Richard Land was skeptical when he first approached Mel Gibson's controversial film, "The Passion of the Christ." This was, after all, a film made by a traditionalist Catholic who attends Mass in Latin and seems to think salvation is harder -- if not impossible -- for non-Catholics.

"I watched it very carefully for creeping excessive Catholicism," saidLand, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious LibertyCommission. "And I didn't see it."

Land is now one of the film's biggest supporters, along with thousandsof evangelical Christians who have embraced Gibson's film about the deathand resurrection of Jesus.

Gibson has virtually ignored the Catholic hierarchy and instead marketedhis film almost exclusively to evangelicals, a well-organized audience oftrue believers that promises to turn the film into box office gold when itopens Feb. 25.

In the process, he has forged an unorthodox alliance that delicatelysidesteps decades of divisions on issues that reach to the very heart ofevangelical theology -- how a person attains salvation.

Land said his enthusiasm for Gibson's film should not be interpreted asa blessing on the strict Catholic theology that inspired the $30 millionproject.

"If he wanted to be a deacon in my church, I wouldn't let him. If hewanted to be a member of my church, I wouldn't let him," Land said. "Butthen again, he probably wouldn't want to be a member of my church."

In a recent interview with an Australian newspaper, Gibson mused aboutwhether his wife, an Episcopalian, would enter heaven. "There is nosalvation for those outside the (Catholic) Church," he told the Herald Sun."I believe it.

"And it's just not fair if she doesn't make it, she's better than I am.But that is a pronouncement from the chair (papacy). I go with it."

In an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer on Feb. 16, Gibsonappeared to soften his views, saying he and other Catholics probably have"an easier ride," but said it is "possible" for even non-Christians to getto heaven.

Gibson belongs to a small sect of "traditionalist" Catholics who rejectthe modern papacy and the 1960s reforms of the Second Vatican Council thatmodernized the church and tried to heal divisions with Protestants and Jews.

Most Catholics view traditionalists with equal parts curiosity anddistrust -- Gibson's father, for one, has questioned the Holocaust andcalled the 1960s Council a "Masonic plot backed by the Jews."

In a 1965 overture to Jews, the Council said Jews cannot be "chargedwith the crimes committed during his (Jesus') passion." Since Gibson rejectsthe Council, some Jewish groups grew nervous that the film blames Jews forthe Crucifixion, a charge that has fueled anti-Semitism for centuries.

From all accounts, there is nothing explicitly "Catholic" about thefilm, although Catholics may notice subtle references to the Stations of theCross, or the prominent role given to Jesus' mother, Mary.

Indeed, the significance of the film's release date on Ash Wednesday --a day of penance sacred to Catholics -- could be largely lost onevangelicals whose liturgical calendar consists mostly of Christmas, Easterand maybe Good Friday.

Gibson has said he drew on the mystical writings of a 19th centuryGerman nun, Anne Emmerich, for inspiration, a source that would beautomatically suspect with evangelicals who rely solely on the Bible.

More than a few evangelicals, who have been suspicious of Catholicismfor decades, might also wonder if Gibson's salvation is in peril as a memberof the Catholic Church. The film's supporters say, despite their views, theyare content to leave Gibson's salvation between him and God.

"We have Christians who are going to heaven who are Catholics, andChristians who are going to heaven who are Protestants," said the Rev. JerryJohnston, pastor of First Family Church in Overland Park, Kan., which bought4,000 tickets to the film.

"This isn't a two-hour story about the conversion of Mel Gibson. It'sabout the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ."

Dan Southern, president of the American Tract Society and a veteran ofBilly Graham crusades, agreed.

"Sometimes we're so fixated on people's labels that we forget that Godlooks on the heart, and he alone knows if a person has had a personaltransaction with him on faith," he said.

The differences on salvation are subtle, yet substantial. Evangelicalsgenerally believe salvation begins with a decision to accept Jesus as saviorbased on faith alone, while Catholics lean more to a lifelong conversionthat is evidenced by good works.

Mark Silk, director of the Center for the Study of Religion in PublicLife at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., said the two sides share morethan a "marriage of convenience" on Gibson's film.

"Traditional Catholic spirituality sort of bathes in the blood andinvolves an intense identification with Jesus and his suffering," Silk said."This intense, over-the-top emphasis on the suffering Jesus is somethingthat also works quite well for evangelicals."

The relationship has been nurtured over the years by a united front inthe culture wars against abortion and gay rights. Fifteen years ago, theyrallied together against another film, "The Last Temptation of Christ,"which both sides denounced as heresy.

Deal Hudson, editor of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, saidthe film has captured a "traditional understanding of Christianity" that isincreasingly rare in pop culture.

"What you're seeing is ... a venting of pent-up frustration from yearsof having artistic depictions of Christianity coming exclusively from thosewho try to make it some object of criticism," he said.