up in a phrase: I’m nice and you should be, too.  

Less commented on was another recent episode of a popular network comedy, the Emmy-winning Modern Family. In “Earthquake” family patriarch Jay Pritchett (played by Ed O’Neill in decidedly anti-Al Bundy fashion) informs his devout wife (the much-younger, fiery Latina Gloria) that he’s done with their Sunday morning ritual. “You feel God in church — which is great,” he tells her. “I feel God out in nature.”

Then nature comes calling in the form of a mild earthquake. (The show is set in southern California). “Me and God are good,” Jay had assured his wife just before the house started to shake. Gloria, spooked by Jay’s impertinence, is sure that the earthquake is divine retaliation. (Personal pet peeve: Why are people of faith on TV almost always portrayed as superstitious?).

Jay takes off for the golf course with his prepubescent stepson Manny, where the two talk about hell (“there isn’t one,” Jay says cheerily). It’s a funny scene and Jay is a likeable guy — he’s not arrogant or dictatorial; he’s not out to destroy Manny’s faith. He’d rather not argue theology at all — a welcome conceit (props to the show’s writers) in this age of Hitchens/Dawkins anti-God rants. Manny, though, like his mom, is more than a little unnerved by Jay’s breezy atheism. Another pet peeve: Why are Catholics on TV almost always portrayed as humorless and fretful? (Which isn’t to say that Manny, played winningly by Rico Rodriguez II, isn’t funny — he’s one of the show’s bright lights).

The episode ends with Jay dropping Manny off at mass. As sentimental music accompanies scenes of the extended Pritchett clan in post-earthquake domestic bliss, Jay intones in a voiceover: “There’s nothing mystical about an earthquake . . . it just makes you realize what matters; for me that’s my family.”

In this, Modern Family, like Glee, is indistinguishable from the social conservatism it thinks it outsmarts. “Family values” — in both their liberal and conservative guises — are really the foundational tenets of America’s religion. The right may invoke “God” in service of this religion more often than the left does (hence the wink, wink of Jay being “spiritual but not religious”), but “God” — in any form recognized by the three Abrahamic faiths — is fundamentally unnecessary for this faith’s flourishing. 

All this has struck me with more than the usual absurdity since I’ve been reading Flannery O’Connor this semester with a student. And it’s not just because O’Connor’s fictional families tend to be what a professor of mine once said most American families are: hell holes of togetherness. O’Connor’s mothers and fathers, daughters and sons may be side-splittingly funny but they are not sit-com material; they are misfits and miscreants who reveal that the real deviants, as O’Connor’s ablest interpreter has said, are “the thoroughly well-adjusted man, the completely self-controlled woman, the utterly successful American.”

TV shows like Glee and Modern Family trade in stock characters who don’t fit in but unlike O’Connor’s fiction, they can never resist the temptation to manipulate their audience through mawkishness and easy affect. This kind of sentimentality is to be eschewed in art (and faith), O’Connor insisted, because real Christian charity “discerns the worth of human beings through the aperture of God’s own costly sacrifice, while soft-core pity sees them through the lens of easy and all-sanctioning emotions.”

Once sentimentality (which O’Connor said was intimately linked to pornography) overtakes art, it’s not long before it infects faith, too. Glee and Modern Family took the easy way out and concluded that faith is like a big warm blanket. O’Connor is famous for countering that faith, in actuality, is daily conversion to the cross. Not a line that would garner many laughs on TV (or even nods of agreement in church).

So the recent episodes of two popular TV shows that seemed on the surface so cutting edge, so cleverly relevant, turn out not to shake up the status quo of American family-based piety but to reinforce it.