Oh, to be a “liberal” Christian in Oklahoma, where, as the song almost says, “the dogma’s as high as an elephant’s eye,” and because its believers envision a life in the sky.
“American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel” finds isolated outposts there, where courageous preachers can’t help but take the argument that God isn’t a Republican right to its most fervent believers.
Filmmakers Jeanine Butler and Catherine Butler visit a couple of urban congregations in this mostly rural “reddest of red states,” talk to pastors, a theologian, a state representative and others, all in an effort to define what “politics” attach themselves to the founders of Christianity, and how that differs from the Evangelicals who have defined Christianity as a patriarchal, hierarchical “parental and punitive” religion, which it wasn’t as related in the stories of the Bible.
As the film’s theologian, Dr. Bernard Brandon Scott says, quoting Luke 12:57 — “Why do you not judge for yourself what is right?”
The movie is framed by events at one of the most “liberal” congregations in the state, Mayflower Congregational (UCC) Church in Oklahoma City.
When Rev. Robin R. Meyers, who later was the author of “Why the Christian Right is Wrong,” arrived, he ran into trouble right off. Merely referring to the church as “liberal” was verboten.
“Liberal” means “tolerant” and “open minded” to him, he explained to irate congregants. It means “The Hated Other” to much of Fundamentalist America, especially in The Sooner State.
“In Oklahoma, you can be a Democrat, or you can be a Christian,” he jokes that he learned. “But you can’t be both.”
“American Heretics” profiles several folks you might describe as Next Generation Fundamentalists. They’re willing to go back into the historical record, parse the Bible for ways it is out of date (“Slavery was totally OK in the Bible.”) and ways it has been twisted by the schismatic Southern Baptists, still, in their eyes, re-fighting the Civil War in modern America.
“Nobody has the absolute truth,” Rev. Meyers says. “That would be idolatry…If you say you’re certain, then you need no faith.”
Robert P. Jones, author of “The End of White Christian America,” serves up a history of Evangelic political activism, how “17% of the population, 26% of voters in the last election” were energized by the Bob Jones University inter-racial dating ban lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982. Jerry Falwell, who had been sharply critical of preachers using the pulpit for politics when it was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urging a “march to the ballot box,” dove in head first.
This population is “over-represented at the ballot box” Jones notes, and in state legislatures, where states such as Oklahoma have long standing “chaplain’s opening prayer” policies designed to exclude other religions, and have become even narrower in giving that forum to conservative Evangelicals in many states.
One of the “Heretics” profiled here is Lori Walke, and we see her struggle — she’s a co-pastor at Mayflower and married to a Democratic legislator — to get equal time before Oklahoma’s legislators, where she offers up her prayer for tolerance, help for the underprivileged, urging votes that will create a Biblical “city upon a hill” to people who have cut education and social services funding and stymied efforts to raise the minimum wage.
The most chilling footage in “American Heretics” isn’t still shots from the infamous “Tulsa Race Riots” of 1921, which was actually a white lynch mob that destroyed the city’s black business district and killed many of its residents.
No, after hearing that this is a “family values” state that is at war with families, seeing the capital rotunda, where the names of inhuman giant companies are carved into its walls — Halliburton, Phillips Petroleum, Hobby Lobby Stores — simply hurts the heart, and makes one wonder “WTF, OK?”
Walke, a one-time college basketball player, remembers the day she knew she had to find a new church, hearing a preacher blistering New Orleans by saying Hurricane Katrina was “punishment from God” for the city’s sins.
We hear disgraced former attorney general Jeff Sessions quoting St. Paul that “God has ordained the government for His purposes,” urging obedience to a system that has rendered America’s divide between rich and poor the greatest in its history, see samples of the fire-and-brimstone rage of vintage sermons at the birth of The Moral Majority and the snide, crude jokes of its current leading light, Jerry Falwell Jr.
The natural reaction for most would be despair. What if all of America turns into Oklahoma?
Then Bishop Carlton Pearson of All Souls Unitarian in Tulsa tells his story. He was first lieutenant to Pentecostal populist Oral Roberts, preaching and leading the choir on national telecasts, moving out to his own church but still all but the anointed successor to Roberts.
Roberts, he says, was an “underdog who rooted for the underdog.” Little of this cozying up to the cynical, rich and powerful of the Falwells and Robertsons. Roberts wasn’t determined to be a kingmaker like those two most famous of his peers.
And then we hear how Pearson got into trouble. He dared tell his Tulsa congregation that “Hell does not exist.”
We’ve already heard Dr. Scott takes us back to that hot button issue for Christian fundamentalists, the Emperor Constantine’s Council of Nicaea, where whole books of the then-new Bible were tossed out. The absence of the Book of Mary helped erase centuries of female involvement and leadership — documented in crypt and catacomb painting — from the newly, more patriarchal Church.
Scott has made the case that this council and the “Nicene Creed” that came from it “invented Christianity,” shifting the Jewish teachings of Jesus, a religion of “”praxis,” your belief is what you do, your actions, to a Christianity of “belief” — what you say you believe is what matters.
And as Pearson and Scott point out, the Hell of Fundamentalism, with its fear and retribution, pretty much doesn’t exist in the Bible in any form.
There is a “Politics of the Gospel,” everybody here argues. And it’s not the one that’s holding the stage and the media’s attention via white Evangelical Protestants and their adoration of a “vengeful god figure,” Donald Trump.
That’s a lot of ground to cover in a 90 minute documentary, and “American Heretics” leaves much merely uncovered, not wholly explored. The filmmakers say they reached out to Oral Roberts U. and others for balance, but nobody from the comswrvstove doce took them up on their offer. A few detours turn into blind alleys, though the sermons and music served up here are uplifting and entertaining.
An interesting device is using the debate in Mayflower over whether to become a “sanctuary church” for immigrants to frame the last half of “Heretics.”
The Butlers’ film deserves a place in the growing national conversation about what has happened in America with the cultish connection between white Evangelicals and the most godless person ever to hold high office in the U.S., the damage they’re doing to society, the economy, the environment and their own faith with their slavish desire to simply “own the libs” via their embrace or tolerance of treachery, bigotry, intimidation and treason.
“American Heretics” shines a light on those who would be a candle in the midst of the Medieval darkness of modern, white Southern American Christianity.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Credits: Directed by Jeanine Butler, Catherine Butler.
An Abramorama release
Running time: 1:27