'The Simpsons' Dives Into Gay Controversy

At a time when the culture wars have singed such animated characters as SpongeBob SquarePants and PBS' Buster, the Fox network's "The Simpsons" is gleefully thrusting itself into the crossfire.

This Sunday, Springfield -- the fictional town where the show is set -- will legalize same-sex marriage.

As the mayor of Springfield says in a clip of Sunday's show provided to ABC News: "Springfield: a place where everyone can marry -- even dudes."

What's more, one of the main characters on the show will come out as a homosexual. (This is a carefully guarded secret that has caused much speculation on blogs and in chat rooms.)

The executive producer of "The Simpsons," Al Jean, says the show is not endorsing same-sex marriage. He points out that not all of the characters in the show support the legalization -- and that that many of those who do just hope it will bring in tourist dollars.

In the episode, the town creates a tourism advertisement with the lines: "Gay-o, it's OK-o/Tie the knot and spend your dough/Gay-o, come and stay-o/Visit our Web site for further info."

Some Christian conservatives say the show is yet another example of how "Holly-weird" (as many of them call it) has become increasingly disconnected from average Americans.

"I think television is becoming obsessed with homosexuality," says Robert Knight of Concerned Women for America. "In fact, I wouldn't put it past people to dig up reruns of 'Happy Days' and have the Fonz come out as gay."

Saints or Sinners?

This, however, is not your average skirmish in the culture wars. While some Christian conservatives are upset, there's less criticism this time. In part, that's because "The Simpsons" -- unlike "SpongeBob Squarepants" and "Postcards from Buster" -- is not aimed directly at children. In part, it's because many evangelicals have long embraced "The Simpsons" for its high religious content.

The show has one of the few born-again Christian characters on television: Ned Flanders. He's Homer Simpson's sometimes dopey next-door neighbor -- who often comes off as the most sympathetic character on the show. Some evangelicals have adopted him as a mascot of sorts.

Orlando, Fla.-based religion writer Mark Pinsky wrote a book called "The Gospel According to the Simpsons" that explores the ways in which the show examines moral and spiritual issues. Some evangelicals use the book and the show to teach religion to young people.

"There are too many intelligent, discerning Christians and evangelicals who have adopted the show, who like the show," says Pinsky. "I think it would be too dangerous, frankly, too marginalizing, for other leaders of the Christian Right to attack it."

An example of the internal debate this has caused among conservatives can be found on the Web site FreeRepublic.com. One contributor calls Sunday's "Simpsons" episode "disgusting." She's rebutted by a self-described Christian conservative who says the show has "more churchgoing than has been on TV since the '50s."

Some hope that -- even though same-sex marriage is such a divisive issue -- viewers can, for a half hour at least, put aside their differences and just laugh.

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