'American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel': Film Review

American Heretics Still 2 - Abramorama Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Abramorama
A friendly conversation-starter about stereotypes tying religion to right-wing beliefs.

Jeanine Isabel Butler finds Christians bucking the conservative status-quo in Oklahoma.

In saner times, it would be strange to make a film explaining that followers of a religion based on love, forgiveness and unbounded assistance to the needy might oppose, for instance, their government's persecution of foreign refugees fleeing violence or poverty. But religion gets put to strange uses by those wielding or seeking power, so the heroes of Jeanine Butler's American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel will look to many viewers like far-fringe outliers. A useful reminder for both believers and heathens of the diversity of opinion lurking within even straight-laced churches, the documentary celebrates Christians who've followed their convictions, even when it meant leaving beloved congregations or starting new ones.

Despite what might seem to be a broad focus, the film centers mostly on a single church: Oklahoma City's Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ, led by Reverend Robin Meyers. The son of another opinionated minister — Meyers' father was once fired from a teaching post for protesting his school's segregation — he and his circle are sufficiently interesting subjects to merit a film. But the doc's tight focus gives us little idea how many similar churches exist in the U.S., or how much influence they have on mainstream Christianity.

The film does, though, speak smartly and concisely to some ways in which many Christians have developed blind spots. Seminary professor Bernard Brandon Scott points out the limits of the canonical Bible, which he calls "a fourth-century creation masquerading as a first-century eyewitness report." Accounts of Jesus' life were cherry-picked; the importance of early female Christians was downplayed; advice directed at specific congregations dealing with specific problems were presented as universal, etched-in-stone law. More might be needed here to convince a lifelong churchgoer to rethink her beliefs — the common retort is that God's hand guided the fallible humans assembling the canon — but any open-minded Christian should reckon with the ramifications of Scott's observations.

Other bits of history here should also give believers pause. Butler and her interviewees explain how, during the Civil War, the Bible used to defend slavery, ignoring passages that supported the other view — and, a century later, they show the role racism played in aligning religious leaders with the Republican party.

Back at the Mayflower congregation — which performed gay weddings long before they were legal, and embraced female church leaders when they were an anomaly — we meet Meyers' fellow minister Lori Walke and watch them lead their flock through an important decision: voting on whether to make the church an official sanctuary for immigrants fleeing deportation. (Cue a welcome quip from Scott, who observes that Jesus' parents weren't just immigrants, but unwelcome ones.)

Meanwhile, Reverend Carlton Pearson — a onetime Oral Roberts acolyte who was rejected by his community for sharing his belief that Hell doesn't exist — is reforming another Oklahoma church with a shameful history. His tale of personal transformation merits a deeper look, even if a viewer's mental alarm bells ring when Pearson predicts that congregations like his will become the next generation's megachurches. (JumboTron sermons and showbiz-like presentation seem fundamentally at odds with nuanced theological thought.)

While left-leaning viewers will respond warmly to the film's common-sense take on Christianity's core teachings, one wonders if there might have been ways to make this more palatable to audiences who have been trained for a generation to view progressives as enemies of religion. It's not hard, after all, to get art house patrons to watch a doc that challenges their assumptions; the Left Behind crowd may be just as open to a thoughtful discussion — but first you have to convince them to watch the movie.

Production company: Butler Films
Distributor: Abramorama
Director: Jeanine Isabel Butler
Screenwriters-producers: Jeanine Isabel Butler, Catherine Butler
Director of photography: Peter Hutchens
Editor: Jamie Lee Godfrey

86 minutes