A Road Trip Through Evangelical America
Alexandra Pelosi explores how evangelical Christianity is growing, but not why.
By Benjamin Shobert
You may have heard about Friends of God, Alexandra Pelosi’s intriguing documentary on evangelicalism that premiered on HBO earlier this year. Pelosi’s audience consists primarily of “blue” (as in state) residents who find modern evangelical Christianity’s political identity to be incomprehensible.
Making the introduction without making fun takes a gentle touch, and by and large Pelosi is successful in doing so. The few heavy-handed moments are when she feels the need to use a city like New York or San Francisco to zone in on a rarified populace who seemingly just cannot fathom the ways of evangelicals. In addition, the question of what, precisely, has led to the political ascendancy of a burgeoning religious movement is left largely unexplored. As such, the documentary overlooks a critical issue that encompasses questions of personal identity, cultural centers of gravity, and the shortcomings of modern thought.
Much like the recent documentary “Jesus Camp,” the commentary to Pelosi’s piece is kept at a minimum. Although she can be heard asking questions, the words of the preachers, parishioners, and politicos to stand on their own. This takes an admirable amount of restraint on Pelosi’s part considering the fact that she was directed to use a before-the-fall Ted Haggard as the gatekeeper of the internal workings of the American evangelical church.
Naturally the press was quick to pick up on the portion of Pelosi’s documentary in which Haggard goes to great lengths to argue that evangelicals have the best sex lives of any identifiable demographic! In a priceless segment, Ted asks a couple of the men he is standing with how many times a week they have sex with their wives, to which they quickly respond “at least once a day, sometimes twice.” Oddly enough, he never posed the question of how many times a day they have sex with other men…
Pelosi’s quirky journey through evangelical America reveals just how far the Christian subculture extends. Today’s evangelicals have come a long way, baby. They encompass everything from the straight and narrows to young rebels sporting long hair, tattoos, body-piercings, and couture jeans complete with un-buttoned and un-tucked shirts. “Friends of God” buzzes through Christian wrestling events and churches whose interiors come with mall-like coffee stores and retail kiosks. It makes pit stops at tortured and sadly unoriginal evangelical rock concerts that recall that memorable episode from "The Simpsons," when Ned Flanders’ girlfriend, a Christian musician, tells him the secret to contemporary Christian music is to replace “baby” with “Jesus” in the lyrics.
At Christian skate parks, Pelosi introduces us to an outreach program complete with dudes who “skateboard for Jesus.” And we meet the Christian comedian Brad Stine, who is convinced that he can not get a prime time sitcom deal because he is a Christian. As we watch Stine at work, we must allow for the possibility that not being particularly funny may be a much more plausible explanation.
Analyzing the socio-political phenomenon of evangelicals has become a popular intellectual sport. In her book Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement, Lauren Sandler, an atheist Jew, recently chronicled a similar journey through the evangelical subculture. Focusing on how the evangelicals target impressionable teens, Sandler observes how Christianity is co-opting the successful format and function of secular America, and as a result is luring kids into its orthodoxy before they gain exposure to other ideas or are able to arm themselves with critical thinking skills. Curiously, however, neither Pelosi nor Sandler stops to really explore the critical question of what needs evangelical America is answering that secular America has failed to address.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of “Friends of God “is its examination of the extent to which the evangelical movement wants to win. What seems to bother Pelosi is that this desire for victory is not about internal change but about external success; we are left wondering if the decision to adopt external cultural accoutrements is more about reaching and then transforming people, or simply being more effective at controlling outcomes. Of all the concepts that Sandler or Pelosi worry have been grandfathered from modern thinking into evangelical Christianity, the idea of marketing a product instead of a change of heart is of paramount importance. Anyone hoping for spiritual inspiration and insight is bound to be just a little disappointed when Ted Haggard bluntly likens the battle between secular and evangelical Christian America to the “Coke versus Pepsi” challenge. Evangelical politics is obviously more about crass religious commercialism and triumphalism than spiritual transformation—a dangerous road that has been taken too many times in history, with predictably disastrous results.
As evangelical Christians have gained political power, they have encountered the backlash that commonly accompanies an over-reaching beyond the comfort zone of the culture at large. This negative response has perplexed evangelicals, who view their own motives as pure and their ideas as sound. “Friends of God” poses an interesting question: if the point of current American evangelical political involvement is to “win,” what does the ultimate victory look like? What does a government who owes its power to evangelicals work towards? It becomes increasingly difficult to downplay those who fear that an evangelical movement broadly infatuated with LaHaye’s apocalyptic vision cannot be trusted to make sound policy decisions in the Middle East. Similarly, the question of where private beliefs and public law will meet for an empowered evangelical political movement leaves many, both religious and secular, understandably concerned. Successful social movements arise from unmet needs, perceived dangers, and a state of moral confusion that is susceptible to any ideology that points The Way. If “Friends of God” suffers in any one particular area, it is this: that at the end of the documentary, we are still left wondering why large portions of American culture are being drawn to evangelical Christianity. To truly understand this troubling phenomenon requires more than just an introduction to the actors and the stage upon which they try their craft.
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Benjamin Shobert is the Managing Director of Teleos, Inc., a specialist on US-China relations, and a freelance writer on culture, religion and politics. He blogs at www.MysteriousFaith.com, and his last piece for SoMA was If Dawkins Makes Sense to Me, Does That Make Me an Atheist?
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