“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.