Carl Christman, writer/director of the documentary Selling God, answered my questions about his film, an exploration of the way that fundamentalists market their religion.
How did you come to this project?
My films are a form of catharsis. I have many opinions about the major issues in life and feel the overwhelming desire to share my ideas. In past films I have dealt with War and Patriotism (Freedom Fries) as well as Terrorism and Fear (Culture of Fear.) The topic of religion seemed to be worthy of discussion.
How do evangelicals differ from other religious groups in spreading their religion?
Most religions movements work to spread their message. What sets the evangelical movement apart, and prompted me to focus on it in this film, is the skill with which they do it. They have very effectively used all forms of media and marketing to get their message out.
Are evangelicals successful in converting outsiders? In retaining those who grew up in the faith?
Judging by the continued growth and increased power of the evangelical movement I would say they are very effective at converting outsiders.
What do they consider the biggest threat to their way of belief?
There seems to be a feeling among many evangelicals that they are under attack from secularism. Since secularism is basically defined as being non-religious this means that religion is under attack from non-religion. Since three quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christian, however, I do not see Christianity as being in any danger.
Are they a political force?
The evangelical movement is definitely a political force. Evangelicals make up roughly a quarter of all Americans. This is a highly prized demographic for politicians and has tipped the balance in many elections.
How are some evangelicals like people who market books or music or other consumer goods?
My point in this film is to show how the marketing of religion is very similar to the marketing of anything else. The same techniques are used whether one is selling clothing or cars, soda or salvation.
Who do you think is the audience for this film?
Selling God has different audiences that watch the film for different reasons. Those that are not religious are likely to view it from the outside as a critique on the evangelical movement. Evangelicals are likely to watch the film and relate to the examples I offer, often on a personal level. In talking to people that grew up in the various denominations I dealt with in the film I found that they were amused by my unique take on the religious customs they had often taken for granted.
Did the evangelical community respond?
Most of my evangelical friends thought this was a thought-provoking critique. They did not necessarily agree with all of my conclusions, but they certainly enjoyed the process of exploration.
Do you see hypocrisy in the way that Christianity is marketed?
I do not see the marketing of Christianity as hypocritical. There is nothing that I am aware of in the tenets of Christianity that opposes marketing. Many people will not like talking about Christianity in terms of marketing, because they view it as being above such earthly techniques. I, however, have enjoyed applying the well-known consumer paradigm to the world’s largest religion. Hopefully this film offers a unique perspective on religion.
What good works do the members of this community support (other than trying to make converts)?
The Christian community has established many important institutions that improve all of our lives. I went to Christian schools from pre-school through college and I now teach at a Christian university.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in making the movie? What surprised you?
The biggest challenge in making this movie was trying to get access. Much of the footage I wanted to use was not easily available and many of the people I wanted to interview were not willing to speak with me. When I did have people welcome me with open arms it really stood out. I remember being outside the local Unitarian Church getting some shots from the street. When some of the parishioners saw my camera operator and myself outside, they invited us into their church, allowed us to film inside and spoke with us about their faith. I found their openness very refreshing.