“The Armor of Light” is a documentary of faith, a film about a dramatic conversion.
The Rev. Rob Schenck doesn’t find Jesus over the course of it. He’s been an evangelical preacher for decades and a mainstay in the modern anti-Abortion movement for almost as long.
What filmmakers Abigail Disney and Kathleen Hughes capture — apparently, at his invitation — is his come-to-Jesus moment over guns. How can a Christian, this lifelong committed ultra-conservative wants to know, a preacher whose “natural constituency” is “evangelical…Tea Party Republicans,” reconcile the unholy alliance between the National Rifle Association and Christianity, “Thou shalt not kill” with “Thou shalt carry, openly or concealed, a gun?”?
The 50something Schenck is shown, in archival footage, deeply involved in strident protests over abortion, protests connected with the radical Operation Rescue anti-abortion group. He is not quite able to shrug off one widow’s blaming him for espousing the beliefs that got her doctor-husband murdered.
“People under my spiritual care are capable of this,” he says of the activist turned murderer who killed that Buffalo doctor.
He ministered to the Pennsylvania Amish families whose school-age daughters were murdered by another woman-hating nut with a gun fetish. Mass shootings, school shootings, they take on toll on Schenck’s psyche.
But it wasn’t until the Navy Yard mass shooting in Washington, where he has his Ten Commandments-fronted lobbying office, that “I realized, I have to address this.”
We see the preacher get acquainted with his subject — going to a rifle range, trying out pistols, a shotgun and an assault rifle. He wants to understand their appeal.
He tests his new thinking out on “my focus group,” the evangelical preachers he represents and ministers to as part a national organization of such denominations. We see white preachers, male and female, younger and old, frown, fold their arms and rationalize their interpretation of the Second Amendment to the Ten Commandments and the New Testament.
Disney and Hughes’ film ties Rev. Rob’s spiritual quest to Jordan Davis, a teen murdered in Jacksonville by a hothead who emptied a pistol into the SUV the kid was in because he and his friends were playing their music too loud. Rev. Rob has to meet Lucia McBath, Jordan’s mom. Can this pro-choice black Christian mother find common ground with a white ultra-conservative preacher closely tied to a group who — its critics say — is bent on the reactionary return to a patriarchal church having control over women?
“The Armor of Light” isn’t a mind-changing documentary. But Disney/Hughes’ film suggests that Schenck’s conversion is the beginning of an attempted unwinding of “a Faustian pact” (his words) between the NRA and evangelical Christianity.
He’s a smart guy, knows the history of evangelical politics, from Democrats supporting Jimmy Carter to the Jerry Falwell-Pat Robertson push into Republicanism, backing Ronald Reagan, and the way Reagan tied his flock to the NRA, a sportsman’s organization taken over by big money from the gun manufacturers. He recognizes “the racial component” to all this. Black evangelicals may share abortion and gay rights views, in some cases, with white ones. On guns? When he speaks to them, he sees how they’re poles apart.
The film can seem self-serving, as Schenck brings a film crew along to his debates with evangelical braintrusts and swims against the current of his own constituency. The most shrill figures in the movie are NRA chief Wayne LaPierre, and hearing his word-for-word “Good guys with guns/more polite society” etc. talking points parroted by the combative Troy Newman of Operation Rescue lays out the problem, plain and simple.
But we appreciate that it takes guts to “speak truth to power” on this subject to this crowd, and we see the scowls as this passionate preacher turns on the heat on allies who had never questioned his wisdom, reason and debating skills before.
Will he get anywhere? Will he be ostracized? Will he have a constituency when all is said and done? The NRA takes out politicians. Lobbyist preachers are no different.
But it’s fascinating to see this subject tackled in this way by this corner of the population, or at least one member of it.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic content and brief strong language
Cast: Rev. Rob Schenck, Lucia McBath, John Phillips, Troy Newman
Credits: Directed by Abigail Disney, Kathleen Hughes, written by Abigail Disney. A Fork Films release.
Running Time: 1:28