By KIMBER MYERS
AUG. 1, 2019
With news coming in a constant deluge, even political junkies can find it difficult to think about anything other than the present — and the next presidential election. But the documentary “American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel” doesn’t just look at the current situation and the entanglement of government and religion; it illuminates the origins of their relationship with insight, as well as centering on a single state: Oklahoma.
Though more Americans identify as nonreligious than ever before, the Bible Belt still lives up to its name in many ways. However, not every person of faith adheres to the idea that Christians must also be conservative. In the Sooner State, the film follows Bishop Carlton Pearson (the subject of the Netflix drama “Come Sunday”), the Rev. Robin Meyers and the Rev. Lori Walke as they each champion progressive causes such as civil rights and fighting poverty, remaining true to their interpretation of the Bible while often coming into conflict with the solidly red base that surrounds them.
“American Heretics” could benefit from a more structured and focused approach, but director Jeanine Butler and her sister and producing partner Catherine Lynn Butler tackle the issue with equal parts intellect, empathy and faith. For anyone interested in politics, religion, American culture or the ever-overlapping space they occupy, this documentary has the potential to move hearts and minds.
‘American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel’
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 7 only, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica
The first church to marry gay couples in Oklahoma. The merging of a congregation founded by a white supremacist with the members of a black Pentacostal congregation. The film American Heretics explores the complexities of religious life in the Bible Belt as it intersects with politics and race.
In spite of all the weird ways the word has been abused since the 2016 elections, I think of myself as a liberal. As a basic value, I try to be open-minded. And like many liberals, I live in a big, liberal city where I rarely meet anyone who doesn't share my values, religious outlook, and political beliefs. As a result, like it or not, I'm in a bubble. And when I'm not being careful about it, I'm vulnerable to seeing "the Bible Belt" and the American South as one monolithic, mostly white, evangelical, anti-abortion, Christian Right-leaning mass. As some kind of living history exhibit of a past us New Yorkers have left behind.
And I know lots of people in some of the same bubbles I occupy who are quick to point to religion as the cause of horrors throughout human history. People who see reason and science as progress, religion as unequivocally retrograde, and who point to data showing that people everywhere are getting less religious as a hopeful sign that humanity might be moving in the right direction. But just as it doesn't have a monopoly on morality, religion doesn't have a monopoly on intolerance. And reason alone can't give us values like love and kindness. Religion's one of many ways that people organize their lives and like everything we make, it's subject to both our courage and our cowardice. The best and the worst of us.
A recent Pew survey says that 63% of Americans believe in God. In Bible Belt states like Oklahoma, where that number is much higher, there are fierce political battles going on for control of the Christian narrative—pushback against fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible as aligned with conservative republican values. These battles, invisible to most of us out here on the coasts, are the subject of AMERICAN HERETICS, a powerful new documentary by my guests today, Jeanine and Catherine Butler.
An educational and intriguing exploration of progressive Christians attempting to reclaim the radical potential of their faith.
Film Review by Micah Bucey
Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers
At the start of Jeanine and Catherine Butler’s spirited documentary American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel, the Christian Bible is described as both a “damaged ecosystem” and a “moving target.” Both descriptions prove apt as the film proceeds to interrogate just how brutally the teachings of Jesus have been misused and abused over millennia. But what could have simply been a classically disheartening assessment is instead populated with interviews with several courageously progressive pastors and historians, creating an uplifting portrait of how a transforming and transformative liberal (meaning “marked by generosity and open to new behavior or opinions”) Christianity is alive and well, despite the fact that the loud, condemning voice of the conservative Christian “Right” continuously hogs center stage in United States politics.
Rev. Lori Walke
As it tours Oklahoma, one of the U.S.’s reddest states, American Hereticsdoes not shy away from revealing the hypocritical views and actions of conservative Republican Christianity, but it wisely keeps its primary focus on the open-hearted and open-minded generosity of its liberal main subjects, most notably Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers, the fierce Senior Pastor of Oklahoma City’s Mayflower United Church of Christ; his courageous associate Rev. Lori Walke; the fearless Bishop Carlton Pearson, who fell from fundamentalist grace when he led his congregation through a questioning of the existence of Hell; and Dr. Bernard Brandon Scott, professor emeritus of Oklahoma’s Phillips Theological Seminary, who gives much-needed historical and Biblical context in a radically matter-of-fact fashion.
Bishop Carlton Pearson
The film functions more effectively as education than it does as as entertainment. Those looking to lose themselves in the famously showy and self-assured shenanigans of Jerry Falwell and his conservative compatriots will not find many fundamentalist fireworks to savor. But those looking for a well-paced primer on histories of Christianity, faith formation in the United States, and political and racial injustices in Oklahoma will be rewarded with edifying facts and glimpses into deeply faithful compassion that leave a much-needed sense of hope in its wake.
But even as it focuses on hope, American Heretics never feels falsely saccharine. Among the authentically inspiring narratives on display are Rev. Meyers and Walkes’ leading of their game congregation in a vote to become part of the growing Sanctuary church movement, and their relationship with an undocumented Guatemalan mother seeking help for herself and her son; Bishop Pearson’s transformation from disgraced Oral Roberts’ acolyte to a celebrated leader in Tulsa’s All Souls Unitarian Church; and Dr. Scott’s bite-sized lectures on the origins of Christianity, including the leadership roles of women and the shifty way that the Biblical canon intentionally left out voices that existed in more egalitarian times for the budding Jesus movement post-crucifixion.
Dr. Bernard Brandon Scott
These faithful outliers have made their homes in Oklahoma, a state which is predominantly Southern Baptist, bears an extremely troubling history of white supremacist violence, and contains no counties that voted for Barack Obama or that didn’t vote for Donald Trump. Some viewers might at first wonder why they wouldn’t just pack up and head for less tumultuous terrain. But American Heretics shows, in both grand ways and in disarmingly intimate ways (such as when Rev. Walke visits her devoutly Southern Baptist grandmother), that these rabble- -rousers are right where they belong, not simply hiding behind doctrines, but putting their actions where their faith is, and remaining open to continual transformation.
Even as they commit themselves to social justice, resistance, and restoration, each protagonist reveals a deep humility and curiosity (characteristics that are unfortunately not often assumed in the common profile of modern Christians). At one poignant moment, Rev. Dr. Meyers says, “The interesting thing about people who say they’re certain, is then you need no faith.”
American Heretics is a potent reminder that radical spirituality is better embodied as a window open to possibility than a door concretized by certainty.
When Americans talk about "Christian movies" or "Christian bookstores" or "Christian media" or anything like that, it's a sad statement that what they actually mean, mostly, by "Christian," is right-wing evangelical literalism. You're not going to find a John Shelby Spong book in most supposed Christian bookstores, but it's a near-certainty they'll be stocked up with Dr. James Dobson. "Faith-based" films take great care never to include elements that would put off the televangelist set, because every once in a while you get a movie like The Shack which, while devoutly pro-God, depicts God appearing as three different human beings in the main character's dream. And because, even in a dream, God-made-man can only appear as Jesus Christ, per the literalist take, this made it bad. There is a significant religious left, but in general they're not as vocal and visible as the rightists, perhaps because they don't feel the same mandate to win converts. And without big donors like Mike Rinder, they make movies like American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel on a budget of $700,000, start to finish, for release in three theaters this week, and seven more in the coming months.
If this is a topic that already interests you, odds are you've clicked on Facebook stories from groups like Kissing Fish that deal individually with some of the issues found herein. You might know, for example, that American Protestants used to think abortion was strictly a Catholic concern. You're probably aware the Southern Baptist church originally defended slavery, or that Bob Jones University being forced to allow interracial dating was a turning point that turned evangelicals into activists for "religious liberty," which most often means the right to discriminate based on your stated faith. But you may not have seen it all coalesce into one coherent argument, as seen mostly through the eyes of one Reverend Robert Meyers, who tries to start a liberal congregation in Oklahoma, deemed the reddest of red states by the filmmakers.
All the usual theological arguments for a loving rather than discriminatory faith are here, as is Carlton Pearson, the former Oral Roberts protegee who was excommunicated for saying that no just God could send unbaptized babies — or anyone else, for that matter — to Hell. (The Lion King's Chiwetel Ejiofor played him in the movie Come Sunday.) Religious conservatives will surely call the movie one-sided, and they're right: onscreen text at the end of the movie states that numerous conservatives were invited to give their perspective, and declined. It's a shame we don't see the debate between both sides more often, but as long as the default understanding of "Christian" in America means conservative, the right has no motive to allow people to possibly think otherwise. They'll tell you Democrats were the ones defending slavery, conveniently without mentioning that Democrats were the religious fundamentalists back then.
But it's not all preaching. Peter Hutchens' cinematography paints a picture of Oklahoma and the other red states as a visual paradise in summer, marred (or improved, if some of you like) only by the occasional garish displays of Scripture and Republican Christian imagery.
When the conservative anti-abortion movie Unplanned was coming out, a common refrain heard among its supporters was, "See it for yourself, and make up your own mind." It'd be nice to think they'd do the same for something like American Heretics, but I suspect they will not.
The Pro-Immigrant Bible-Belt Preachers Standing Up to Trump’s Xenophobia
The new documentary ‘American Heretics,’ now playing in theaters, follows a group of Oklahoma preachers who feel Christianity’s embrace of Trumpism is a step too far.
Updated 07.13.19 4:46AM ET / Published 07.13.19 4:33AM ET
America’s political polarization is a pervasive fact of 21st-century life, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is taking it lying down—including, stunningly, in the heartland of the conservative Christian right.
American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel, now playing in theaters, is a documentary about a handful of Oklahoma preachers who are taking a stand against what they see as the radicalization of their faith. That open-minded priests, and congregations, exist in the U.S.—championing more liberal interpretations of the gospel, and conceptions of the Almighty—is not breaking news. Yet Jeanine Isabel Butler’s film remains an eye-opening look at iconoclastic men and women who are going back to the biblical source in order to reclaim Christianity from extreme Evangelicals, who they argue have found, in President Trump, an ideal figurehead for their warped religious views.
The senior minister of Oklahoma City’s Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ, which is dedicated to preaching the Bible’s foundational lessons of compassion and charity, Reverend Robin R. Meyers suggests early on in American Heretics that Donald Trump is beloved by Evangelicals because he embodies their idea of an Old Testament-style God who’s angry, unforgiving and vengeful. Moreover, Meyers maintains that the commander-in-chief’s popularity is wrapped up in white Christians’ belief that their time as a popular American majority is coming to a close—a notion that, coupled with their traditionalist cultural values, has pushed Christianity into ever-more-radical terrain. Especially when it comes to politics.
Meyers and his colleague Lori Walke contend that they’re not interested in promoting politics from the pulpit, insofar as that means directly advocating for Democratic or Republican platforms. Instead, per American Heretics’ subtitle, they’re all about preaching the politics of the gospel—i.e. returning to the Good Book and adopting what it says about how to treat one’s fellow man, and how to live a just and moral life. As Meyers avows, he has no interest in becoming a mouthpiece for a particular party ideology. He does, though, think it’s vital for preachers to use the Bible as a vehicle for investigating the pressing problems facing Americans today—a process that, by its very nature, is inherently political.
Located deep in the Bible Belt—Oklahoma didn’t have a single county go for President Obama during either of his two presidential campaigns, whereas all of its counties went for Trump in 2016—Mayflower is a liberal outpost behind enemy lines. Valuing people’s literal actions more than their convictions, it opposed the Iraq War back in the early-2000s, and began issuing gay marriage licenses (and performing ceremonies) before it was legal to do so. In its later passages, Butler’s film depicts a vote conducted by Meyers and Walke to determine whether Mayflower should become a sanctuary church for undocumented immigrants. By a 2-to-1 majority, its parishioners ratify that measure, deciding that the Bible’s principles command them to protect those in need (and suffering from persecution), no matter the potential legal ramifications.
Given that its purview is broader than this single topic, American Heretics isn’t capable of addressing the complications of the immigration debate. Consequently, its snapshot of a single mother struggling to care for her ill child while facing the threat of deportation—and Meyers and Walke’s efforts to help her—comes across as a cursory footnote. Nonetheless, Myers and Walke’s stance on this issue is emblematic of their forward-thinking approach to Christianity, which bucks the movement established by Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts in the ‘60s and ‘70s that’s now spawned our present mega-church-dominated Evangelical environment.
The rise of the radical white Christian right is a concurrent focus of American Heretics, which alongside its concentration on Meyers and Walke’s philosophy, also spends considerable energy—via talking heads, and the usual collection of archival material—detailing the evolution of Southern religious dogma during the 20th century. That historical recap proves a handy, if somewhat hasty, primer designed to provide context for today, and the forces that Mayflower opposes. And it’s also complemented by commentary from Bernard Brandon Scott, a longstanding Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Oklahoma’s Phillips Theological Seminary, who discusses the ancient origins of the Bible and how they run contrary to current Christian-right opinions—including with regards to immigration, which Scott says is supported by the Bible because Jesus, Joseph and Mary snuck into Egypt, and thus were illegal immigrants themselves.
Carlton Pearson in American Heretics
American Heretics’ most fascinating figure turns out to be Carlton Pearson, who rose to Evangelical prominence during the ‘80s and ‘90s as an acolyte of, and chosen successor to, Oral Roberts. In old TV clips, Pearson is seen preaching the gospel with an intensity that’s infectious, commanding the stage in front of thousands. Now at 66 years old, however, Pearson is the affiliate minister of Tulsa’s All Souls Unitarian Church, where he counsels a far different congregation—one whose membership, per the sign on the door, includes “everyone.” That shift was the result of Pearson’s realization, in the mid-‘90s, that he didn’t agree with Christianity’s conception of a God that wanted to punish non-believers by dooming them to eternal torment in Hell. When, through research, he opted instead for a doctrine of inclusion, he was dubbed a heretic and ostracized from his flock—thus opening a new door on a more empathetic faith.
Pearson’s story is compelling proof of genuine religious transformation, and that by hewing closer to the Bible, fundamentalists can become more tolerant (and, dare one say, liberal). American Heretics, unfortunately, skimps a bit on Pearson’s journey, which is all the more frustrating in light of its final scenes regarding All Souls Unitarian Church, which play as runtime-padding filler. Even those minor missteps, though, can’t neuter the film’s inspiring advocacy for a devout Christianity that’s in tune with both scripture and modern attitudes about equality and kindness. For Meyers and company, the politics of fear—against any number of “others”—are in direct opposition to the teachings of Christ. And embracing His values, even in the center of red-state America, is not only possible but necessary if one covets a truly righteous future.
Review by James Lindorf
Earlier this month we celebrated the 243rd birthday of our nation, and since its inception, while not officially linked, religion (specifically Christianity) has been woven into its political fabric. In her latest documentary, Emmy Award-winning Director Jeanine Butler contrasts religion’s role in American politics and the politics described within the bible. Featuring reverends, bishops, members of the Oklahoma state congress, and doctors of theology, American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel seeks to challenge what we think we know about the Christian heartland.
American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel is the spiritual successor of the 2007 documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, which focused on religion’s rejection and acceptance of homosexuality. This movie focuses on a total inclusion movement being led by two progressive churches in the heart of Oklahoma. While meandering from topic to topic, the film serves as a captivating history lesson about our country and Christianity as a whole. Dr. Reverend Robin Meyers and Reverend Bishop Carlton Pearson are inspirational speakers; however, it is the theological breakdowns by Dr. Bernard Brandon Scott that showcases the origins of the hypocrisy.
American Heretics is frequently eye-opening but lacks the teeth to be genuinely jaw-dropping. Numerous experts passionately but calmly discuss how accidental and intentional misinterpretations have led to the othering of the majority of the world’s population by white Christian men without really naming names. Everyone on the other side of the argument that they reached out to declined or did not respond, so without them there to defend themselves, it may have put the creative team in an ethical quandary. Perhaps it was an active decision to try and be more welcoming to the people who need to watch the film, so they don’t continually feel attacked. For the viewers already on their side, once you look past the educational elements, it is not much more than confirmation bias. Abramorama and Butler Films invites everyone to experience the gospel for themselves when American Heretics hits theaters on July 12th.
American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel, directed by Jeanine Isabel Butler, is yet another new documentary about the changing role of religion in American society. However, as the title would suggest, the film and its subjects are more concerned with politics than they are with anything else, and the result is a mostly entertaining documentary.
This movie follows a group of Christian ministers and congregations who take a stand against the religion’s fundamentalist status quo to promote a form of the religion with more diversity and inclusivity. The catch? These ministers are working in Oklahoma, in the center of the Bible Belt, where the pushback is sure to be the most severe.
As a result, there is plenty of conflict to be shown in the film, and it is surprisingly cinematic. We get to see both external conflict with fundamentalists who are trying to fight back against the subjects (including a riveting case study involving a female minister who is trying to lead prayer at a state Senate meeting) and the internal conflict within the congregations as they try to decide between the Christianity with which they grew up and the Christianity which they now know.
The filmmakers also do an excellent job of making this movie feel not only relevant to modern politics, but also strikingly urgent. Topics addressed by the film range from gender equality to the immigration crisis. Particularly in relation to the latter topic, this documentary feels important because it explores the ethical implications of both sides of the argument in a way that is earnest and thought-provoking.
In terms of pacing, the movie is mostly very solid. Butler has cut the movie together in a way that the different stories blend together seamlessly. Though it will (accurately) seem like this film has bitten off a whole lot to chew, it manages to balance all of its themes and subjects effectively and with enough depth to make the end result feel substantial.
The main subject, Dr. Reverend Robin Meyers, is presented in a way that is quite interesting and sympathetic way. Even if you don’t agree with all of his political beliefs, it will be hard not to admire what he is trying to do in order to make the world a better place. Other interviewees and subjects, such as Reverend Lori Walke and Reverend Bishop Carlton Pearson, are also compelling, even if they aren’t developed with as much complexity.
On a technical level, the film was also quite good. The story is told mostly through interviews and fly-on-the-wall footage with a bit of archive material thrown in when necessary. Butler opts for a more straightforward and simplistic style, which benefits the movie in the long run, as it allows the story and subjects to speak for themselves.
Although American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel doesn’t reinvent the wheel of political/religious documentaries, it is still compelling and meaningful. This film is very much designed to be impactful in this day and age, so definitely check it out if you get the chance.
American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel is now in theaters.
(2019) Documentary (Abramorama) Robin Meyers, Carlton Pearson, Marlin Lavanhar, Lori Walke, Bernard Brandon Scott, Nehemiah D. Frank, Robert Jones, Colin Walke, Nicole Ogundare. Directed by Jeanine Isabel Butler
It is no secret that religion has become a powerful political force in 21st century America. While the Founding Fathers touted a separation of church and state (and Jesus himself believed that one should render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and render unto God what was God’s), in more recent days the Evangelical right has become, if you’ll pardon the expression, hell-bent on rewriting history and turning their faith into a de facto state religion.
American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel is a documentary that attempts the difficult task of examining the role of religion in modern politics and how God became a Republican. They center largely on liberal-leaning Robin Meyers, the pastor of the Mayflower Congregational United Church of Chris Church in Oklahoma City. Author of the book Why the Christian Right is Wrong, he is a jovial sort who often jokes “In Oklahoma, you can be a Democrat or you can be Christian. You can’t be both – it’s just peculiar.” He and his associate minister Lori Walke (unusual enough that she is a female minister in a profession dominated by men) and the Reverend Dr. Marlin Lavanhar, pastor of the All Souls Unitarian Church, are bastions of liberalism in a largely conservative pastoral community.
Oklahoma is perhaps the reddest of the red states, with every single county having voted for Donald Trump in the last Presidential election and for Mitt Romney in the one previous. The state is overwhelmingly Southern Baptist and to a very large extent that is who seems to be the driving force for the political arm of the Christian right.
However, as theologian and historian Dr. Bernard Brandon Scott of the Phillips Seminary in Tulsa and one of the world’s foremost scholars on the Apostle Paul and his works. He reminds us that the modern Bible is essentially a “4th century creation masquerading as a 1st century eyewitness report,” referring to the Council of Nicea called by Emperor Constantine of the Holy Roman Empire to consolidate the Bible into a single version with agreed-upon chapters rather than dozens of different versions each with their own set of writings. Several gospels, such as the Book of Mary, were permanently removed, remaking the Church into a patriarchal enterprise whereas earlier women were a big part of the movement as crypt paintings and early Christian artwork shows.
Dr. Robert Jones also moves into more modern history, depicting the rise of Jerry Falwell and of politically-motivated pastors and the groundswell of the religious right that became a large part of the Tea Party and now the base that drives the Republican party. The movie also unflinchingly looks at the role of racism in the religious right, concentrating on the Greenwood Massacre – locally and incorrectly referred to as the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 – in which a thriving African-American community called Greenwood, also known as the “Black Wall Street,” was burned to the ground by an angry white mob.
This becomes truly evident in the Mayflower’s decision on whether to become a sanctuary church for those fleeing deportation. In Oklahoma, most pastors would say that there’s no decision whatsoever – sanctuary churches run counter to what modern evangelicals believe that America’s borders must be protected. One wonders what Jesus might have thought except that, as Dr. Jones points out, Jesus and his parents were unwanted refugees as well.
In all honesty the discussion is pretty one-sided here, although those with differing viewpoints were invited to be interviewed and all declined according to the filmmakers. Still, it is an eye-opening film that uses the gospels themselves to point out the inconsistencies in modern evangelical thought. The movie uses music effectively (particularly an effecting sequence in which an instrumental version of Leonard Cohen’s “Alleluia” is played) but the movie is mostly talking heads, although the conversations are incredibly important as they go to the very soul of American Christianity.
It is hard to believe that any Fox News-watching conservative Christian will be moved very much by this, although the story of former associate minister to Oral Roberts, Carlton Pearson, shows that change is possible as he takes a church whose founders were ringleaders of the aforementioned Greenwood Massacre and turned it into a church where African-Americans were not only welcomed but have become dominant. In that sense while liberals will find this documentary fascinating, I fear that it is literally preaching to the choir.
Jeanine Isabel Butler finds Christians bucking the conservative status-quo in Oklahoma.
BY JON DEFORE
In saner times, it would be strange to make a film explaining that followers of a religion based on love, forgiveness and unbounded assistance to the needy might oppose, for instance, their government's persecution of foreign refugees fleeing violence or poverty. But religion gets put to strange uses by those wielding or seeking power, so the heroes of Jeanine Butler's American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel will look to many viewers like far-fringe outliers. A useful reminder for both believers and heathens of the diversity of opinion lurking within even straight-laced churches, the documentary celebrates Christians who've followed their convictions, even when it meant leaving beloved congregations or starting new ones.
Despite what might seem to be a broad focus, the film centers mostly on a single church: Oklahoma City's Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ, led by Reverend Robin Meyers. The son of another opinionated minister — Meyers' father was once fired from a teaching post for protesting his school's segregation — he and his circle are sufficiently interesting subjects to merit a film. But the doc's tight focus gives us little idea how many similar churches exist in the U.S., or how much influence they have on mainstream Christianity.
The film does, though, speak smartly and concisely to some ways in which many Christians have developed blind spots. Seminary professor Bernard Brandon Scott points out the limits of the canonical Bible, which he calls "a fourth-century creation masquerading as a first-century eyewitness report." Accounts of Jesus' life were cherry-picked; the importance of early female Christians was downplayed; advice directed at specific congregations dealing with specific problems were presented as universal, etched-in-stone law. More might be needed here to convince a lifelong churchgoer to rethink her beliefs — the common retort is that God's hand guided the fallible humans assembling the canon — but any open-minded Christian should reckon with the ramifications of Scott's observations.
Other bits of history here should also give believers pause. Butler and her interviewees explain how, during the Civil War, the Bible used to defend slavery, ignoring passages that supported the other view — and, a century later, they show the role racism played in aligning religious leaders with the Republican party.
Back at the Mayflower congregation — which performed gay weddings long before they were legal, and embraced female church leaders when they were an anomaly — we meet Meyers' fellow minister Lori Walke and watch them lead their flock through an important decision: voting on whether to make the church an official sanctuary for immigrants fleeing deportation. (Cue a welcome quip from Scott, who observes that Jesus' parents weren't just immigrants, but unwelcome ones.)
Meanwhile, Reverend Carlton Pearson — a onetime Oral Roberts acolyte who was rejected by his community for sharing his belief that Hell doesn't exist — is reforming another Oklahoma church with a shameful history. His tale of personal transformation merits a deeper look, even if a viewer's mental alarm bells ring when Pearson predicts that congregations like his will become the next generation's megachurches. (JumboTron sermons and showbiz-like presentation seem fundamentally at odds with nuanced theological thought.)
While left-leaning viewers will respond warmly to the film's common-sense take on Christianity's core teachings, one wonders if there might have been ways to make this more palatable to audiences who have been trained for a generation to view progressives as enemies of religion. It's not hard, after all, to get art house patrons to watch a doc that challenges their assumptions; the Left Behind crowd may be just as open to a thoughtful discussion — but first you have to convince them to watch the movie.
Production company: Butler Films
Director: Jeanine Isabel Butler
Screenwriters-producers: Jeanine Isabel Butler, Catherine Butler
Director of photography: Peter Hutchens
Editor: Jamie Lee Godfrey
“American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel” shares many of its component parts—talking-head interviews, archival footage, establishing shots, eye-candy graphics—with other socially progressive documentaries. It makes passionate arguments. It offers a ray of hope. And it evokes the sense that those most desperately in need of seeing it will never cross its path.
Does that mean you don’t make the film? Or disseminate the message? Of course not. The converted—in this case, enlightened Christians—need preaching at too, especially when the message is so encouraging: Not every Christian church in the South and Southwest of the United States has made itself subservient to an administration devoted to detention camps for migrants, the concentration of wealth and the shredding of a social safety net. Not every alleged follower of Jesus has tried to torture his teachings into the opposite of what he taught. Not every religious establishment in Oklahoma—the setting of the film—is an adjunct of the Republican Party.
But it’s close. And one does wish the film were not quite so polite about the reasons why.
The words “fundamentalist” and “racist” are never uttered, and yet in the film’s efforts to define what is amiss at the intersection of religion and politics right now, those are precisely the words that could be used. As we are told, Southern Baptists are “Southern” because they needed to justify slavery. The South went Republican because a Democratic president signed the Civil Rights Act. And unblinking allegiance to the word and not the spirit of the Gospels—“Your belief is more important than what you actually do,” as one interviewee puts it—is what for the most part characterizes American evangelical Christianity.
“The message of the film is how and why the United States got where it is, with politicians who talk family values while remaining silent about incarcerated children, xenophobic immigration policies and a racist White House.”
Directed by Jeanine and Catherine Butler, “American Heretics”—something of an ironic title, to be sure—has at its center the Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, which is alternately referred to as the buckle or heart or belly of the Bible Belt. Its founding minister, the author and activist Robin Meyers, came back to his native Oklahoma 32 years ago with the plans of establishing “a liberal Protestant church” in one of the reddest states in the nation. One of the first people from whom he sought support objected to his use of “liberal”—which, as he no doubt patiently explained to her, meant “open-minded,” “tolerant” and “generous.” What word would you prefer, he asked her? “Conservative,” she said. As he tells the camera, “Welcome to Oklahoma.”
The principal figures in “American Heretics” include Meyers, his associate minister, Lori Walke, and her husband, state legislator Collin Walke, all champions of immigrants’ rights, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and the rights of the poor, in a state that seems determined to eradicate them all. An ally at Tulsa’s All Souls Unitarian Church is Carlton Pearson, a once-prominent media evangelist who had been mentored by Oral Roberts, developed a huge TV following and then was actually declared a heretic by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops for his belief in universal reconciliation and his declaration that Hell did not exist.
Pearson is a refreshingly frank observer of the conservative religious scene, as is Bernard Brandon Scott, whose contrarian views (for Oklahoma) belie his decades-long tenure at the University of Tulsa’s Phillips Theological Seminary. His students come out of a culture, he says, that is “unthinking about its Christianity,” and he no doubt gives them plenty to think about. In one archival clip meant to capture the flavor of old-time Southwest religion, the late W.A. Criswell, onetime president of the Southern Baptist Convention, can be seen declaring, “There are no historical errors in the Bible.” This can be counterposed with the historicist Scott’s conclusion that the canonical New Testament “is a fourth-century creation masquerading as a first-century eyewitness report.” Meyers’ response to Scott is that if you are so certain about the facts, “then you need no faith.”
The plotline, such as it is, is about like-minded liberal Christians joining forces in a ruthlessly Republican landscape where people talk more religion than they practice. The message of the film is how and why the United States got where it is, with politicians who talk family values while remaining silent about incarcerated children, xenophobic immigration policies and a racist White House. As a postscript tells the viewer, no one in the Oklahoma evangelical community would talk to the filmmakers (they either declined or declined to respond), so the viewer will have to make do with those open-minded, tolerant and generous people who do appear in the film—and inspire hope that in Oklahoma, at least, not every avowed Christian has either ignored their savior’s teachings or made their religion conform to their biases.
A documentary showcases progressive Christian leaders who don’t align with their state’s conservative leanings.
The Rev. Robin R. Meyers, who led his Oklahoma City congregation in a vote on whether to become a sanctuary church for undocumented immigrants, in “American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel.”CreditJason/Abramorama
July 11, 2019
American Heretics: The Politics of the GospelDirected by Jeanine Isabel ButlerDocumentary
“American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel” doesn’t break ground cinematically, but it is eye-opening in other ways. This documentary from Jeanine Isabel Butler showcases progressive Christian leaders in Oklahoma whose ideas run counter to the state’s conservative political leanings.
The Rev. Robin R. Meyers leads his Oklahoma City congregation in a vote on whether to become a sanctuary church for undocumented immigrants. The Rev. Lori Walke, who preaches alongside Meyers, describes how her beliefs evolved in college. When she delivers an invocation at the State Capitol, she reminds lawmakers of “low-income Oklahomans who need health care for their families” and of “teachers who need money, not just the motto printed on it.” Bishop Carlton Pearson, who was played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film “Come Sunday,” was deemed a heretic after he challenged the Evangelical teaching that anyone who isn’t “saved” would be condemned to hell.
Bernard Brandon Scott, a scholar of the New Testament, offers historical and biblical support for the views they express. Other illuminating material includes a discussion of the Tulsa race riot of 1921, when as many as 300 people were killed in a thriving neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street.” You might be surprised to learn that voices in the Southern Baptist Convention initially praised the Roe v. Wade decision.
A closing title card indicates that Evangelical leaders who don’t share the views presented here declined to be interviewed or didn’t respond to requests for comment. That absence leaves unanswered questions. How common is progressive Christianity in Oklahoma? The answer would provide context for Pearson’s prediction that his church and Meyers’s will be the “premier megachurches in the next 10 years.”
American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.
American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel
Director Jeanine Isabel Butler
Writers Catherine Lynn Butler, Jeanine Isabel Butler
Stars Robin Meyers, Carlton Pearson, Robin Lavanhar, Lori Walke, Bernard Brandon Scott
American Heretics: The Politics of the GospelDirected by Jeanine Isabel ButlerDocumentary
Posted on July 10, 2019
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
July 9, 2019 10:14PM PDT
Why have liberal Christians become an oxymoron? A documentary looks for the answer, all the while arguing that they may be the future.
“American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel” is a documentary about an idea that’s now such a contradiction in American culture that it has come to feel like an oxymoron, or maybe an M.C. Escher brain teaser: liberal Christianity. I mean liberal in the classic sense (per Webster’s: “marked by generosity…associated with ideals of individual especially economic freedom [and] greater individual participation in government”), and I also mean Christianity in the classic sense (the teachings of Jesus Christ). It’s far from counterintuitive to point out that those two things actually fit rather well together.
So why is the political face of Christianity in the United States today exclusively, and dogmatically, Republican? Is it because Jesus himself would have cheered on tax breaks for corporations? Or would have embraced New York Times headlines like “‘There is a Stench’: Soiled Clothes and No Baths for Migrant Children at a Texas Center”? (Oh, sorry, I forgot: Jesus would never have read The New York Times. He’d be a Fox News Messiah all the way.)
The central figure in “American Heretics” is Dr. Robin Meyers, the senior pastor of the Mayflower Congregational UCC Church in Oklahoma City, Okla., who wrote the fearless book “Why the Christian Right is Wrong” and has a singular knack for using words to reveal the bent morality of those who would claim the moral high ground. “The interesting thing about people who say they’re certain,” he observes, “is then you need no faith.” He’s talking about those on the right who have transformed Christianity into a closed system, a faith-based version of circular reasoning that reduces the world to two camps: Join with us, or you’re the enemy. But Meyers is also referencing what Christianity was before the absolutists got their ideological mitts all over it: a religion of mystery, of doubt as well as faith, of pain as well as salvation.
The new mass fundamentalism doesn’t hide its priorities. They’re as real as the 40-karat rotating globe that sits behind the superstar preacher Joel Osteen during his megachurch sermons. (Jesus would have looked at that aspirational luxury orb and wept.) But in demonizing the Democratic Party, the Christian right has made it virtually impossible for liberal Christians to declare their faith in an organized fashion without feeling like…well, heretics.
Jeanine Isabel Butler, the director, co-writer, and co-producer of “American Heretics,” shot her movie in Oklahoma because it’s one of the reddest states in America, without a single county that voted for Obama (or didn’t vote for Trump). The religion in Oklahoma is largely Southern Baptist, and Meyers, who has the high whitish hair and avuncular beard of an aging Christian summer-camp counselor, says, “I’m always joking that in Oklahoma you can be a Democrat or you can be a Christian, but you can’t be both. That would be peculiar.” But it’s the conviction of Meyers, and of other Oklahoma gadflies with congregations who the film profiles, that the movement of Christians against the Christian right is more than an anomaly — it’s an earthquake waiting to happen.
Bishop Carlton Pearson, a fourth-generation Pentecostal who was the associate evangelist on Oral Roberts’ TV ministry during the ’70s, is now a liberal outlier, and he says it makes total sense that Christianity has forged an alliance with Donald Trump, since Trump comes close to the image of an angry vengeful (white) god that the new Christianity, with its “very parental and very punitive” model of morality, is selling. Pearson was a rising star of televangelism until he embraced the gospel of universal reconciliation and began to downplay the centrality of hell in Christian theology. In truth, there isn’t much of an image of hell in the Bible; most of the imagery we think of comes from Dante. But Pearson became a pariah, even within his own family, although he speaks here with great eloquence of finding “a new spiritual paradigm,” and predicts that churches like the Mayflower will be the new megachurches in the next 10 years.
“American Heretics” is, among other things, a fascinating history lesson, especially when Bernard Brandon Scott, professor emeritus of Oklahoma’s Phillips Theological Seminary, discusses the ways that the codification of Evangelical righteousness is based on deeply flawed notions of how those certainties first came into being. Scott, who’s like a wilier Joseph Campbell, talks about what a scrappy and disparate and, at times, random document the New Testament is — and makes the point that the be-all-and-end-all faith now placed in the Bible as the defining totem of Jesus’ teachings is misplaced, since the Bible as we know it didn’t even exist until several centuries after Jesus’ death. Scott points out that in the formative years of Christianity there were female apostles, as well as images in catacombs all over the world of women praying. But that image of a devout woman as the archetypal Christian began to be suppressed with the council of Constantine, who sought to unify the Roman Empire and used the Nicene Creed as a thunderous manifesto that shifted Christianity from a religion of doing to a religion of, simply, believing.
“American Heretics” is eye-opening, but it’s never explosive. What it shows us is several devoted men, and one devoted woman, the Reverend Lori Walke, trying to lead a movement by staying true to their own idealism. Yet the film shies away from showing us the conflict between liberal Christianity and the target-happy forces of the Christian right. In this movie, the movement that was started by leaders like Jerry Falwell in the late ’70s consists of people who have sold out Christianity (and maybe themselves) by turning it into a moral and political battering ram. It would be foolish to deny, though, that they’re more mesmerizing than the do-gooder heroes. It’s far more dramatic and commanding to see them flip “compassion” on its head, turning it into a movement of showbiz wrath, than to watch a bunch of true Christians try and save the world the old-fashioned way, one soul at a time.