“American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel” is a documentary about an idea that’s now such a contradiction in American culture that it has come to feel like an oxymoron, or maybe an M.C. Escher brain teaser: liberal Christianity. I mean liberal in the classic sense (per Webster’s: “marked by generosity…associated with ideals of individual especially economic freedom [and] greater individual participation in government”), and I also mean Christianity in the classic sense (the teachings of Jesus Christ). It’s far from counterintuitive to point out that those two things actually fit rather well together.
So why is the political face of Christianity in the United States today exclusively, and dogmatically, Republican? Is it because Jesus himself would have cheered on tax breaks for corporations? Or would have embraced New York Times headlines like “‘There is a Stench’: Soiled Clothes and No Baths for Migrant Children at a Texas Center”? (Oh, sorry, I forgot: Jesus would never have read The New York Times. He’d be a Fox News Messiah all the way.)
The central figure in “American Heretics” is Dr. Robin Meyers, the senior pastor of the Mayflower Congregational UCC Church in Oklahoma City, Okla., who wrote the fearless book “Why the Christian Right is Wrong” and has a singular knack for using words to reveal the bent morality of those who would claim the moral high ground. “The interesting thing about people who say they’re certain,” he observes, “is then you need no faith.” He’s talking about those on the right who have transformed Christianity into a closed system, a faith-based version of circular reasoning that reduces the world to two camps: Join with us, or you’re the enemy. But Meyers is also referencing what Christianity was before the absolutists got their ideological mitts all over it: a religion of mystery, of doubt as well as faith, of pain as well as salvation.
The new mass fundamentalism doesn’t hide its priorities. They’re as real as the 40-karat rotating globe that sits behind the superstar preacher Joel Osteen during his megachurch sermons. (Jesus would have looked at that aspirational luxury orb and wept.) But in demonizing the Democratic Party, the Christian right has made it virtually impossible for liberal Christians to declare their faith in an organized fashion without feeling like…well, heretics.
Jeanine Isabel Butler, the director, co-writer, and co-producer of “American Heretics,” shot her movie in Oklahoma because it’s one of the reddest states in America, without a single county that voted for Obama (or didn’t vote for Trump). The religion in Oklahoma is largely Southern Baptist, and Meyers, who has the high whitish hair and avuncular beard of an aging Christian summer-camp counselor, says, “I’m always joking that in Oklahoma you can be a Democrat or you can be a Christian, but you can’t be both. That would be peculiar.” But it’s the conviction of Meyers, and of other Oklahoma gadflies with congregations who the film profiles, that the movement of Christians against the Christian right is more than an anomaly — it’s an earthquake waiting to happen.
Bishop Carlton Pearson, a fourth-generation Pentecostal who was the associate evangelist on Oral Roberts’ TV ministry during the ’70s, is now a liberal outlier, and he says it makes total sense that Christianity has forged an alliance with Donald Trump, since Trump comes close to the image of an angry vengeful (white) god that the new Christianity, with its “very parental and very punitive” model of morality, is selling. Pearson was a rising star of televangelism until he embraced the gospel of universal reconciliation and began to downplay the centrality of hell in Christian theology. In truth, there isn’t much of an image of hell in the Bible; most of the imagery we think of comes from Dante. But Pearson became a pariah, even within his own family, although he speaks here with great eloquence of finding “a new spiritual paradigm,” and predicts that churches like the Mayflower will be the new megachurches in the next 10 years.
“American Heretics” is, among other things, a fascinating history lesson, especially when Bernard Brandon Scott, professor emeritus of Oklahoma’s Phillips Theological Seminary, discusses the ways that the codification of Evangelical righteousness is based on deeply flawed notions of how those certainties first came into being. Scott, who’s like a wilier Joseph Campbell, talks about what a scrappy and disparate and, at times, random document the New Testament is — and makes the point that the be-all-and-end-all faith now placed in the Bible as the defining totem of Jesus’ teachings is misplaced, since the Bible as we know it didn’t even exist until several centuries after Jesus’ death. Scott points out that in the formative years of Christianity there were female apostles, as well as images in catacombs all over the world of women praying. But that image of a devout woman as the archetypal Christian began to be suppressed with the council of Constantine, who sought to unify the Roman Empire and used the Nicene Creed as a thunderous manifesto that shifted Christianity from a religion of doing to a religion of, simply, believing.
“American Heretics” is eye-opening, but it’s never explosive. What it shows us is several devoted men, and one devoted woman, the Reverend Lori Walke, trying to lead a movement by staying true to their own idealism. Yet the film shies away from showing us the conflict between liberal Christianity and the target-happy forces of the Christian right. In this movie, the movement that was started by leaders like Jerry Falwell in the late ’70s consists of people who have sold out Christianity (and maybe themselves) by turning it into a moral and political battering ram. It would be foolish to deny, though, that they’re more mesmerizing than the do-gooder heroes. It’s far more dramatic and commanding to see them flip “compassion” on its head, turning it into a movement of showbiz wrath, than to watch a bunch of true Christians try and save the world the old-fashioned way, one soul at a time.