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.