“Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab . . . ” ( Num. 22:21ff )
Alexandra Pelosi, who took her handheld camcorder on the campaign trails of George W. Bush in 2000 ( Journeys with George , nominated for six Emmy Awards) and Democratic presidential wannabes in 2004 ( Diary of a Political Tourist ), has now taken a two-year road trip across sixteen of the Red States hunting down evangelicals. Having done two documentaries on politics, Pelosi wanted to do one on that other socially taboo subject of dinner talk: religion. And with all the chatter about their pivotal role in the election of Bush II, what better group to look at than evangelicals? Her latest, Friends of God (the title is taken from Israel Houghton’s praise song that serves as a background wash for the documentary), is now available to one-third of American households, as HBO plays it through the month of February. It’s causing a bit of a stir.
The New York Times (registration required) calls it a "breezy, colorful reminder of how George W. Bush became president . . . and why Democrats didn’t win an even greater landside in the 2006 elections." While complaining a bit about the superficiality of Pelosi’s work ( the Los Angeles Times (subscription required) is blunter, calling it "patronizing"), the San Francisco Chronicle generally applauds her portrayal of the folks who "shop at strip malls, eat at fast-food restaurants and don’t own a passport." Pelosi’s evangelicals are mindless, something both the Washington Post and Variety echo when they describe them as "indoctrinating" their children. The papers on both coasts see the evangelicals Pelosi films as potentially "dangerous" and "sometimes scary as hell."
Focus on the Family apparently agrees . It has shot back with a press release saying that Pelosi’s film makes evangelicals look "kooky or scary" and, in so many words, accuses her of being a purposefully deceptive leftist, a "graduate of the Michael Moore School of Documentary-Making." Even her camera angles are part of the plot, calculated to distort the faces of her subjects. The Rev. Rick Scarborough of Vision America says the film is "an attempt to denigrate evangelical Christians . . . a cleverly packaged assault, designed to undermine the valuable contributions to our country of 80 million Bible-believing Americans."
There’s so much to talk about here: the ignorance of the media, the bigotry of New York and San Francisco regarding the rest of the country, the politics of HBO, etc., etc., but I’d like to stick to Pelosi and "us”: those of us who call ourselves Evangelicals, and Evangelical with capital E, because the Evangelical part of our self-identification is more important than the "Methodist" or "Baptist" or "Christian and Missionary Alliance" part. "Us," "we," the folks in this particular part of the human zoo that Pelosi visited, how well do we recognize ourselves in her film?
Of course, the portrait Pelosi gives of us isn’t complete. Although billed as a documentary about religion, it’s mostly about politics, since Pelosi chose to visit only those states that Bush carried. From the outset, this makes her view of Evangelicals a bit more politically colored than it needs to be; the apolitical World Vision, for example, certainly should have been visited, but, with their offices in Blue State California (L.A., to be exact), the billion-dollar mission wasn’t part of her brief.
She also chose to spend a lot of time with the ministers Ted Haggard, Jerry Falwell, and Joel Osteen. And while I might wish that she had visited with some serious Red State Evangelical intellectuals—Wilfred McClay of the University of Tennessee; Niel Nielson, president of Covenant College in Georgia; or Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, among others—these gentlemen simply aren’t as familiar as the then-president of the National Association of Evangelicals, the founder of the Moral Majority, or the pastor of the country’s largest church. (Pelosi’s film was completed and edited before the business of Haggard’s adultery become public.)
Black, Hispanic, and Asian Evangelicals are also largely ignored. But Pelosi is also generous with her omissions. She makes no mention of our various financial scandals, the tendency of some of our organizations to become multigenerational family businesses, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, or Ralph Reed.
Although incomplete, it’s a fair picture. Pelosi simply drives around with her camcorder and asks us questions, letting us speak for ourselves. And the portrait she assembles is put together kindly and without malice. I think her documentary is a gift. We all need to see it. It’s a gift from the Lord.
But it’s a deeply painful gift. Here’s a scene that appears fairly early in the film. Pelosi has been interviewing Ted Haggard at his church in Colorado Springs. After some initial conversations and views of worship, Pelosi includes this scene shot in the church parking lot. Haggard is with two other men, both apparently in their late twenties. Pelosi is off-camera.
Haggard (to Pelosi): You know, all the surveys say that Evangelicals have the best sex life of any other group.
Pelosi: Oh, come on.
Haggard: Oh yeah.
Pelosi: No way.
Haggard: Oh yeah. Well, let’s just find out. ( turning to Man #1 ) How often do you have sex with your wife?
Man #1: Every day, twice a day.
Haggard: OK, twice a day sometimes. ‘K. ( turning to Man #2 ) How about you?
Man #2: Every day.
Haggard: OK. Every day. ( to Man #2 ) Let’s say, out of one hundred times when you have sex, what percentage does she climax?
Man #2: Every one.
Haggard: Every one. ( turning to Man #1 ) How about you?
Man #1: Definitely, yeah, every one.
Pelosi: These guys, who would have thought these are a bunch of studs? Look at ‘em.
Man #1: That’s right.
Pelosi: Look at that. We got to join this church. There’s a lot of love in this place!
Haggard: There’s a lot of love in this place. And you don’t think that these babies just come out of nowhere do you? ( Haggard smiles broadly and laughs )
Understandably, this scene is mentioned in almost all discussions of Pelosi’s film. (Focus on the Family, however, ignores it.) It was even included in the January 22 promo aired by Good Morning America (although with the references to orgasm omitted). For us to watch it in any context is disquieting. Watching it knowing what we now know about Haggard’s adultery is heart wrenching. What was he thinking? What were they thinking?
Of course, Haggard wasn’t thinking. He was feeling. And he was feeling great. And so were the guys with him. And that’s the problem. We, "us," the Evangelicals with the capital E , have become thoughtless, sensualistic braggarts. For some time, we’ve been accused of being simply thoughtless—an unfair charge (Jonathan Edwards was an evangelical after all) but a charge with some truth to it. But what doctrinal rigor we might have had has been progressively smothered by sensuality draped with arrogant irresponsibility. We don’t think; we feel. If it feels right, it’s the Lord’s working, and if it’s the Lord’s working, we can be proud of it. Pelosi lays it all out for us to see.
Pelosi visits Rob Vaughn, of the Christian Wrestling Federation, who apparently sees nothing thoughtless in encouraging junior-high kids to come cheer violence for an hour so they can hear him tell about the Prince of Peace for ten minutes. She questions the heavily pierced high school student who wants to win a Nobel Prize for disproving evolution but who apparently sees nothing odd in his neo-pagan self-mutilations (mutilations his Celtic ancestors abandoned when they were saved). She films the church presentation of the anti-Darwin evangelists who, while promoting clear thought, teach the absolute certainty of the co-existence of dinosaurs with Adam and Eve and proclaim ( proclaim is the operative word, because there’s a song that goes with it) that the Behemoth of Job 40:15 is a sauropod because "the Bible says so" (well, maybe, but probably not).
She visits " Holy Land " in Orlando. Rather like Porky Pig toddling through nearby Fantasyland, an actor costumed like the Jesus on the cover of the old "Living Bible" walks the streets of a pretend Jerusalem, quoting Scripture. Pelosi’s camcorder picks up no one showing any signs of disquiet at this strolling impersonation of He who will come to judge the quick and the dead.
There is the youth evangelist Ron Luce, who appears undisturbed by the thought that the enthusiasms generated by his team’s nocturnal mass rallies might simply be the predictable outcome of Nazi stagecraft mixed with Dionysian opera (and oblivious to the notion that some folks, living in an age of real religious war, might be unsettled by the name he gives to these rallies: Battle Cry ).
And then there’s Pastor Ted, who thinks (or at least thought) that one of the clearest proofs of the Lord’s blessing is a great sex life. The possibility that it might be deeply indecent for a Christian minister ever to ask a man to reveal the most intimate nature of his relationship with his wife in front of anyone else—let alone in front of a camera—is apparently not within his ken. And the idea that these men should protect their wives’ privacy and refuse to answer isn’t in their ken either. They boast about their . . . well, you fill in the blank (we’ve all been in locker rooms). It feels so great. It’s all for the Lord. High fives, everybody.
Getting back to politics: Pelosi interviews Falwell at his college in Lynchburg, Virginia. "Evangelicals are the largest minority block in this country," he tells her. "It’s not a majority, but I don’t think you can win without them. And I think if they unified, you’ll lose if they go against you. John Kerry learned that. Al Gore learned that. And Hillary will learn it in 2008." He tells the students at Liberty University to call their senators and press for the confirmation of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, an appointment that will help "bring American back to ‘one nation under God.’" Pelosi then follows a particularly hopeful Liberty student around a neighborhood as she goes door to door handing out political pamphlets. Evangelicals vote, and Haggard brags to Pelosi that "today there are more Christian [meaning Evangelical] senators than ever before, more Christian Congress people than ever before, more Christian staffers then ever before." He then goes on to say that the Evangelical rank and file can, and have, shut down the switchboards on Capitol Hill.
Falwell delivers a political threat and urges political pressure. The Liberty University student does door-to-door evangelism for political issues. Haggard speaks of power in the halls of Congress. And there’s talk of "war" and "taking back" America for God.
But for Evangelicals, America was never "ours" in the first place, at least ours in the sense that Spain belonged to the Romans or Scotland to the Kirk. We are, or at least were, "bound for a promised land." And when we sang, "Oh why don’t you come and go with me?" we were singing about Beulah, not Bakersfield. We would sing about standing up for Jesus and being "soldiers of the cross," but the territory we sought to conquer was the human heart, and the "stand" we were taking was a sacrificial stand.
We did door-to-door evangelism, but it was for the eternal kingdom, not the Republican party. And we sought to fulfill the Great Commission, not by badgering Senate staffers, but through prayer. And if we were to boast, it was "In the cross of Christ I glory." After all, how "could he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?"—hard for worms to brag with a straight face, or at least with a dirty one.
But we’re worms no longer (even the Southern Baptists have expunged that word from Isaac Watts’ text). We’re "friends of God." And I want to go back to the hymn Pelosi begins her documentary with, sung (and swayed to) by worshippers at Joel Osteens’ Lakewood Church. Here are the lyrics:
Who am I that You are mindful of me
That You hear me when I call
Is it true that You are thinking of me
How You love me, it’s amazing.
I am a friend of God
I am a friend of God
I am a friend of God
He calls me friend.
Lord of Glory,
You have called me friend.
He calls me friend.
[repeated, a lot]
It’s a scene familiar to any Evangelical. As standard as the Venite was in Morning Prayer, our worship now begins with twenty minutes (sometimes more) of uninterrupted praise choruses like this one lead by a rock band onstage (the production Pelosi tapes is actually rather tame; the megachurch down the street from me uses dry ice and lasers). The tune is infectious, the words few and easily memorized, and the message upbeat; you feel great singing it. And it’s kinda scriptural.
Kinda. James 3:23b quotes Jehoshaphat’s plea for the Lord’s intervention (2 Chron. 20:7), where the king calls the people of Israel "the descendants of Abraham thy friend." In his high priestly prayer, Jesus calls his disciples "friends," but his salutation is conditional: "You are my friends if you do what I command you," and it’s delivered within the context of the Lord’s preparation for his crucifixion; friendship requires obedience and sacrifice (John 15:14).
But the king’s startling honorific for Abraham is for the patriarch alone. The title was peculiar to him and based upon his obedience. Jesus’ invitation to friendship is open to all, but it, too, is based on obedience and, in the context of John, obedience even until death. The scriptural formula appears to be obedience, suffering, then friendship. And that pattern has been an important teaching Evangelicals have shared with other Christians (look at all those "cross" hymns we used to sing). But there’s not a hint of that pattern in this song. Instead, there’s the suggestion that friendship with God is our right simply by being human. By only referencing the scriptural pattern in part, the song distorts it in whole. And, at least in Evangelical circles, distorting the Bible is supposed to be a big problem.
But while the song distorts the Bible, it’s true to the way we tend to live. I am a friend of God. I am a friend of God. I am. I am. I am.
The Tetragrammatron, the Name of God, made into a mantra, applied to us. I am. I am. The blasphemy is an accident of thoughtlessness, but, like the Freudian slip, it reveals to us an aspect of our character. I love how I feel about God. I love the great sex I have because of God. I love the power I yield in God’s name. I adore “the me” that God made. I am . . .
We scoff at Shirley MacLaine running into the surf and joyfully shouting "I am God, I am God!" But when Haggard boasts about our great sex, and Falwell crows about our political power, as we sway like Dervishes chanting mantras, we don’t look that different from her—just drier and not as pretty. We’ve become sensualists, aesthetes, untroubled by either self-reflection or accountability.
As if to drive home this point, the most sinister fault Focus on the Family finds in Pelosi’s documentary is an aesthetic one. Her camera angles do not flatter her subjects; we’re not handsome enough. FOTF is silent about Falwell’s politically motivated insult to Senator Clinton (demeaningly calling her by her first name) and Haggard’s assault on the privacy of the marriage bed. The silence about Falwell and Haggard is shameful, and the complaint is absurd, as if anything other than the magic of the WETA Workshop could make Falwell not look like Boss Hogg of Dukes of Hazzard fame (and, for the record, I look a lot more like Boss Hogg than I do Cousin Bo).
Pelosi does provide reprieves to this sorry picture of spiritual etiolation, though. There’s the sweet old minister who sits with Pelosi in his car and tells her, with tears in his eyes, about "his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (He erects monumental white crosses near interstate exchanges, each cross costing him about $30,000 out of his own pocket.) And there’s the lady in a drive-up teller booth who simply offers to pray with anyone who wants to spend a few moments with the Lord: Drive up, roll down the window, pray, and drive away. And there’s the Mennonite mother with ten children in Tennessee who speaks honestly of being frazzled by the work but still uplifted by the Lord. But in Pelosi’s film, as in our culture, those folks are being pressed to the margins by the other Evangelicals—the big churches, the big programs, the big visions.
Yes, we can see ourselves in Pelosi’s film, but a lot of what we see should make us wince. We’ve forgotten the Scriptures and allowed ignorance to characterize our preaching, and delirium our worship. In our confidence in God’s grace, we have become presumptuous in our salvation. And we’ve too often confused salvation in heaven with right voting on earth. We need to change. We need to repent.
Pelosi isn’t a liberal out to get us. Although from a branch of Catholicism that is incomprehensible to many of us (she describes herself as coming from a religious Catholic family where everyone went to Catholic school but "we were never told gay was wrong, or abortion was wrong, or evolution was wrong"), she told the Advocate , the country’s leading LGBT news outlet, that she has nothing but admiration and respect for Evangelicals. Although part of that admiration comes from her sense of Evangelical leaders’ ability to mobilize large numbers of people for political purposes (I think she still sees us as rather like Bolshevik cells), much of her admiration comes from her growing sense of the importance of faith in her own life.
She and her husband had their first child in November, and, having left the Church, she’s expressed her intent to come back to it. And when asked about the "culture wars," Pelosi said, "If I have to take a side in the culture wars, I would choose their [the Evangelicals’] side. As long as Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan are on the front page of the magazines, I would much rather my child be in church with Jesus than at a Britney Spears concert."
Pelosi is our friend, and she has done us a great service, if we’re willing to listen. Which brings me back to Balaam’s ass, the story from the Book of Numbers cited at the top of this post. How cheerful is the mercy of the Lord, who places in our wayward path the daughter of the Democratic Speaker of the House and commands the ass to turn and speak!
Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.