17 Religious Movies That May Change Your Perspective
From the earliest pictures to modern blockbusters, religion is a hot topic for Hollywood. But when it comes to religious movies, is the screen time always handled with care?
The First Amendment protects all religions from government interference. It also protects all kinds of portrayals of different faiths. That includes those that miss the mark and those that help viewers learn about different traditions.
Depicting religious traditions in film can be challenging. Religious movies sometimes offer valuable insight into communities and cultures. But they can also perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Often films do both. Once culturally beloved movies are sometimes criticized for portrayals of religion that lack religious literacy. Religious literacy, as defined by the American Academy of Religion, “entails the ability to discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion and social/political/cultural life through multiple lenses.”
Religious literacy asks us to be critical when we consume content featuring religion. Ask yourself: What messages are being expressed about each tradition? Is every character within one religious community thinking alike? Is the on-screen depiction historically accurate?
For example, a religiously illiterate film might use stereotypes or demonize or romanticize a religious community. On the other hand, religiously literate films portray religion in a fair, accurate and three-dimensional way.
Classics such as “Aladdin” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” received criticism from Muslim communities for promoting cultural stereotypes and harmful associations between Islam and violence.
Modern blockbusters such as Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” have been criticized for perpetuating antisemitic tropes and “willful disregard for the opinions and outreach efforts of mainstream Jewish organizations,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Thankfully, there are many films that demonstrate nuanced depictions of religion and nonreligion. Check out some of these religious movies, ranging from lighthearted laughs to difficult documentaries. While you watch, think critically. Ask yourself: Is this film considered religiously literate?
Discover 17 religious movies across many traditions
Available on Amazon Prime Video, Starz | IMDB rating: 7.4
Based on the classic Judy Blume novel, this religious movie follows the adventures of 11-year-old Margaret Simon after she moves to a new town. Raised in a Jewish-Christian interfaith family, Margaret’s adolescent questions of identity extend to her religious tradition. As she grapples with this next phase in life and searches for which tradition “fits,” Margaret’s relationship with her family is put to the test.
Check here for local screenings | IMDB rating: 8.3
Did you know the first time the word “homosexuality” was printed in the Bible was in 1946? This religious documentary explores the process of translating the Bible from its original language and the cultural movements spurred from particular translations. Featuring commentary from both queer-affirming and opposing pastors, this film reconsiders perspectives on LGBTQ+ identities in Christian traditions.
Available on FreedomForum.org, YouTube | IMDB rating: N/A
Imam Ossama Bahloul of Murfreesboro, Tenn., couldn’t have imagined that seeking a new place of worship and a community center could generate such extreme reactions – and the struggle was just beginning. This short form documentary produced by the Freedom Forum follows the story of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in its First Amendment fight to build a new home and create interfaith ties in the face of Islamophobia.
Available on YouTube | IMDB rating: 6.6
When members of an Islamic community center in Indiana come face to face with a former U.S. Marine carrying secret plans to bomb their building, the unexpected happens. This short form documentary is the story of how a community’s kindness and grace transformed a would-be terrorist into an ally, friend and eventual leader in the Islamic tradition.
Available on Hulu, Sling TV, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV | IMDB rating: 6.6
In her Oscar-winning role, Jessica Chastain portrays Tammy Faye Bakker, wife to famed televangelist Jim Bakker. This biopic follows the Christian power couple from their humble beginnings at North Central Bible College to wealth and fame. The film highlights Tammy Faye Bakker’s unlikely rise amidst famous evangelicals such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell, illuminating behind the scenes conflicts between these A-List religious figures. Viewers will walk away with greater knowledge of diversity among conservative evangelicals and a sense of the charm that made millions fall in love with this cultural icon.
Available on Amazon Prime Video | IMDB rating: 7.1
The Rev. Pauli Murray may not be a household name, but she shaped constitutional law from behind the scenes throughout the 20th century. A civil rights activist, legal scholar and the first Black woman to be ordained in the Episcopal tradition, this documentary illustrates Rev. Murray’s awe-inspiring life from the courtroom to the church.
Available on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Vudu | IMDB rating: 7.3
This documentary follows the origins and rise of The Satanic Temple, a modern religion whose mission is to “encourage benevolence and empathy, reject tyrannical authority … and undertake noble pursuits.” Focusing on the Temple’s church-state separation advocacy, the film explores the boundaries of religious freedom law when faced with unpopular minority traditions.
Available on YouTube, Amazon Prime Video | IMDB rating: 6.5
After decades of working together in Christian ministry, Bart Campolo delivered devastating news to his father: “I don’t believe in God anymore.” This film explores the relationship between famed evangelical preacher Tony Campolo and his son Bart, following Bart’s conversion to humanism. Their vulnerable conversations reveal a profound respect across religious boundaries and the value of interfaith relationships.
Available on Netflix | IMDB rating: 6.1
Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder of American Atheists, was deemed by Life Magazine in 1964 as “the Most Hated Woman in America.” O’Hair famously loved the title. This dramatized retelling of her life follows O’Hair’s trajectory as a fierce advocate for the separation of church and state that led her to the Supreme Court, late night talk shows, and in 1995, to her murder.
Available on Disney+ | IMDB rating: 6.8
Inspired by his own childhood relationship to Hinduism, Sanjay Patel’s animated short film depicts the daydream of a young Indian boy who reimagines Hindu gods as superheroes. This colorful and engaging short is geared toward children, but most people will learn something new watching Hindu gods Vishnu, Durga and Hanuman battle the evil king Ravana. Perhaps most important, the film reminds us how younger generations constantly reinterpret tradition.
Family is the original Super Team. 💪 Sanjay's Super Team is now streaming on Disney+. pic.twitter.com/bIObSpjMfF— Pixar (@Pixar) August 6, 2020
Available on Tubi, Amazon Prime Video | IMDB rating: 6.8
Based on a book by the same name, this film follows Changez Khan, a Muslim immigrant navigating a post 9/11 world. Facing newfound Islamophobia from his colleagues and friends, Khan is forced to confront the feeling of being considered an outsider in his own country. He reconsiders his relationship to Islam and patriotism.
Available on Kanopy | IMDB rating: 7.9
Ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood is forbidden by the Vatican, but that doesn’t stop some women from trying. This independent documentary examines the history and status of women priests, focusing on Roman Catholic Women Priests. The tagline: “The voice of these women must be heard.”
Available on Tubi, PLEX, Vudu, Amazon Prime Video | IMDB rating: 7.4
From Sandy Koufax to Hank Greenberg, this documentary tells the stories of famous Jewish American baseball players as they navigate antisemitism in professional pursuit of America’s pastime. Featuring personal interviews and archival footage, this film grapples with prejudice and celebrates the special meaning of baseball in many Jewish American families.
Available on Amazon Prime Video | IMDB rating: 7.5
This independent documentary follows a Tibetan Buddhist monk’s search for the reincarnation of the late lama, or teacher, Geshe Lama Konchog. Spanning more than five years, the film follows Konchog’s disciples as they use divine tests and trials to seek out his reincarnation in small villages on the border of Nepal and Tibet.
Available on Amazon Prime Video | IMDB rating: 7.2
This DreamWorks animated classic follows the story of the prophet Moses and his quest to deliver the enslaved Jewish people from Egypt. This musical retelling of the book of Exodus depicts some of the most iconic biblical stories — like the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and the retrieval of the Ten Commandments — with gorgeous animations and catchy songs along the way.
Making memories out of miracles! Celebrating 24 years of the DreamWorks classic, The Prince of Egypt! pic.twitter.com/lLwCzAxJeP— DreamWorks Animation (@Dreamworks) December 18, 2022
16. Contact (1997)
Available on Pluto TV, Amazon Prime Video | IMDB rating: 7.5
Based on the novel by astronomer Carl Sagan, this film follows Dr. Ellie Arroway, the first scientist to successfully contact extraterrestrials. As the country grapples with this discovery, Dr. Arroway, a fierce atheist, forms an unlikely relationship with the Rev. Palmer Joss. This movie asks us to question the supposed binary between science and religion and what it means to believe in something beyond this world.
Available on Freevee, Pluto TV, Roku Channel, Tubi | IMDB rating: 8.0
This Broadway classic follows Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman, and his family living in a small Russian village in the early 20th century. As revolution looms, Tevye grapples with the political threat to his culture, his daughters’ desire to marry for love, and their family’s precarious safety. This musical is a beloved story of family, love, and, of course, tradition.
Religious movies and religious literacy
While remaining thoughtful when watching religious movies is important, remember that films are rarely perfectly religiously literate or religiously illiterate. Most often, it’s a little bit of both. They may show a nuanced portrayal of one community and also perpetuate stereotypes of another. Or perhaps religion itself is painted with too broad a brush or encourages the romanticization or demonization of nonreligion.
Religious literacy is not an easy box to check. Even the most well-intentioned film might miss the mark sometimes. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop pushing for better representation of religion on the screen. Thankfully, academics, religious communities and filmmakers are working to address religious illiteracy in the industry and improve the field.
If you have a recommendation for a religious movie to add to the list, email [email protected].
Hannah Santos is the religious freedom program coordinator at the Freedom Forum.