03/04/2014 10:57 pm ET Updated May 04, 2014

Oscar Is Not Religious

After several memorable cases of an Academy Award winner using their captive television audience as a sort of ethical and political bully pulpit, a new norm gradually emerged: that such speeches would be timed in order to be kept relatively short; that they would be limited primarily to an expression of thanks to family, friends, colleagues and crew; and thus that they would be as innocuous as the annual celebration of Hollywood film is designed to be. Even Jane Fonda, an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam and elsewhere, declined to use the occasion for political purposes; at the 43rd Academy Awards in 1971, she said simply "there is a great deal to say and I'm not going to say it tonight."

Contrast that self-restraint with some of the Academy's leading men. It began with a bang just two years later, when Marlon Brando refused to attend the 45th Academy Awards in 1973, as a way to protest U.S. treatment of Native Americans; his proxy, Sacheen Littlefeather, took the stage armed with a 15-page manifesto but, under threat of removal, simply cited the Wounded Knee tragedy and left the stage. This regrettable trend culminated at the 75th Academy Awards in 2003, with Michael Moore's roundhouse condemnation of the results of the 2000 presidential elections and the First Gulf War. Since then, and in the last decade, the stage has become calmer, younger and a great deal more diverse.

In other words, the Academy Award winner on stage ought not use his or her brief time in the spotlight to make a geopolitical stump speech. But now, into that relative vacuum, steps religion, and the jarring possibility of a new kind of religious stump speech. We have grown accustomed to such things in large sport settings, especially football, but in Hollywood it still came as something of a shock.

Arguably a new low in spiritual rhetoric was achieved, quite amazingly, by the vacuous and self-preening speech Matthew McConaughey delivered in accepting his Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. In fairness, it should be said that this is a very difficult venue to play. The speech shouldn't seem canned and rehearsed or else you appear to have expected to win. It also can't ramble, as there's so little time. And if you have won for being an actor, well, then you're supposed to act well.

Like a politician selling a new initiative, McConaughey opted for three talking points; he started with them and he came back to them at the end. Preaching to a room that was decidedly not the Choir, he urged us each to identify three essential things: What you look up to; What you look forward to; and Who you deem your hero. And that is when the narcissistic rant commenced.

He looks up to God. He looks forward, every day, to his wife and kids. And quite amazingly, his hero is, and has been since he was fifteen, himself. We should pause to consider the reasoning here, if that is what it was. McConaughey began by giving all praise to God, because his own career demonstrates the hand of divine guidance and care so clearly. He couldn't have done this on his own. In other words, much like the quarterback praising God for a victory, he invites us to assume that God wanted him to win... not the faithless other guy. His fellow nominees -- Christian Bale, Bruce Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Chiwetel Ejiofor -- might well wonder what he meant.

He did not help sell his gospel with a single collective and condescending summation of all their work, noting that he had not detected "a single false note" in any of their performances. Indeed not; he saved that for himself.

The most startling claim, though, was the last one. When asked by a mentor who his hero was at the age of fifteen, McConaughey cited himself... ten years hence. At age twenty-five, he was asked again; once again, his hero was himself, another decade in the future. And so on. In this view, his entire life will be constituted by a narcissistic self-pursuit, one sanctioned by the God who has already apparently blessed his endeavors.

Contrast this with the speech by Cate Blanchett that immediately preceded McConaughey's. Blanchett thanked everyone effusively, at length, and in detail, without ever seeming rushed or forced... including her director, Woody Allen. Her specific comments on each of her fellow nominees -- Amy Adams, Sandra Bullock, Dame Judi Dench, and Meryl Streep -- was not limited to these specific performances, but included a moving gesture to what these women represent both to their guild and to the broader culture.

In other words, while there was assuredly deep spirituality and ethical commitment in her remarks, she did not wear any of this on her glittering sleeve. Blanchett sees herself as a link in a sacred chain of filmic tradition, and the ongoing labor of enabling greater cultural inclusiveness. Her stirring conclusion was this: There is a broad market for female roles of startling complexity and depth, and there are extraordinary women, young and old, capable of the virtuosic demands of such roles. "The world is round, people," she concluded, to resounding applause.

The end result of Michael Moore's political rant in 2003 was a new consensus about keeping such things off the Oscar stage. Let us hope that McConaughey's silly spiritual self-promotion will prompt a new consensus about keeping religious rant off stage as well. The alternative might well be to post "John 3:16" signs behind the podium.