Alexandra Pelosi’s new HBO documentary, Friends of God, is a notable attempt of a confessed “blue state” filmmaker (Pelosi was born in San Francisco and now lives in New York City) to understand evangelical religion. She frames the story as a road trip into the spiritual world of “red” America.
Like the Oscar-nominated documentary, Jesus Camp, Pelosi’s movie lets evangelicals speak for themselves. She films people ruminating on everything from salvation and theology to abortion and creationism to family and politics. She introduces viewers to a host of regular folks, big name Religious Right leaders, a Christian wrestler, and a (self-billed) “conservative Christian” comic. Some of the interviews are compelling (the mother of ten who gave up college to “follow Jesus”), while others are tragic (Ted Haggard talking about sex: ouch!), and a few (the Christian comic) are downright scary.
In pre-air interviews, Pelosi said she liked many of the people she met. But there’s a problem with Friends of God. You would never know that Pelosi liked any of these people if she hadn’t told you. Even the more tender interviews reveal a subtle stereotyping, listening to people but never truly understanding their world.
The result? The film takes on the air of watching “monkeys in the zoo” (as does Jesus Camp). Red state evangelicalism ranges from slightly addled and intellectually backward to an evil manipulation of good people for political ends. In short, Pelosi’s road trip echoes H.L. Mencken’s 1926 quip: “Heave an egg out of a Pullman car window, and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today.”
If these are “God’s Friends,” I’d hate to meet his enemies.
While Friends may fascinate or alarm “blue state” people, it does little to help watchers understand why conservative evangelicals are such a powerful political force. Two flaws contribute to this.
First, Pelosi interviewed mainly southern evangelicals, reflecting her larger red-state “road trip” theme. However, it is very difficult to separate the strands of southern culture from southern evangelicalism – much of Friends illustrates southern folk traditions regarding women, science, and politics more than evangelical theology. While southern evangelicalism is no doubt a powerful cultural force, it also remains a distinct form of American religion – one more fundamentalist than other varieties of evangelicalism.
Second, how did these “backwoods buffoons” (ala Mencken) get any political power at all? Friends would have been strengthened by a visit to Wheaton College or a Washington, D.C., think tank (like the Ethics and Public Policy Center). In those places, evangelicals move past the simplistic, “The Bible said it; I believe it” mentality of the rest of the film – and present an intellectually credible and politically sophisticated voice of evangelical Christianity.
Friends of God is a well-made, well-intentioned, but ultimately distorted view of evangelicalism. Yes, there are plenty of evangelicals like those in the film. But there are also plenty who are not. What of Jay Bakker? (The recent Sundance series, One Punk Under God, is a complex and engrossing take on evangelicalism.) Jim Wallis? Amy Sullivan? Brian McLaren? Friends of God overlooks evangelical diversity – and it misses how evangelicalism is changing and often roiled in internal conflict – understandings that are needed by the “blue state” audience to whom this film is directed.
Friends of God angered me. Not because I felt attacked by the film (I’m a mainline Protestant), but because stereotypes – even subtle ones – are dangerous. To put the shoe on the other foot, much of the current dissention in the Episcopal Church is fuelled by a 30-year-old stereotype of Protestant liberalism. Conservative leaders have duped some Episcopalians into schism by scaring nice people with a stereotype of liberalism that no longer reflects the spirituality and theology of most mainline Protestants. As a result, a historic denomination is being strained, its passion for mission eroded, and its resources for charity and justice depleted. Religious stereotypes are among the most dangerous – because they corrode trust in the nation’s most faithful sources of social compassion and make a mockery of Christian witness to God’s love.
Stereotypes may entertain. And they stir up the political troops by heightening anxiety about “the other.” But they do not enable us to empathize or understand the how and why of other peoples’ lives. Without that, charity and love are impossible.
Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) was raised United Methodist, converted to evangelicalism, attended an evangelical college and seminary, and is now a progressive Episcopalian. She is the author of six books including Christianity for the Rest of Us (Harper San Francisco), a study that challenges the stereotypes of mainline Protestantism.