[3 May 2010]
The subtitle of Dan Merchant’s documentary Lord Save Us from Your Followers is the same as that of his 2008 book of the same name: “Why is the gospel of love dividing America?” Answering that tough question is Merchant’s goal for the film and the goal of his costumed alter ego, Bumper Sticker Man.
In his Bumper Sticker Man get-up, Merchant covers himself with religious slogans and iconography from a variety of beliefs in an effort to display how Americans too often distill complex issues into sound bites and catch phrases. I have to hand it to Merchant since he makes a good point, and I doubt many people would argue that bumper stickers are the proper way to debate such issues as evolution and abortion rights. However, Lord Save Us from Your Followers is only a call for expanded dialogue, not one itself. Merchant dodges some of the touchier issues and sometimes the documentary comes off as glib and superficial as the stickers on his jumpsuit.
Lord Save Us from Your Followers is divided into two sections, the first of which is almost exclusively comedy and in some ways resembles an America-specific version of Bill Maher’s Religulous. The big difference, of course, is that Merchant and Maher’s views are polar opposites. Himself a Christian, Merchant openly admits that he disagrees with most of what Maher thinks but does cede that the comedian’s criticisms aren’t too far off the mark. Merchant’s thesis is that modern American Christians are their own worst enemy. More specifically, the more vocal minorities in Christianity are the problem – the voices of condemnation that drown out those calling for acceptance and love.
Merchant does several man-on-the-street interviews as Bumper Sticker Man and concludes that it is not the message of Christianity that bothers people, it is the Christians. Merchant then abandons his costume for more insightful interviews with Senator Al Franken and Red-Letter Christianity founder Dr. Tony Campolo. Franken humorously recounts some of his run-ins with hard line Moral Majority members and Campolo reiterates that the critics of Christianity often have a good point.
At its midpoint, Lord Save Us from Your Followers shifts gears from poking fun at those extreme voices responsible for the bad PR to some serious suggestions on how to change that perception. His first point is that most conservative Christians know little to nothing about the viewpoints of those they oppose. To illustrate this, he stages a Family Feud style game show pitting “liberals” against a team of Christians and Republican leaders, during which the liberals win handily, even in categories that would seem to favor the Christians. Merchant then moves on to examples of Christians that have moved beyond politics and “culture wars” to achieve more acceptance for Christian goals: Bono, Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, and Rick Warren.
In Lord Save Us from Your Followers’ final, touching scenes, Merchant begins to illustrate what he feels the path forward should be by setting up a booth at a gay pride festival to apologize to homosexuals for the poor treatment they’ve received from American Christians. His “confessional booth” is a success in that it opens up the dialogue that the film endorses.
Lord Save Us from Your Followers calls for the removal of politics from the religious dialogue in America. I found myself agreeing with this idea, but unable to shake some misgivings about the manner in which Merchant presents it. No one would disagree with Merchant’s call to emphasize love and charity over division, but his idea of how the conversation should take place shortchanges those on both sides of the debate and side-steps many, if not all, of the issues that are the sources of that division.
Lord Save Us from Your Followers reiterates the Christian tenants of love and unity, but does not address or attempt to reconcile the internal divisions within the church. Merchant spends a good deal of time during the film’s first half showing “what not to do” via clips of Fox News and Ann Coulter. He makes light of the fact that he’s essentially taking the same position as non-Christians in denouncing the opinions these bad examples espouse, but he ignores the fact that there is obviously a segment of the population (Christian or otherwise) that agrees with them, given their popularity. The film asks viewers to ignore them rather than giving tips on how to respond to them; an idea that runs counter to his call for an honest debate of the issues. It seems like Lord Save Us from Your Followers is content to simply state that Christianity’s critics have a good point, but not to explore how to fix the points they raise.
Additionally, Merchant seems to take a view of non-Christians as simply misled, perhaps by the distorted views of the church’s message from those he mocks in the film. It’s evident that his eagerness to have a more open discussion of religious issues comes from his belief that, when the message is presented properly, non-Christians would choose to become Christians. This immediately dismisses the view of anyone who has made a conscious and thought-out decision to be Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, atheist or any other faith. Merchant suffers from the same inability to see the other side’s point of view that he chides Christians for in the second half of the film. For him, Christianity’s critics are always attacking the messengers, not the message, and he uses some questionable logic in citing the percentage of Americans who believe in a higher power (nine out of ten) as proof of how many people would be receptive to the church’s message.
Both of the above criticisms are symptomatic of Lord Save Us from Your Followers’ main problem of ignoring the same issues Merchant wants us to discuss. Abortion, evolution, and equality in marriage rights are all mentioned as potential topics of discussion, but Merchant gives no guidance as to how that discussion should go or what to do once an impasse arises. Perhaps Merchant simply does not realize how difficult it would be to remove these hot-button issues from the political arena.
He certainly displays a large amount of naiveté on the issues with his inclusion of former Senator Rick Santorum as one of the Christians calling for a more inclusive and compassionate message You will recall that Santorum’s views on same-sex marriage and abortion were a factor in his defeat, something that Merchant whitewashes as being due to a Democratic resurgence and not Santorum’s fault. Merchant fails to understand that even in a civil discussion there may eventually be disagreements that have to be reconciled.
The flaw with Lord Save Us from Your Followers is ultimately the same flaw of any exclusively political or religious documentary in that it is mostly preaching to the choir. Many of the issues I had with the film stem from the fact that it is tailored to a very specific audience: white, liberal, suburban Christians. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but that specificity excludes not only non-believers but some other Christians, as well.
Take for example Merchant’s animated explanation of the problem of denominational divisions. To illustrate his point, Jesus Christ is depicted as a Frankenstein’s monster, complete with neck-bolts and a flattened head. It’s not hard to imagine some Christians being unhappy or even offended by that image and it is as likely to make them tune out of Merchant’s message just as a non-believer would at being called “simply confused”. Ironically, Lord Save Us from Your Followers is too busy pointing out everyone else’s flaws to see its own – the exact same fault it ascribes to the church.