With the 2008 US Presidential primaries underway and the inevitable Election Day looming closer, one of the major pillars at the heart of the candidates’ campaigns are “moral values”. These moral values are usually synonymous with religious belief—which usually translates to the religious beliefs of the extreme Fight.
No stranger to road trips or documentaries, the daughter of Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sets out on a trek through the heartland of the US in Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi. Having traveled on the campaign trail with George Bush for her Emmy-nominated documentary, Journeys With George, and once again on the Democratic campaign trail circuit in 2004, Pelosi parlayed these experiences into not just another documentary, but also a book, Sneaking into the Flying Circus: How the Media Turn Our Presidential Campaigns into Freak Shows.
This time around, Alexandra Pelosi captures her scamper through Red State territory, documenting both quaint and even kitschy slices of life along with much larger, more culturally reaching aspects of Evangelical Christian society. Concisely packed into a 56-minute package, Friends of God takes on the feel of an actual road trip. Pelosi recognizes that the devil is in the details, her camera capturing such seemingly innocuous roadside attractions as Bible-themed billboards lining the highway’s sidelines with messages like “Evolution is Science Fiction”, “Evolution is From the Devil”, and random outdoor advertising messages from some PSA copywriter posing as God.
Other less abrasive messages come in the form of social gatherings based around specific fandoms, such as “Cruisers For Christ”, a Christian car show; Battlecry, a ministry run by and for skateboarding enthusiasts; and the CWF, the Christian Wrestling Federation led by promoter/wrestler Rob Vaughn, who wrestles under the ring name, “Jesus Freak”, combining WWE-like sports entertainment with a gospel message.
Another roadstop attraction visited by Pelosi is The Holy Land Experience in Jerusalem, FL. An authentic New Testament experience which transforms a local Florida resort into the Jerusalem in the actual time of Jesus Christ, this theme park purports a family-friendly atmosphere for those who choose to incorporate their beliefs, even into their vacation.
Perhaps inspired by the busy lifestyle of multi-tasking Americans today, Richmond, Virginia boasts a Drive-Thru Church, set up with a window to get your gospel in the same way the same way that some get their Big Mac attack on. Regardless of how novel some of their approaches may be, there is a certain earnestness that those sponsoring these faith-based activities operate with, seeming to genuinely want to spread positive belief and connect through common interests.
The real meat and potatoes of Friends of God, however, focuses on the church practices and practitioners of the Evangelical branch of Christianity. Playing a large role in Pelosi’s documentary is Pastor Ted Haggard, former head of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). While on the surface, it may seem that the religious Right may be just a part of “fringe culture”, there are (according Haggard in this documentary) between 50 and 80 million Evangelical Christians living in the United States.
Encouraged by their faith and several of their pastors to “vote Biblically”, Evangelicals (more commonly known as “Born Again Christians”) have a significant say in shaping US policy, not just in the voting booths, but as members of the current administration. According to Friends of God, there are more Evangelical Christian politicians in Congress, Senate, and even at the Executive Branch of government than any other administration in history.
While Pelosi attempts to portray Evangelicals in as unbiased a light as possible, there are times when even she is overcome by the hard-sell approach of many believers. Even before Pelosi points it out to him, it’s rather plain that Pastor Ted is perpetually smiling…Even when he’s uneasy or angry. For the most part, Haggard speaks in glowing terms of his Colorado Springs congregation, with 16,000 people packed into its arena-style “modern mega-church” each weekend. Not much different than a rock concert or the rabid (yet completely unexplainable) fanbase of Celine Dion, footage shows worshippers rocking out to Christian music and touting church on a Saturday night as “the only place to be”.
Objectively speaking, it’s not difficult to understand where Evangelical Christians are coming from. Their reactions to their faith aren’t much different than someone speaking passionately about their favorite rock group or the rush concertgoers feel when seeing a band live concert. In this case, their favorite rock star happens to be Jesus. By portraying this, Friends of God attempts to show that common ground exists between Evangelicals and secular America.
On the other hand, when Pastor Ted opens up his mouth to “coach” his congregation not to appear “bizarre” to camera crews or on the premise that “Evangelical Christians have the best sex life of any other group”, it only makes any previously existing divide even larger. In a particularly cringe-worthy moment that is potentially uncomfortable for all involved, Haggard corrals a few male congregation members and gets them to proclaim to Pelosi that they get it on at least twice a day, their wives are always “satisfied”, and extol the virtues of procreational extracurriculars.
Making things a bit more uncomfortable and again, negating any sense of common ground, Pastor Ted speaks of his congregation in a manner that issues a sharp divide between “us” and “them”, all while displaying his superlative dental work “It is a training camp (for spiritual warriors). We have our ideas and are promoting them. Just like any liberal state campus university campus is a training camp of ideas to promote liberalism over Evangelical Christianity.”
It is interesting to note that this was filmed only months before Haggard was deposed as the head of the NAE for sexual misconduct, soliciting a male prostitute and attempting to purchase crystal meth. Remember, kids, “Haggard” rhymes with “Swaggart”.
It’s not just Haggard who espouses further, borderline militant alienation from secular society. Ken Horn’s group, Answers In Genesis, is bent on refuting the theory of evolution. As revealed in Friends of God, over 54 million people over the age of 18 do not believe in evolution. Answers In Genesis starts ‘em young with a children’s workshop, presided over by Buddy Davis and his catchy ditty, “Behemoth Was a Dinosaur”, relating that the gigantic creature from the Book of Job was actually a holdover from the days of the dinosaurs, in spite of the fact that science, so far, has proven that the giant lizards and humans did not coexist in the same era.
Neither side seems to budge on the issue of Creationism vs. Evolution, and the debate over Pro-Life and Pro-Choice is yet another divisive factor. The late Reverend Jerry Falwell offers that “you can’t be Christian and Pro-Choice”. As another religious/political hotbed of controversy, gay marriage and how the church addresses homosexuality is put into focus, thanks to the Reverend Mel White, Falwell’s former ghostwriter who was excommunicated from the community because he is gay. White, visibly moved in his portion of the documentary, still attends church in spite of his alienation, nothing it’s “better to listen and know their agenda” than to stick one’s head in the sand and ignore the hurtful things said.
Ironically enough, the voice in the documentary with the most rational outlook on the current situation of commingled religion and politics does not come from a theologian, politician, or church leader. In fact, the healthiest outlook of those profiled in Friends of God belongs to Brad Stine, the self-proclaimed America’s Conservative Comedian. Stine boils it down by saying that “When I’m performing, I’m a preacher. But when Chris Rock does it, he’s a social commentator. Everybody preaches. Every time Bruce Springsteen writes a song… he’s preaching. That’s okay! Everybody stands for something and tries to persuade. That’s the American Way. All I’m asking is that liberals let me have my point of view. Because that’s what ‘liberal’ is supposed to be.”
While the film underscores the sharp division between Red- and Blue-State (of mind) ideologies, it only begs the question of why there can be no middle ground rather than directly answering it or even attempting to answer it. Why is it so difficult to be a Christian and still believe in Darwinism? Why can’t there be room for theology and science to co-exist? While Evangelicals call for religious tolerance, there does not seem to be much tolerance for those who don’t fit their agenda.
Accounting for a significant percentage of American society, Evangelicals are still not the vast majority of Americans, but are gaining steam. While it would be hypocritical to discount their faith and the importance it holds in their everyday lives, many other sects of Christianity, other non-Christian based faiths, and agnostic or atheist Americans shouldn’t be steam-rolled over, either. That’s not to say that there aren’t militant factions in each of the aforementioned groups who are equally vehement about blanketing society with their personal beliefs. It’s a matter of perspective.
With Friends of God, Pelosi encourages viewers to draw their own conclusions and questions. Although it initially attempts to be unbiased, there is something of a liberal slant to the documentary. Again, it’s all a matter of perspective, depending on which side of the fence you sit on—or if you’re that rare conscientious objector to the shenanigans of both sides. Regardless, Friends of God is well done and delivers the viewpoints of many voices in this uniquely American portrait.