11 Dec Episode 96: The Christian Cinema-GOP Persecution Complex
Citations Needed | December 11, 2019 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: This is our final episode of the year 2019. Thank you, everyone, for your support this past year. It’s been an amazing year. We cannot thank you enough for continuing to listen and support us. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and please do support us through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. We are 100 percent listener-funded, so all your support is so integral to keeping the show going. Those who do support us, we cannot thank you enough as I said, and those who are considering supporting us and maybe have not yet, please do. It really does help.
Adam: Yeah, and we’re excited to come back next year, and any support you can give us on Patreon or rate us and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts is also appreciated.
Nima: The last two decades have seen the release of a number of explicitly Christian C-tier films, all of which tell stories of believers navigating the trials and tribulations — both literal and figurative — of a perceived non-Christian world. In this imagined universe, followers of Christ are constantly under siege by secularists, swarthy Muslims, gay and trans agenda-pushers, feminists, and a hostile and out-of-control federal government.
Adam: While the media usually lumps these movies into a generalized “faith” category, they are best viewed not as earnest meditations on religion or “faith,” but a political project on behalf of the Republican Party, with a distinct religious, Protestant flavor.
Nima: Today, we are going to focus on the biggest and most influential players in the “Christian cinema” space, the production company and distributor PureFlix, and Affirm, a subsidiary of Sony Pictures Worldwide. Founded in 2005 and 2007 respectively, Pureflix and Affirm embody the core ideological tropes of the American conservative base: a promotion of U.S. militarism, anti-Muslim racism, pro-capitalist messaging, hostility to LGBTQ populations, anti-Semitic Zionism, and a runaway contempt for women.
Adam: On this episode, we’ll discuss how the Christian cinema industry is not just low-budget, schlocky propaganda that’s fun to dunk on — though it is and we will in this episode, don’t worry — but something more deliberate, sinister and corrosive: state-subsidized, far-right messaging machine for American reactionaries and imperial interests.
Nima: Later on the show we will speak with author, artist and filmmaker Frank Schaeffer. Frank is the son of influential evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer. He was a fundamentalist Christian in his youth but has since left the religious Right. Frank joins us from Boston.
Frank Schaeffer: These folks were bred from their mother’s milk with the idea that the entire structure of science and its teaching of evolution or sexuality is fake and that the truth is in the Bible. So 4,000- and 5,000-year-old Bronze Age documents are somehow more reliable to them than what is happening down the road at MIT and Harvard, where I live in terms of anthropology and evolutionary psychology and so forth. So they have grown up believing that there’s an entire conspiracy against evangelical Christian worldview and that they have the real keys, whether it’s in the fulfillment of prophecy in the end times, the origins of the human species, human sexuality, and so forth and so on.
Nima: It’s hard to find specific box-office totals for Christian movies because “Christian cinema,” as an entity in and of itself, has no agreed-upon definition. Some kind of expand the term to mean a more generalized, like, films that focus on faith, could even be, like, Martin Scorsese’s Silence or Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, more mainstream but not quite as proselytizing as what we are talking about today in terms of “Christian cinema.”
Adam: For the purposes of this episode, we won’t be talking about those movies. In fact, we don’t think it’s useful to lump in those movies with what we’re calling “Christian cinema,” which is really just a proxy for white nationalism and white grievance politics. The two production companies we’ll be focusing on are the most popular, which is Affirm and PureFlix. And we think lumping them as sort of meditations on faith really kind of obscures their broader political and, I think, overtly partisan aims. So just as a little background, PureFlix was founded by David A. R. White and Michael Scott and Russell Wolfe in 2005. They’ve produced such films as God’s Not Dead (2014), Do You Believe? (2015), I’m Not Ashamed (2016), The Case for Christ (2017), I Can Only Imagine (2018), and the sleeper hit that caused a lot of controversy this year, the abortion film Unplanned (2019). The Affirm films are films like Fireproof (2008), Risen (2016), Courageous (2011), Soul Surfer (2011), and War Room (2015), many of which have been very successful over the past five to ten years. Recently, PureFlix got an injection of major venture capital. They raised $10 million and $5 million in 2017 and then another million dollars earlier this March. Whereas Affirm films is a subsidiary of Sony Pictures. It is their dedicated, quote-unquote “faith vertical.”
Nima: So, unfortunately — or maybe fortunately — we can’t cover all these films on this one episode. It is simply too much. And I will speak personally, impossible to watch that many of these films in a row for the purposes of research for a podcast. (Laughter.) So what we’re going to do today is really dive into three films. There are a number of guiding tropes that you see throughout Christian cinema. We’re going to talk about three of them on this episode using one film, kind of, per each example. There are overlaps, of course. One theme is the utmost contempt for women and a kind of macho self-help element that underlies a lot of these films. The film that we’re going to talk about in terms of that is the movie Fireproof from 2008.
Adam: Then we’re going to discuss the prevalence of antisemitic Zionism and U.S. imperialism, and we’ll do that in the context of the John-Hagee-co-produced and co-written film Jerusalem Countdown from 2011 that was produced by PureFlix.
Nima: And lastly, we’re going to discuss the rampant anti-Muslim, anti-communist propaganda, this overall contempt for liberalism and certainly secularism, let alone atheism — gasp — and to do that, we’re going to talk about the 2014 mega-Christian blockbuster hit God’s Not Dead, which was produced by PureFlix.
Adam: Now before we began, I will say that I have irony-watched these movies prior to the researching of this episode except for Jerusalem Countdown actually, I had only seen part of that. Nima had to force himself to watch these movies in a short period of time.
Nima: The things I do for Citations Needed.
Adam: He is getting hazard pay. He doesn’t have as much free time to irony-watch as I do since he has children. So I just want to clarify that this was a form of torture to him.
Adam: So we’re going to begin by talking about Fireproof. A quick synopsis: Fireproof is about a not particularly religious firefighter played by Kirk Cameron who has a very, what appears to be incredibly abusive and toxic relationship with his wife. And he’s trying to get a divorce, as she is as well, because they probably should. He has a chronic urge to want to click on what appears to be Internet pornography, but they never quite say it cause it’s a Christian movie.
Nima: (Laughs.) ‘And you keep looking at that trash on the Internet!’
Adam: Right. And so the first impetus in the organizing structure of this movie is his father approaches Kirk Cameron and tells him to take what he calls the “love dare.” And so we’re going to listen to that clip.
Caleb [Kirk Cameron]: I want peace, but what difference does it make? She signs the papers—Dad, it’s all over.
John: Have you agreed to start the process with her?
Caleb: No, but I think we both understand where this is all headed.
Nima: There’s still hope.
Caleb: I’ve got plans to meet with my lawyer tomorrow.
Adam: They’re standing in front of a cross by the way.
John: I want you to do something for me.
Nima: That is true.
John: I want you to hold off on the divorce for 40 days.
John: I’m going to send you something in the mail. Something that’ll take you that long to do.
Caleb: What is it?
John: It’s what saved our marriage.
Caleb: Dad, if this is a religious thing, I had rather you didn’t.
John: Look at it as a gift.
Nima: Kirk Cameron does not know the movie he’s in.
John: Take one day at a time and see what happens. Please, son. If for no other reason, do it for me. I’m asking as your father.
Caleb: 40 days?
John: 40 days.
Adam: I love the faux religiosity behind the timeframe, too.
Nima: 40 days.
Adam: This is torture.
Adam: So here’s the thing, right? The founders of Affirm films and the makers of this film, Alex Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick, they are pastors at an actual church in Georgia and they, they don’t technically make money off the films. What they do make money off of, in case you asked, is the self-help books that come from selling this. So at the very end of the movie Fireproof, onscreen comes, “Go to www.fireproofmymarriage.com” where you can go and buy the Fireproof novel, the DVDs, the couple’s kits, and there’s a sort of cottage self-help industry built around this and all that money goes to these filmmakers. So the fireproofing-your-marriage kit you take, which was basically the organizing structure of the movie, is how they make all their money. So it’s actually a fairly clever sort of side hustle. It’s actually the primary hustle, the whole thing is a commercial for this self-help crap they peddle. And self-help is a common feature you’ll see in these movies. But one thing that’s notable about the movie is that this is clearly a toxic relationship. They’re constantly arguing, yelling. But then there’s this idea because Kirk Cameron believes in the “Fireman’s Code” unquote that he needs to, like, stick with the marriage.
Nima: Right. Never leave your partner, Adam.
Adam: Yeah, ‘cause some of the stuff they recommend, like doing the dishes, and being nice, and, like, buying your wife flowers you look at that and you’re, like, ‘That seems good.’ And then they’re, like, ‘Oh, but this is because you can never leave your wife,’ like, you’re never supposed to, like, leave your partner ever even though it’s very obvious that you’re, this is incredibly toxic and you both fucking hate each other because of this pathological obsession with marital fidelity.
Nima: But not all marriages should necessarily work out. And the, and the relationship that Kirk Cameron and his wife have in this film is purely toxic and yet we are told through Jesus is how you save this marriage, is how you stay with your partner through thick and thin. Although, yeah, it just winds up being this big propaganda commercial.
Adam: And the whole time the wife is this one-dimensional nag who’s, like, constantly negative in always trying to cheat on him. And all her friends are really shallow and they’re, like, ‘You can cheat on him.’ It’s written sort of like Tommy Wiseau in The Room, it’s this very overwhelmingly oozing misogyny and contempt for women. We’re gonna listen to another scene where his, his wife comes home and it’s heavily implied that he’s looking at Internet pornography because there’s some, like, pop-up ad that comes up that’s like ‘Love me!’ or whatever. So, um, we’re going to watch this piece of high kitchen sink drama.
Catherine: Did you clear your history?
Catherine: Did you wipe the websites off so nobody would see where you’ve been?
Nima: (Laughs.) That was a pop-up ad by the way.
Adam: What we suspect is Internet pornography.
Catherine: You know, Caleb, you’re not fooling anybody. I know exactly what you’re trying to do. Buying me flowers and calling me at work.
Caleb: And what is that?
Catherine: I’m meeting with a lawyer next week and don’t you think for one second I’m buying into this nice-guy routine.
Caleb: What are you talking about?
Catherine: You’re not getting one dime more than you deserve. When this divorce is final, I’m taking my share.
Adam: See, it’s an incredibly toxic relationship.
Caleb: Is that what you think I’m doing?
Catherine: No, I know that’s what you’re doing.
Caleb: You’re wrong! You never assume I would do anything worthy of respect, anything honorable.
Catherine: Honorable! Honorable? What were you just looking at, Caleb? What was on that computer screen? Was that honorable? Who do you think you’re fooling? Do you know why your sweet little gestures mean nothing to me? It’s because that’s the kind of man you’ve become. When you’re alone, that’s what you default to, and there is nothing honorable about it.
Adam: I like that it’s, like, the family computer in the living room, like, this is not even, there’s no strategy on his part. This is basically, like, half of the movie. They have these really drawn-out petty arguments where she’s an insufferable nag, and he’s, like, just doing guy stuff.
Nima: (Laughs.) Not only is he a firefighter, but the money that he’s saved up is for a boat. And she’s pissed off because he’s been saving money for a boat instead of like — oh, I don’t know — using it to buy medical equipment for her dying mother. And so this is a point of contention, which is actually understandable on her part. And he’s, like, ‘Oh, but I worked for my money and I want a boat.’ And so there’s this whole unfolding story where she’s like almost going to have an affair with this doctor at work ‘cause she’s a hospital administrator, and there’s this doctor at work who she has a flirty relationship with, and it is revealed through the course of the film that some secret donor eventually pays for all of the necessary medical equipment for her mother, and she thinks that it’s the new potential love interest after she divorces Kirk Cameron, this new doctor, and turns out — surprise, surprise — it was actually Kirk Cameron, and the doctor — guess what? — also married.
Adam: Yeah. He’s living in sin. So at the very end he ends up spending his boat money on helping her dying mother, which seems like a no-brainer, but as a part of his moral arc, presumably because he found Jesus, and then they kiss and make make up. But Kirk Cameron can’t kiss the actress because she’s not his wife. So he kisses in a silhouette with his real wife, which I would dunk on but actually think is kind of adorable. It’s kind of Mike Pence crazy, but it’s somewhat lovable. So that’s Fireproof. Fireproof also has these sort of wise Black best friends.
Nima: Yeah, there’s a real kind of Magic Negro thing going on throughout a lot of these films. That’s actually, like, a common trope because they are so blindingly white that when they try to have a quote-unquote “diverse cast,” 90 percent of the diversity comes from Muslim terrorists. But the other 10 percent, the other 10 percent are the uber-religious wise Black man.
Adam: They’re extremely sexless and ornamental. They’re kind of just there to help the white protagonist seek his religious journey.
Nima: Yeah. So, like, for example in Fireproof, Kurt Cameron’s character, Caleb, Caleb’s fellow firefighter Michael, who is African American, tells him he, like, he’s the voice of reason, he’s the one, like, oh you, you know, ‘I have such a great marriage and it’s cause you have to, you know, treat women right and you have to find Jesus.’ And, like, one of the pieces of advice that he gives Caleb, Kirk Cameron, is this, like, totally adolescent horseshit and it’s, it’s this quote:
Michael: “But just remember, a woman’s like a rose. If you treat her right, she’ll bloom. If you don’t, she’ll wilt.”
Adam: I believe that was Shakespeare.
Adam: Um, I want to be clear that in the last few years they’ve made more, like, majority-Black Christian films, but all the directors, writers are white. They’re very sort of deracialized and presented in this kind of, they’re sort of, Blackness is sort of incidental to the movie for the most part.
Nima: Yeah. Fireproof does not do that. There are actually two nurse characters in the film who are both Black and unbelievably, like, stereotypically sassy and written obviously by racist white men. It is very minstrel-y. It’s awful.
Nurse: I’ll tell you what he’s doing. He’s trying to butter you up for a divorce.
Catherine: Why would he do that?
Nurse: Before my cousin Lawanda got a divorce, her husband did the same thing. He started actin’ all nice and sweet. And then the next thing we know, he walks away with the house and most of their money. He hasn’t even talked to her since. Don’t you let him deceive you, girl. Mmmm.
Adam: And now that we’ve had the appetizer, it’s time to go to the main course, which is Jerusalem Countdown. So Jerusalem Countdown, to be clear, has anti-Muslim racism, but we’re actually saving that for God’s Not Dead ‘cause it’s actually grosser in that movie. So for the purposes of this, we’re going to focus specifically on antisemitic Zionism. So this one’s a fucking bizarre movie. This is based on a John Hagee book, as I’ve mentioned on the show, I think before, I went to John Hagee’s church from the age of roughly, like, nine to, like, 15 so I grew up with a lot of this end-times Zionism. This movie perfectly captures the sort of je ne sais quoi of that mentality.
Nima: Yeah. For those who may not know, John Hagee is, like, a megachurch pastor who also founded CUFI, C-U-F-I, Christians United for Israel. So one of the main aspects of the things that he writes, speaks, proselytizes about is Christian Zionist support for Israel. But, um, there’s a very sinister undertone to a Christian Zionism, obviously.
Adam: Yeah. And John Hagee also is worth several million dollars. He had a partnership in West Texas called the Texas Israel Agricultural Research Foundation that’s paid for by the Israeli government via its state university. That has now been dissolved, but he has long ties with Israel. He was the co-producer and co-writer of this movie, which basically sounds like a Netanyahu stump speech in its treatment of Jews. It’s fetishistic and then veers into, like, I don’t think any of these people have actually met a Jew before.
Nima: Yeah, it’s really surreal. So here’s the, here’s the basic premise. FBI agent Shane Daughtry, who is played by David A. R. White, who as we mentioned earlier, is one of the creators of PureFlix, so the distributor and producer of these films, he also stars in a lot of these, this FBI agent is tasked to find the quote-unquote “seven wonders,” which is a group of suitcase nuclear weapons that somehow have made it stateside in the hands of Iranian and Russian terrorists. Yes, they’re working together on the same thing, kind of, and targeting the United States. Why? Because of its relationship with and endless support of Israel in pursuit of what is deemed to be an Iranian and Russian new world order.
Adam: One thing to note about these movies is that Russia is the main bad guy in all of them for the most part until about 2016, and then you don’t actually hear about Russia anymore. (Laughs.)
Nima: Shocking. (Laughs.)
Adam: Right, but, like, it’s bizarre looking back how much Russia was considered. It still is sort of in the background, but Russia is in, is the main killer of the Jews, uh, vis-a-vis Iran. So there’s the scene where David A. R. White is following some inexplicable lead, and he goes into, like, this arms dealer played by Lee Majors, The Six Million Dollar Man, who looks like he’s had about six million glasses of whiskey, right?
Nima: That’s right. He has been repaired.
Adam: He, uh, he walks in and then apropos of nothing, Lee Majors goes on this bizarre rant about the evils of Iran, which we’re gonna listen to now.
Arms Dealer [Lee Majors]: There’s good money in hate, Mr. Daughtry.
Daughtry [David A. R. White]: You got some information for me?
Arms Dealer: Do you know that Iran is poised to control the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz? [Mispronunciation]
Nima: (Laughs.) I don’t know what that is.
Arms Dealer: The world is changing, Agent Daughtry.
Nima: No one knows where that is.
Arms Dealer: You may wake up one morning very soon and find Iran has no enemies, none capable of interfering anyway. How is it that Iran’s hate for America and Israel is as great a threat to democracy as Hitler’s Nazis and we do nothing?
Daughtry: This is all very interesting, but —
Arms Dealer: Please!
Adam: Yeah, so, uh, Iran is the Nazis is a reoccurring —
Nima: Yeah, like, fucking obviously.
Adam: So then there was a speech later by some vague, I think Russian informant. I think? He also goes on a rant about how the seven wonders, the seven suitcase nukes, are explained as being part of a plot to destroy America so they can then attack Israel, which I guess is high on the list of things that Russia wants to do. So let’s listen to that right now.
Malikov: There is myth that Russia has created nuclear bombs that a single person can deploy and detonate. A Russian scientist working with Iran has created truth out of this myth.
Daughtry: Are you telling me that Rockwell smuggled nuclear weapons into the United States?
Malikov: Seven of them.
Daughtry: Seven wonders.
Eve: Suitcase nukes.
Malikov: Do you know what would happen to city or cities that are hit by these bombs? Hundreds of thousands of people will die instantly. Their flesh will literally melt off their bodies. The real strategic purpose is the ultimate chaos that would result from such attack.
Nima: (Laughs.) “Stay for my borscht.”
Adam: He actually says that.
Nima: He actually says that in the movie. “Stay for my borscht.”
Malikov: Their sole purpose is disruption of American government and financial institutions.
Daughtry: (Whispers) A distraction.
Adam: (Whispers) “A distraction.”
Malikov: The America you know will be part of history and unable to protect its friends.
Woman: What friends?
Nima: Dun, dun, dun. Obviously.
Adam: Yeah, so, like, they would kill millions of Americans because it would make them vulnerable, then they could attack Israel. ‘Cause presumably before they couldn’t.
Nima: Right. They wouldn’t just send the suitcase nukes there. But, like, I think we’re getting way into the weeds here.
Adam: I have a 5,000-word essay on the nuances of Jerusalem Countdown.
Nima: Just so everyone knows, later in the movie the Strait of Hormuz is pronounced the Strait of “Hamaaazzz” which is different than how Lee Majors says it. But David A. R. White decides to pronounce it a completely different way, and it’s also glorious.
Adam: Yeah. I think they wanted it to sound as scary as possible. So they all are different interpretations.
Nima: Because they don’t actually know what it is. I mean it’s amazing.
Adam: So then Stacy Keach, goddamn Stacy Keach is in this movie. Noted thespian, opera singer, Broadway actor needed a check. So he plays the former head of Mossad who’s a Jew who converted to Christianity. So, otherwise known as the only Jews they like, which are people who are in the Israeli military and people who are actually not Jewish at all.
Nima: (Laughs.) Right. Exactly. It’s the perfect identity! The head of Israeli intelligence who is no longer Jewish.
Adam: Stacy Keach has three scenes in this movie where he drops, like, intel about the map, it’s, like, Da Vinci Code. The map they’re using is the Bible, the end times, Revelations, and he’s, like, former head of Mossad who’s, like, ‘You need to go read the Bible and figure out what the real conspiracy is here.’ And they use it as a guide to solve the central mystery. But all three of his scenes, he’s sitting in the back of a limo and they’re all at night and it’s very clear that Stacy Keach, like, got a phone call and he was, they were like, ‘Hey, Stacy, listen, we’ll give you $25,000. You don’t even have to come up to the studio. Just pull up in your limo and we’ll knock out the three scenes. It’ll take an hour and we’ll give you $25,000.’
Nima: Yeah and he’s, like, ‘I clearly don’t have a limo.’ And they’re, like, ‘No, no, no, what we mean is we’re going to send a limo to pick you up.’
Adam: ‘We’ll send the limo for you.’ And he was, like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And they knocked it out. It’s, it’s hilarious ‘cause there’s no reason for the scenes to be in a car. Like, they don’t explain why they’re sitting in a car. Anyway, that’s not really relevant to the ideological critique. But I thought that was really funny. So then there’s a scene where the main character, the unaccountably attractive assistant FBI agent who is working with David A. R. White to solve this great conspiracy theory — which, by the way, ends with the rapture anyway, so the whole thing’s moot — she explains why she was born Jewish, but then, like, her father converted to Christianity.
Nima: Right. Because — surprise, surprise — the FBI agent that is the sidekick agent is the daughter of the former head of Mossad.
Adam: Yeah. But they all convert to Christianity. Of course, they ended up doing it at the end anyway because of the end time. So Christianity is seen as foreseeing world events, which is a huge part of the white evangelical church. That it’s not just a belief, it’s an actual predictor. It’s the immortal science of Christian Protestantism. And the running storyline here is that Iran, presumably Iran, although they speak Arabic, I think at one point, I think that they didn’t bother caring about that, there’s a guy, like, watching his neighbors —
Nima: Oh, yes! Oh, this is the best part, Adam! So there’s a journalist, there’s a writer who is, like, trying to investigate, like, conspiracies and, like, world happenings. And they, they keep talking about the “peace process” in the Middle East.
Adam: Oh, yeah. There’s this really vague peace process.
Nima: Peace process that Israel is being forced to undertake, even though of course they are the ones that keep giving up all the land, right? And so this guy is trying to connect the dots and his wife, who is a practicing Christian, brings him the Bible. And she’s, like, ‘You should look at this.’ And he’s, like, ‘I don’t need your hocus-pocus fantasy books.’ And her retort is, ‘You mean hocus-pocus prophecies, like a unified Europe or a million Jews returning to their homeland?’ Because it’s a super good gotcha. And so this journalist guy at one point looks out his window at home and sees his very, very swarthy, nefarious looking Muslim neighbor get out of his car with a bunch of suitcases and he’s, like, that guy doesn’t look right and — guess what? — he’s fucking right! Because that guy’s obviously a terrorist, and this guy goes into his house at one point. He breaks into his house when he’s not home, and starts looking around and the very, my favorite part of this movie, maybe any movie, is when he goes upstairs and sees a room that has Farsi or Arabic — no one knows because it’s not real — writing on the walls. It’s clearly a prayer room because there are prayer rugs on the floor and, and he flips the fuck out because, oh my God, there are Muslim terrorists living next door. Obviously.
Adam: And then he finds the suitcase nukes downstairs. Now, obviously, this is of course confirming and reinforcing racial profiling, which kind of goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. He sort of is validated. Same thing happens in season six of 24 by the way, there is a racial-profiling plot and then it ends up he actually is a terrorist, which is a, it’s sort of the next level of, of racist, right? ‘Cause now you’re sort of telling people, ‘Don’t worry, go ahead and, and engage in racial profiling ‘cause, 70 percent chance you’re right.’
Nima: Yeah, you’re going to be right.
Adam: So then at the end the rapture happens and then that’s pretty much how the problem is solved. So, you know, the first thing you learn in screenwriting class 101 is, or any writing class really, any story class, is not to engage in deus ex machina, right? Cause it’s a cop out, which is basically a term that like your, your plot can’t be solved by god or machine. It can’t just magically be solved. But one of the brilliant parts of Christian cinema is that deus ex machina is built into the very premise of Christian cinema. So every story ends with some contrivance at the end because it’s miracle, it’s providence, right?
Nima: It’s always divine intervention. Yeah.
Adam: It’s divine intervention. So, like, from a screenwriting perspective it’s much easier. You didn’t, you never actually, like, ‘cause its never like how’s this, you know, conspiracy going to unravel and, like, what’s going to happen? How are they going to connect the dots? And then at the end, like, a plane crashes and people get raptured and you’re like, ‘Oh, they don’t even have to do that. It’s just the end times.’ So it’s great. It’s a good get out of jail, from a screenwriting perspective-
Nima: Christian cinema works in mysterious ways.
Adam: ‘Cause you can always say it’s God’s will and you’re, like, ‘Why did the, you know, what did the characters do to get to God’s will?’
Nima: Ah, okay. We have one more to get to. And it’s a doozy. God’s Not Dead from 2014 which basically is, like, 15 separate Citations Needed episode tropes rolled into one movie. So it’s, like, PC college campus, super racist tropes, every non-Christian white person, unless it’s, like, your African evangelical best friend — clearly — but otherwise everyone else is not to be trusted, not religious enough, if not far, far worse. So here’s the basic plot. Josh Wheaton, not to be confused with, uh, Buffy creator Joss Whedon, but Josh Wheaton, is a Christian college student who takes, in his very first semester, a philosophy course, taught by a militant, God-hating atheist Jeffrey Radisson, played by none other than Hercules himself, Kevin Sorbo. So it opens up with Sorbo telling his entire class that, first and foremost, to be in his philosophy class, we all have to agree that God is dead, so much so that everyone has to write that statement on a piece of paper, sign it and hand it in before they can even be allowed to proceed with the class. Because that has no place in when we are investigating truth and reason. And so, uh, the college student that we are following, Josh, refuses to do so. So he is tasked with arguing in front of the class that God is in fact not dead.
Adam: So yeah, obviously atheists don’t believe God’s dead, even though this is the thing they keep saying atheists say, there’s, like, one throwaway line where Kevin Sorbo is like, ‘It’s a metaphor,’ but then he goes on to say God’s dead or that you have to say God’s dead. Now this is of course basically like a viral Marine Todd chain email from, like, the mid-2000s that an atheist liberal professor tries to force a student to say God’s dead and he boldly, courageously stands up for himself as a Christian. So there’s this constant persecution complex in all those movies.
Nima: (Chuckles.) Yeah. It’s amazing.
Adam: They’re most typified and I think most sort of overtly political in the God’s Not Dead movies. There’s actually three of them. I think there’s a fourth coming out. Inexplicably, because he says he won’t sign this letter that says God is dead, even though the other, like, 30 people in the class are just total lemmings and just sign it. He’s like, ‘You’re going to have to argue the antithesis. So we’re going to have three debates for 20 minutes each over the next three class sessions.’ And it’s, like, wait, now a third of your class is arguing with this 18-year-old about the existence of God and it’s completely absurd.
Nima: (Laughs.) It sucks for the other students.
Adam: And then in, like, the first debate, he, like, owns Kevin Sorbo by his own logic. Right? Is that, it’s like all these, like, sort of psycho Ben, Ben Shapiro types who want to own liberals. So then Kevin Sorbo gets really mad and comes up to him in the hallway and threatens him. Let’s listen to that right now.
Radisson [Kevin Sorbo]: You think you’re smarter than me, Wheaton? Do you think there’s any argument you can make that I won’t have an answer for?
Wheaton: I never said I was smarter.
Radisson: That’s the first intelligent thing you’ve said. I want to make this clear. In that classroom, there is a God and yeah, I’m him. I’m also a jealous God, so do not try to humiliate me in front of my students. You know, I also checked up on your declared major: pre-law. What exactly is pre-law? We don’t award degrees in that. Don’t bother answering. But know this, if you truly feel a need to continue with this charade, I will make it my personal mission to destroy any hope of a law degree in your future.
Adam: Got ‘em.
Radisson: Have a nice day.
Adam: In the movie, Kevin Sorbo’s character has, like, a Christian girlfriend. This is a common thing. All these movies have where, like, a nonbeliever is inexplicably in a relationship with someone who’s a hardcore religious person. Which you think you would figure out scanning their Tinder profile. It’s, like, the first thing you would sort of weed out. ‘Is this person a religious crank?’
Nima: And so, like, either you’re fine with it or it would clearly be a bigger problem.
Adam: And there’s one scene in particular where he’s with all his, like, liberal academic friends and they, like, humiliate her while drinking, like, Merlot. And it’s all about, there’s a constant reaffirmation that, like, atheists are elitists and they control the world. And religious people are getting constantly shit on and condescended and dumped on. It’s, it’s just oozing with grievance politics. Even more so than the normal Christian movie. We’re going to watch the climax where Kevin Sorbo gets owned by the Christian by his own logic.
Wheaton: Do you hate God?
Radisson: It’s not even a question.
Wheaton: Okay, why do you hate God?
Radisson: This is ridiculous.
Wheaton: Why do you hate God? Answer the question!
Adam: He’s got him.
Wheaton: You’ve seen the science and the arguments. Science supports his existence. You know the truth!
Nima: He’s breaking him down.
Wheaton: So why do you hate him? Why? It’s a very simple question, professor. Why do you hate God?
Radisson: Because he took everything away from me! Yes, I hate God! All I have for him is hate.
Adam: Wait for it. Wait for it.
Wheaton: How can you hate someone, if they don’t exist?
Adam: Boom! Got ’em. Owned by his own logic. Wrecked. Oh, here’s the best part, though. This is not even the best part. The best part is-
Radisson: You’ve proven nothing.
Wheaton: Maybe not. They get to choose. (Music) Is God dead?
Adam: And then he turns to the class because the class gets to vote.
Nima: So then everyone stands up and does, like, an “I am Spartacus” thing. Yeah.
Adam: And then there’s this faux Explosions In the Sky, and the camera kind of zooms out, but it’s basically their, like, A Few Good Men moment, like, ah, ‘You can’t handle the truth.’ Like, he owns him on the stand.
Nima: Now, so part of this, and actually a thread running through a lot of these movies, the reference the Kevin Sorbo character makes to, ‘he took everything from me’ is that his wife had died of cancer. And cancer is actually a running theme through many of these films. It either converts nonbelievers to becoming believers, or it’s the thing that drives believers to be nonbelievers because it’s so horrendous. But it’s used as a cipher, like, in God’s Not Dead not only is there the Sorbo background, which involves someone dying of cancer, but there’s this very progressive lefty journalist character in another plotline.
Adam: It’s a total throwaway, like C plotline.
Nima: Who does like an ambush interview with one of the guys from Duck Dynasty. That’s a real thing that happens in the movie and she’s, ‘You are defending what you do to ducks?’ He and his wife are standing there and they’re like, ‘Yes, our faith guides us.’ And then she finds out, the journalist, the ambush journalist —
Adam: The liberal atheist, secular journalist.
Nima: Yeah, obviously, ‘cause she has like bumper stickers on her car that say that they’re about humanism and vegetarianism, which clearly means that she’s a sociopath atheist. So she then finds out that she has cancer! And so she then has a process of going through the movie and becoming a devout Christian because she needs to find some sort of meaning in this terrible point in her life. And a part of the way that she comes to that realization is going to a Christian rock concert and meeting the band backstage. She’s going to do an ambush interview with them, but they turn her heart.
Adam: So then she converts. This is again a common theme. So Kevin Sorbo proceeds to get, after he gets owned by his own logic, he proceeds to get hit by a car in a very violent fashion and then dies on the street. And David A. R. White, who plays a pastor in the movie, sees him and then converts him as he’s dying. And it’s pretty grisly shit. Oh, let’s listen to that now. He’s in the streets. It’s raining and he walks-
Adam: So he just got hit by a car. He flies in the air. They do a slow motion shot of him in the air, and then the car drives off. And then sensing opportunity to save some souls.
Nima: Saving souls here. Saving souls in the rain.
Adam: David A. R. White jumps into savior mode.
Reverend Jude: His ribs are crushed. His lungs are filling with blood. He doesn’t have long.
Reverend Dave: Are you sure?
Reverend Jude: Yeah.
Nima: He’s not going to make it.
Adam: He’s a pastor, so they make an ad hoc diagnosis.
Radisson: I can’t die. I’m not ready.
Reverend Dave: Do you know Jesus?
Radisson: I’m an atheist.
Adam: (Laughs.) “I’m an atheist.”
Reverend Dave: I believe it’s God’s mercy that brought me here right now.
Nima: That’s such a fucked up thing to say to someone who just got hit by a car.
Reverend Dave: That car could have killed you instantly, and I’m sure right now you probably wish it did, but I’m here to tell you that it’s a gift. This God that you don’t believe in is giving you another chance. Another chance to change your final answer.
Radisson: I don’t want to die. I’m so scared.
Reverend Dave: Not that it’s any consolation, so was Jesus. So scared he sweat blood.
Adam: (Chuckles.) That’s so manipulative.
Reverend Dave: He asked the father if he could be removed from him. The answer was no.
Radisson: He says ‘no’ a lot.
Reverend Dave: He gives us the answer we’d ask for if we knew what he knows.
Radisson: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts are higher than your thoughts. Says the Lord.”
Adam: You see? He’s reciting scripture now.
Reverend Dave: So the question is — stay with me.
Nima: It was always inside him that whole time.
Reverend Dave: Stay with me. Are you willing to put your faith in Jesus Christ?
Nima: This is so rude. He’s dying. Where’s the fucking ambulance?
Adam: Yeah, who needs an ambulance when you got Jesus?
Reverend Dave: God is willing to forgive you of your sins. All of them. If you accept his son and ask him into your life, that’s all you have to do is just accept his son.
Adam: That’s a pretty easy barrier.
Reverend Dave: Accept his love and receive his forgiveness right now. Do you accept him as Lord and savior?
Nima: If you say yes, I’ll finally call 9–1–1.
Adam: I mean you, you know, he may as well hedge his bets, right? I mean, fuck it.
Reverend Dave: (Sounds of suffering and gurgling.) It’s all right. In a few minutes, you’re going to know more about God than I do or anybody else here does. It’s okay. It’s okay.
Adam: So then later…It’s the longest death ever.
Adam: So, um, other religions, they have some, uh, you have to do like a little bit scholarly training. This one you can just sort of do it on the fly. So Kevin Sorbo bleeds out, dies and then they’re standing over, like, the remains of what was left of the bloody, you know, mess that was his, presumably his brain and his lungs. And then they proceed to say this:
Reverend Jude: What happened here tonight is a cause for celebration. Pain. Yes. For just a few more minutes.
Nima: Kevin Sorbo literally died in his arms.
Reverend Jude: Now think about that joy in here.
Nima: So fucked up.
Adam: Yeah. Reminds me of we need to resubscribe to this month’s Dabiq. Yeah. So that’s, that’s obviously completely out there.
Nima: There are two more subplots in this, Adam, that I know we’re spending some time on this, but this movie is really just chock full of amazing shit. So, one of the other plot lines is that a classmate of the Christian student in the philosophy class is a guy from China, from the PRC, which he has listed on his enrollment forms, and then a white student is, like, ‘What does that stand for?’ And he’s, like, ‘People’s Republic of China.’ And she’s, like, ‘What? Really?’ And so he has grown up in communist China and is forced to be an atheist by his very repressive father who is back in China, who he speaks to on the phone during the course of the film. He obviously has a spiritual awakening through this philosophy class, learning that God’s not actually dead. So that is yet another Christian triumph over the evils of communist atheism. But there is yet another subplot, which has to do with a young Muslim woman who is also going to the college and works in the cafeteria, obviously. She rolls up to school in hijab — which is actually just like a winter scarf wrapped around her head, even though she’s wearing short sleeves — but her father is a very, very swarthy, very strict Muslim that clearly forces her to wear a scarf on her head. He’s also the exact same guy who was a terrorist in Jerusalem Countdown because David A. R. White has one Muslim friend or Muslim-looking friend who will do these roles. So, during the course of the film, what do you think is going to happen? It’s the thing that happens. The Muslim woman is listening to Christian scripture on her iPod, audio books of the Bible narrated by none other than Franklin Graham, who is the son of Billy Graham, and this is found out by her young brother, who then tells her father, who then slaps her in the face and throws her out of the house because that’s what happens. There is no mention of the fact that Christianity and Jesus are actually holy and sacred in Islam. It doesn’t matter. It’s totally irrelevant.
Adam: This obviously aligns with U.S. imperial narratives around Afghanistan and Iraq that we’re on a liberating mission, that we save women. Ben Shapiro does this line all the time. Pro-Israel voices do this all the time. That, that, like, Christianity is a civilized mission that’s good for women. So here’s this sort of oppressed Muslim is beaten by her swarthy father, and then she finds Billy Graham sermons, I guess, and goes, and of course she’s, you know, like, a total babe and then she goes to the Christian concert where the, where our pretty hero Josh Wheaton is and she’s like, ‘Are you the guy that stood up to your atheist professor?’ And he’s’ like, ‘Yeah!’ They’re constantly doing this really weird stuff where they’re basically like, come to church and you’ll get hot women. It’s a recurring thing in all these movies where men are always punching way above their weight class because they have Jesus, which I suppose is one, you know, one form of marketing I guess.
Nima: Yeah, well, it’s kind of like a Judd Apatow movie for Jesus.
Adam: Yeah. I guess that’s a trope in all movies for that matter, but it’s, like, it’s specifically marketed as, like, your ability to get women is directly proportional to how pious you are.
Nima: Right. The saviorism bit of this is really incredible, you know, there’s this one moment early in the film where Ayisha, who’s the Muslim woman, is waiting for her dad to pick her up and waiting on the curb on campus, and a white Christian college student, this other young woman, comes up to her, and they’re standing next to each other and the white woman says, ‘You’re beautiful. I wish you didn’t have to wear that.’ Meaning the hijab, which I don’t think she would say standing at a crosswalk if she were standing next to a nun. But you know, I mean, whatever. Right?
Adam: So one thing that we want to note on the show is the degree to which every single time one of these movies makes $60, $80, $100 million dollars with very small budgets, like, they’re very, they have a very high return on investment.
Nima: Well, because also a lot of the people who work on the film volunteer.
Adam: Right. They work in right-to-work states and also states with heavy film subsidies like Georgia, Texas, Michigan, and they get a lot of free labor from the churches. They get a lot of volunteer labor.
Nima: But then they make all the money. Hey!
Adam: Right. Um, so they, um, is that they’re, they’re put in this sort of generic faith category and given kind of really softball coverage and it’s always sort of like how they’re kind of on the up and rise. Every, every single time one of them make $60, $80 million there’s an article that comes out that says ‘Shock, the film industry is emerging.’
Nima: Yeah. They’re all really kind of patronizing, like patting on the head, ‘Oh, look at this cute Christian movie industry,’ and it’s reported in the mainstream media and we’ll, and we’ll read some, some headlines. But what has never done in the course of any of these articles is actually investigating the ideology beyond just, ‘Oh, it’s about being religious.’
Adam: Yeah. It’s sort of putting this general faith category, which I know the line’s not always clear. So you have Today Show in 2014 where Dean Cain comes on, the guy from God’s Not Dead and said, quote, “Dean Cain: ‘God’s Not Dead’ success ‘a shocker.’” Today Show from 2016: “Melissa Joan Hart and Robin Givens talk about the draw of ‘God’s Not Dead 2′” where they come on and do these kind of glossy mainstream interviews. So NBC News quote, “How a faith-based movie studio is seizing the moment in Trump’s America” that kind of naively states that PureFlix is about “faith, family, and fun — and occasionally politics” as though it’s not only about politics. They also naively state that “Pure Flix is not marketed to political conservatives, per se, but its offerings have been well received among Republican luminaries.” The movies are very much marketed to Republicans and they’re marketed from the pulpit as deliberate partisan activities. Senator Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee hosted a screening of God’s Not Dead 2 during the 2016 Republican primary.
Nima: Yeah. And you have, you know, like The New York Times headline from April 2017 “Forget Netflix and Chill. Try Pure Flix and Pray.” Effectively just like a PR piece for PureFlix in a major, major publication, the major-est publication, The New York Times. And there are no mentions of, you know, the reactionary or even moderately problematic politics infused in these films and in the PureFlix industry. Very often PureFlix will actually also have study guides and homeschooling guides that you can get along with the films. This is clearly, you know, has an agenda. I mean — surprise, surprise — they would say that too, but I’m saying they actually have study guides that you can use so that these can be used as educational pieces in addition to being Christian entertainment.
Adam: Yeah. And because they use this sort of generic label of faith, they can have these horribly homophobic, racist, anti-woman, just complete bile, just complete dehumanizing bile, you know, swarthy Muslims beating people, etcetera, etcetera. But because they sort of say ‘faith,’ they’re never pushed on this really. So they get the, the constantly getting the softball treatment in the media. It’s in that context that these exist. And one of the things we’ve argued here and will continue to is that once you slip into kind of overt partisan politics and lobbying, they’re not sitting there and contemplating the metaphysics and deep theology of Christianity. They’re political products. They’re white nationalist, white grievance, political products, and the religious component is, is a feature of it, but it’s not some organic meditation on the numinous. It’s a white grievance infomercial.
Nima: To talk more about this, we’re going to be joined by author, artist, and filmmaker Frank Schaeffer. Frank is the son of influential evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer. Frank was a fundamentalist Christian in his youth, he co-produced films with his father Francis, but has since left the religious Right behind. He joins us from Boston, and we’ll speak to him in just a second. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by author, artist and filmmaker Frank Schaeffer. Frank, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Frank Schaeffer: Oh, thank you for having me on.
Adam: So, I want to begin with a little history. We’ve been covering in this episode the kind of arc of white evangelical Christianity as a sort of political force, specifically the lens of what’s generally called Christian cinema. But I want to sort of back up a little bit and talk about the history of the politicization of the evangelical movement, or as some would say, the evangelicalization of politics, a feedback loop. It’s always difficult to tell who’s influencing whom. Other than kind of a general reactionary attitude towards feminism, gay rights, Black civil rights, etcetera, what, in your opinion was sort of the animating force for why the taboos against the overt politicization of religion began to erode in the ‘70s and ‘80s? What were the cultural forces and social forces that you think made them sort of come out of the quote-unquote “closet” as they put it?
Frank Schaeffer: Well, basically there’s a couple of factors. So I’ll back up a little bit and just say that back in the ‘70s and ‘80s as the kind of nepotistic sidekick of my evangelical leader, Francis Schaeffer, we were out on the road doing a series of seminar tours to promote a movie we had made with Dr. C. Everett Koop, who then went on to become Ronald Reagan’s surgeon general, called Whatever Happened to the Human Race? And that was in reaction to the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 legalizing abortion. So there’s two steps really in the politicizing of the evangelical movement into a position where it eventually took over the Republican Party and produced it as we know it today, which is the Donald Trump personality cult. But the steps were as follows. First of all, there was a very negative reaction to integration of the schools and evangelicals stepped back, white evangelicals particularly in the South and started all-white private school academies, Christian schools. The homeschool movement began to explode, when that ran its course and ran out of steam, the person that most symbolized that moment was Jerry Falwell, who started Liberty University, whose son now, Jerry Falwell, Jr., runs Liberty University and is a big Trump supporter. Falwell was an ardent segregationist. He started several white academies. In fact, Liberty University began out of that dream of a more segregated community. When he wasn’t able to get accreditation when he was running into the buzzsaw reaction against segregation, for a while, he became nonpolitical. But then when Roe v. Wade came along, and he latched on to the anti-abortion movement, the anti-feminist movement, which were kind of one and the same thing, it took off in a new direction. So really the beginning of the present era that we live in now with the presidency of Donald Trump began in earnest when the white evangelical community became ardently anti-choice, anti-abortion, and that became the new litmus test for all Republican candidates. ‘Are you pro-life or are you pro-choice?’ became the question. One little footnote I want to add before we move on is that back in that time when we were out trying to get people to watch our film series, our anti-abortion film series, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? What most folks today don’t know is that white evangelical Christians were often pro-choice. For instance, Dr. Criswell, then president of the Southern Baptist Commission, and who was also the pastor of First Baptist in Dallas, which is now, by the way, under the pastorship of Dr. Jeffress, who is one of Trump’s key advisors and evangelical leaders who promotes him, was pro-choice. He believed that abortion should be legal. So was Dr. Billy Graham, the evangelist father of today’s Franklin Graham, who is a big, ardent Trump supporter. So the people that we had to first talk into becoming pro-life, the term that emerged, anti-abortion, were evangelicals. Once that became the litmus test, then that was the key issue that fired up the entire movement and brought us to today. And without acknowledging the pivotal role of Roe v. Wade, you really cannot understand the period of history we’re in now because most of the support for Trump began with evangelicals who trusted his promise to give them pro-life, anti-abortion judges. By the way, a promise he’s kept very faithfully to them while not delivering much for other constituents in terms of jobs or the rust belt or farmers. He has certainly delivered pro-life, anti-abortion judges to the evangelical community.
Adam: So political white evangelicalism is a response to, I mean, to put it in crude terms, it’s about controlling the sexual faculties of women and making sure women can’t go off-
Frank Schaeffer: Yeah, exactly. Yes it is. And sexuality generally, which is where the, the whole religious freedom movement that we know today, when they talk about religious freedom, they’re really talking about the religious freedom to discriminate against gay and transgender people. They are talking about the religious freedom to take away the right of contraceptive coverage, say, in their insurance plans for women. It really comes back down to a view of human sexuality and particularly the sexuality of women and, uh, the LGBTQ community.
Adam: So you take an understandably partisan lens to this, ‘cause one of the things we argue at the top of the show is that it’s not even really correct to say modern PureFlix and Affirm movies are really faith in any kind of meaningful sense. They’re more sort of messaging arms of the Republican Party and, of course, it’s always difficult to tell who’s informing who. But one of the things that, as you mentioned before, that has stuck out is the uniform support of Trump by white evangelicals. And there’s a habit in liberal media to sort of do this credulous ‘I can’t believe they support Trump. You know, when he’s this philanderer and adulterer and this, this, and this.’ And you’re like, well, this sort of, for lack of a better term, white identity politics, are more of a motivating factor as is of course, anti-LGBTQ and anti-women. To what extent do you think viewing white evangelicals, as it is sort of broadly known, and I know there’s exceptions and I want to be clear, I know there’s liberal and progressive white evangelicals, but the general political Christianity as we know it or political white Christianity as we know it. To what extent do you think it’s better to look at it through the lens of a quasi white nationalism as opposed to some sort of organic theological meditation on Christ?
Frank Schaeffer: Yeah, I think that’s a fair observation and I would go a step further and I would say that what has happened with the election of Donald Trump is that the evangelical white Christian movement is no longer a Christian movement. It is not a religious movement primarily. What it is now is a political movement centered around the cultic properties, the kind of Donald Trump follower profile of the white evangelical Christian. So I think that it’s taken a further step away from what would be recognizable say to my father’s generation 30 or 40 years ago, to a point where it really has to be described as something else. A new label has to be brought up to cover it. You know, I think where my secular media friends who are commentating on this kind of problem go off the rails a little bit is always trying to search around for answers that fit into the way they view the world. They are non-theological people, they are not fundamentalist religious believers and I think what they don’t understand is that once the white evangelical movement became the Trump cult, to paraphrase that old Bill Clinton era thing, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ I would come back and just say, ‘It is the theology, stupid.’ You cannot understand what’s going on if you look at it through the secular lens. When you look for instance at the support of so many evangelical Christians for Trump today, the white evangelical Christians, they latch onto things such as his bringing the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in Israel as a sign of the end times. The other day, Billy Graham, the evangelists’ daughter, Ann Graham Lotz, was on air on the Jim Bakker Show, claiming that she understood Trump pulling out American forces from Northern Syria as opening the way for Russia to move into Northern Syria—believe this or not—as a harbinger of the end times identifying Russia as prophesied in scripture as Gog and Magog that is going to sweep down and destroy Israel in the battle of Armageddon or attempt to destroy Israel.
Adam: Yeah, that’s a huge component of a lot of the John Hagee stuff.
Frank Schaeffer: Yeah, so essentially a secular observer looks at this and throws their hands up and says, ‘Oh, shit. It can’t be this. Let’s look at demographics in the Rust Belt and people who earn less than $30,000 a year. It has to be something to do with economics.’ What they don’t get is that when you go into the realm of theology, as these people have, you’re dealing in a kind of a Twilight Zone set of parameters that your average American voter, Republican or Democrat, who is not caught up in this movement literally can’t get, they just can’t get their head around it. It’s a completely different set of calculations. Now when it comes to the leadership of people like Franklin Graham, Ralph Reed, the Values Summit people and these kind of folks, they are very cynical. I don’t know if any of these people really, if you could get inside their mind, believes any of what they’re saying any longer in terms of, you know, the return of Christ or any of this other stuff. What they believe in is access to power. It’s very heady stuff. And having been there, done that myself as a young man, knowing what it was like to be able to talk with people in the White House, you know, having Gerald Ford’s son and daughter-in-law stay in our home for a year, my mom used to go stay in the White House. You know, when I went up to Washington, I was staying with a congressman or a senator. This kind of stuff gets into your bloodstream and it’s hard to kick the habit. And so when you get back into the leadership of people like Franklin Graham or these filmmakers who are part of the movement that you all have been discussing, then it’s access to power. It’s access to fundraising, it’s access to the money and everything that goes with it. When you get down into the rank and file, you’re talking to people who have a worldview that is so disconnected from reality that it goes even beyond the realm of conspiracy theories. It’s an entire mindset. And I’ll give you one example of what I’m talking about. You know, why the ready acceptance of Donald Trump’s terms of fake news translating as anything that either goes against him or disagrees with him or mocks him as being fake, well, these folks were bred from their mother’s milk with the idea that the entire structure of science and its teaching of evolution or sexuality is fake and that the truth is in the Bible. So 4,000- and 5,000-year-old Bronze Age documents are somehow more reliable to them then what is happening down the road at MIT and Harvard, where I live, in terms of anthropology and evolutionary psychology and so forth. So they have, they have grown up believing that there’s an entire conspiracy against evangelical Christian worldview. And that they have the real keys, whether it’s in the fulfillment of prophecy and the end times, the origins of the human species, human sexuality, and so forth and so on. Their whole view that gay men and women choose to be gay and that no one is quote-unquote “made that way.” There’s absolutely no way you can justify that outside of a theological worldview. And that comes now down to Donald Trump. Once they’ve decided that he’s the new King Cyrus and has been ordained by God, then it doesn’t matter what he does individually or personally. This is all part of some great plan, which we can’t fathom but is all being worked out in heaven right now. When you get into that realm, good luck trying to talk anybody into changing their mind based on the statistics about climate change. Good luck trying to change their mind based on the science of evolutionary psychology. And I don’t think most folks who look at this group understand that they left a long time ago in terms of being ordinary American voters and they’re in a completely different place now.
Adam: Yeah, I mean I think that, um, the big question that always comes up with these things is to what extent are the higher-ups—I think the rank and file are mostly true believers because there’s not a lot to gain—but to what extent the higher-ups are true believers or hucksters knowing they’re full of shit or to what extent it’s a combination. And I think that’s a fascinating question because I look at someone like David A. R. White, and he seems somewhat earnest. Meanwhile, I look at someone like John Hagee and I’m, like, ‘Oh, I think that guy knows he’s full of shit.’
Nima: Right. But, like, even in being earnest, there is such a, Frank, as you were saying, there’s the lure of making a lot of money because there’s a business side that is central to all of this, this industry, you know, as we’ve been talking about, say the Christian cinema industry really kind of takes on a life of its own once the moola starts rolling in, right?
Frank Schaeffer: Right.
Nima: Can you give us a sense of the business model of these, say, megachurches, how they treat their followers, how that all works and how the then propagandizing through cinema helps to just kind of feed this media feedback loop through books, through movies. It’s like a brand-building and then profit-gain model. Can you just tell us a little bit about that?
Frank Schaeffer: Yeah. When you look at the evangelical movement in general outside of the context of just voting for Donald Trump, the theology of it, and essentially it’s a desperate quest in the area of what they call apologetics or in other words, the practice of trying to find proofs to show that what you believe is true no matter how out-of-sync it is with the facts around you, let alone with what science teaches. So those proofs could be archaeological, they could be spiritual, it could be a quest for meaning. You know, ‘I feel better. So it must be true.’ We all have spiritual feelings and so that must come from somewhere. But when you get into the area of Christian cinema for instance, or when you get into the area of the profit motive of the prosperity gospel preachers who point to their own wealth, which is essentially been ripped off from their own followers under 501(c)(3) religious organizations not for profit, then you get into the self-fulfilling prophecy syndrome, where, ‘I’m getting rich off what I’m doing. Talking to you about God will bless people who are truly following him. Look, he’s blessing me. So now send me more money because this shows that you trust that the blessing that’s been poured out on me is a sign of his existence.’ And the subtext is, look, you know, you’re desperate. I’m desperate for any kind of proof that this unlikely set of beliefs actually is true. And so the very success of your mega-pastor somehow reassures you, ‘Hey, look, you know, look what a big deal this is. There’s 10,000 people here. We’re all clapping and waving our hands. Our pastor is a multimillionaire flying around in his own private jet. How can you look at this and say, ‘Nothing’s going on. This is illusory or a delusion.’ You know, it’s big time. It’s actually happening. It’s successful.’ So when you look at the money angle, when you look at the access-to-power angle, it’s a form of self-indoctrination of apologetics, of proofs that what we are doing is not irrelevant. It’s not passé. It’s not has-been. It’s not yesterday. It’s happening now. It’s on a huge scale. We’ve got more people in our auditorium than most rock stars can pull into a concert. That must prove something. And so I look at this movement and the kind of sound and fury that signifies nothing. If it’s on a big enough scale, it can fool most of the people most of the time who are involved with it simply because of the scale of the dynamic of it. When you get into Christian cinema, when you get into these things, these are quote-unquote “witnessing tools.” Again, if they’re done on a big enough scale, if they mimic the world’s methodology of communication, it suddenly makes people whose very faith should make them completely irrelevant to the picture, feel very relevant. Again, coming back to Donald Trump, the fact that he won, the fact that he appealed to white evangelical voters and has kept his promises to them, and you want to point out that, look, you know, we believe that God’s hand is on history. Look what’s happening with Donald Trump. The very unlikelihood of this philandering president goes to show that it must be God. So in an odd sense, the worst Donald Trump is in his behavior, and yet nevertheless he’s president, is “proof,” quote-unquote, that God’s hand is somehow on history because wow, how could this happen? And therefore in an apologetic sense of making an argument for the truth, a fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, scale is a big deal. Therefore, when your leader, when your evangelical pastor or televangelist is clearly ripping off his flock by raking in millions, it’s forgiven, because he provides a scale and a drama of what you were doing, which was being done in a small group somewhere in a backwater, once very impressive.
Adam: Yeah, I didn’t appreciate the allure of Catholicism until when I went to the Vatican and you see the sort of awe of it.
Frank Schaeffer: Yeah. Exactly.
Adam: And it really is changing. And I, we mentioned this earlier, I went to John Hagee’s church, Cornerstone, in San Antonio as a kid for several years. And then I remember you’d go to that and it’s 5,000 people, two Jumbotrons. I think they have like four Jumbotrons now. And it’s rocking and rolling and it’s, and then you go to, like, these, my, I had a friend who was like anti-that, he was, like, he was, like, the, you know, sort of hemp-necklace Christian, you know, sort of take you to, like, a small community group of 12 and I’m, like, this is bush league, you know?
Frank Schaeffer: And of course, and of course the other thing that the Vatican does is people go to the Vatican, they’re very impressed because of the scale. But scale is one thing. And then the other thing that both evangelicals and Roman Catholics do is say, well look how ancient this is. How could this not be true?
Frank Schaeffer: And of course that’s always crazy because nothing’s ancient in human terms. We were a flyspeck, you know, we, we’ve only been here ten seconds, we’ve barely drawn breath in terms of even Earth time and archeology, let alone in the universe. So it’s all a matter of proportion. But in a kind of an ignorant view of history that sees 2,000 or 3,000 years of history as ancient, or going back to the advent of the beginning of the written era, this kind of thing on one hand, or is impressed by somebody having a private jet or whatever. Then access to power and scale becomes an internal kind of proof. And obviously that’s the dynamic of these Trump rallies. Everybody puts on their red hat and there’s a few thousand of them. They’re all screaming the same stuff, makes you feel like you’re at the center of something meaningful and you’re never going to back off because if you do, then the validation of yourself goes away. And so once you’ve gotten so deeply into this where admitting any error or that the whole thing may be bullshit from top to bottom, you can’t tug at any of those threads and not have it all fall apart in your hand. And that’s why they will stick with him even if he does shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue.
Nima: Right, exactly.
Frank Schaeffer: And that’s why these guys know they’re being ripped off by people like John Hagee. And they know that these so-called Christian movies are propaganda formula from beginning to end, but they go because it reconfirms their own view again and again and again on a scale and in a medium that makes them feel like somehow they are important.
Nima: Oh, totally. I mean, you know, you talk about apologetics and the kind of rockstar-ness of these celebrity prosperity gospel preachers and you know, that actually really just reinforces the entire point of this incredibly successful Christian film that we’ve been talking about on this show, God’s Not Dead, where the entire thing is premised on this super cynical atheist philosophy professor — Oh, dear. Oh, no!— at a, you know, campus in charge of teaching our young ones who abhors religion and the entire thing is this freshmen who goes up against him to prove the existence of God and that God is not dead. And it actually ends at a Christian rock concert where everyone is praising Jesus of course. And then the call to action, ‘cause there’s a call to action basically at the end of all of these films, is that everyone needs to text everyone in their cell phone, text everyone, “God’s not dead” so that we can all evangelize everyone together and, like, reinforce the myths that everyone is supposed to believe.
Frank Schaeffer: Yeah, I mean basically you have, if you’ve got 10,000 people telling the same lie, it starts seeming true simply because of the volume of the noise they’re making to themselves. And this again has been Trump’s trick. Trump would have been a great evangelical televangelist, he would’ve been a wonderful preacher-
Adam: Oh, hell yeah.
Nima: That’s basically all he does.
Frank Schaeffer: Yeah. And these guys recognize him as one of their own, you know, it’s kind of like honor amongst thieves. There’s same carbon copy dynamic between them. So a guy like Trump and Jeffress or John Hagee or Pat Robertson or you know, all these guys, they’re cut from the same piece of cloth. And when it gets to this validation by if there’s 5,000 of us jumping up and down a Christian rock concert, somehow this must mean something, is exactly what you see obviously in other religions and what you see is a reinforcing process of intimidation to the outsider on one hand, but also this ongoing forms of propaganda and it changes in each generation, but Christian cinema is nothing different than what is going on in church every day when you dip in and out of evangelical meetings, it’s just simply on a different scale and it’s a little bit slicker. That’s about it. Something, obviously as someone who’s a writer of fiction and nonfiction myself and who’s been a painter and done these different things, I want to bring up an interesting thing about evangelical Christian, which of course is shared on the Left as well, and you know when you look at propaganda that came up with the Soviet Union and this kind of thing, one of the tragedies of Christian cinema, if I can get serious for a minute, it’s the same tragedy as Christian, quote unquote “Christian fiction.” It goes back into these apocalyptic things that started coming out in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the ultimate expression of which and the bestselling of which was Left Behind series of novels, that sold 60 million copies today. And that is a complete lack of understanding of the intrinsic value of art itself. In other words, the idea that art, whether it’s literature or cinema or photography or any other art form, music and so forth, has intrinsic value that does not necessarily need to be justified by its propaganda value. So rather than saying, ‘What is this painting saying?’ or ‘What does this movie say? Whose side is it on politically?’ That actually real art rises above that and like love, like sexual attraction, like aesthetics, has intrinsic value that needs no justification. And the sad and most ironic part of this Christian cinema stuff and the whole evangelical trend of getting into writing novels and, like, the Left Behind series and so forth, is that they’ve actually denied the best of the evangelical Christian tradition going back into the work of people like Bach and Vermeer and Rembrandt, and even someone like Shakespeare who was certainly not a Christian in the sense we mean it, but had religious and spiritual themes. But in their work, these themes were put to the service of what they believed was an even higher purpose. And that was the art itself. There was a value in the intrinsic worth of art. So essentially they’ve pimped themselves. This is like someone who has no sense of the value of love and everything is prostitution in some form or another in trade for something else. Well, they’ve done the same thing with their gospel message and that is that they turn out shit art because all they can make is propaganda because in their view, art has no value intrinsically, it’s only worthwhile as a tool and a stepping stone to get your message out. And if you think about that, it’s very sad because that’s the death of any kind of valid human expression in an aesthetic sense if it always has to have some other thing. So I just wanted to add that because that’s a real change for Christianity when you realize that people like Johann Sebastian Bach counted themselves as Christians and yet he could write the Brandenburg Concerto and it didn’t have to wind up with a gospel message in it because he knew the value of music, period. That was it.
Nima: Right. So Christian action movies, for instance, are in many ways just like Hollywood, you know, movies, they’re rife with the same kind of Islamophobia and as Jack Shaheen has, has put it, Reel Bad Arabs, but Christian cinema leans, like, really, really heavily into Christian Zionism a lot, with Israel painted as always the ultimate victim. The noble democracy emits a sea of terrorist hostility threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran that doesn’t actually exist. But there’s something else at work here. And it’s this underlying notion of extreme antisemitism that runs throughout these movies. Can you explain a bit about how Christian Zionists love Israel while at the same time just hate Jewish people?
Frank Schaeffer: Well, yeah, Christian Zionists love Israel, hate Jewish people. I’ve written things on this and I’ve blogged on it and I’ve talked about it, but let me give you an example torn from the headlines that happened just literally a couple of days ago, and I mentioned it before. Ann Graham Lotz is on with Jim Bakker explaining that though she was nervous about stabbing the Kurds in the back and the Syria Christians of northern Syria by pulling out and abandoning people who have lost 10,000 fighters in trying to close down ISIS operation, yes, that seemed like a bad thing until she realized that when she saw a picture of the Russian patrols moving into what had been the week before an American base, suddenly she saw this as Trump being used by God to fulfill prophecy. Well, what’s the prophecy? That Russia and Iran and forces coming from the north will attack and destroy Israel that will trigger the return of Christ who will fight and kill these forces of darkness and evil. In the meantime, the prophecy being fulfilled means that all Jews, all Jews worldwide, all Jews will die except for 144,000 of them who have converted at the last moment to faith in Jesus Christ as the son of God. All right. So when you unpack that and you realize that her idea of Zionism is to keep Israel around long enough to trigger the destruction of every single Jew in Israel, you get the true picture of how Christian Zionism is essentially the most profound and shockingly antisemitic movement of all. If you track back the ideas of Christian Zionism, you also find in their theology, expressed by my friend Dr. C. Everett Koop, who was surgeon general of the United States by the way, so not just the lunatic fringe, but people of science sometimes as well, that the Holocaust itself was brought about as a fulfillment of God’s prophecy to the extent that it triggered the return to the holy land and to Israel in the 1930s and ‘40s with the rise of Nazism in Europe and culminating after the war in Israel being founded in 1948, that that too was quote-unquote “of the Lord.” So when you look at Christian Zionism, it’s not in any way to be confused with a love of individual Jews and/or tolerance. It is the ultimate form of antisemitism on a just terrifying scale because the prophecies to be fulfilled means the liquidation of the Jewish people in the final Holocaust. And this time the final solution is final. And that’s not a stretch. That is, that is exactly the way the evangelicals interpret prophecy. There is no room for the Jews to survive who do not believe in Jesus and in the end they will all be liquidated. And when you have Ann Graham Lotz as recently as last week talking about God fulfilling prophecy through Donald Trump by opening the door for Russia to sweep down from the north and destroy Israel, you know that this isn’t just some conspiracy theory from the 1940s or some farfetched fringe movement. This is the heart of the evangelical community and always has been. And that’s a really inconvenient fact that you don’t hear most people unpack as honestly and as straightforwardly as I just have, but Ann Graham Lotz came very close to saying it exactly in the same words that I’m rolling out right now.
Adam: This speaks again to the broader question of the common theme is that religion overtook politics and then I’m sort of sympathetic to the idea that it’s actually the other way around. Now obviously politics have always been, or religion has always been political, but I think in terms of, like, the kind of day-to-day rote routine of religion has become about, yeah, this sort of dreary call to action, voting Republican every two years. But one thing I want to ask about is the idea of deprogramming, because I want to be somewhat constructive here. We’ve been dunking on evangelical Christianity for, you know, a long time here and I think that’s perfectly fine to do and I think it’s done from a place of, you know, we’re sort of trying to break down the tropes so we can better understand them, but obviously, you once believed it and then you stopped believing it. And I know that I never really was a true believer, but I grew up in a church and I no longer believe it and I know there are several people listening to this who did as well. We shy away from, on the show, the kind of what I view is itself an imperialistic and racist new atheism of your sort of um, of your Bill Maher types. But I want to talk about what liberals, the Left, generally speaking, what are some of the ways in which they can engage those who maybe are not totally a lost cause and try to bring them into some political or social program that can sort of scratch that itch and redirect what may be a good intention, desire to live a more, you know, a bigger life than oneself. What have you found has been effective in your life and what stories that you’ve seen that make people kind of get, I hate to use the word “deprogrammed,” but deprogrammed?
Frank Schaeffer: Well, you know, interesting that you say this because, and I’m not being clever here, but honestly it ties into what I was saying a moment ago about the intrinsic value of something. Look, I’ll give you an example. I think for instance, as a father and as a grandfather who does childcare five days a week, ‘cause I pick up two of my three youngest grandchildren at school every day, that when I sit down with a right-wing Republican voting father or grandfather or mother or grandmother and I can talk to them about the intrinsic value that I find in loving my grandchildren and the joy and pleasure I get out of cooking for them and building this giant crazy play area in my backyard and so on and so forth. When I’m able to communicate about the value of falling in love as a husband and as a partner with a woman I’ve been with for years, when I’m able to talk about the pleasure I get out of building, rebuilding my barn this summer with the carpentry that I do on my own project. When you’re able to cut to the intrinsic value of life experiences itself, especially those that center around beauty and creativity, family, beauty, creativity with children, these common areas where, irrespective of how you vote or where you would go or don’t go to church, people understand. Then I think we have an opportunity as human beings to relate to people and show them that we are not monsters because we are not on the same page with them politically, but also that the very things that make their hearts beat a little faster, the love they experience in their life, the dedication to creating beauty in as much as they do for their families and the people they love most and who are around them. That these areas of commonality actually cut through not just political barriers, but they in a sense are the best denial of this propagandistic, power-hungry quest for relevance that so much white evangelical Christianity in its desperation has become and that has driven them toward people like Trump as somehow validating.
So I think the key here is to get the discussion out of the political realm and get it back into those things which we as human beings share as acknowledging the intrinsic value of these things as being the kind of basis, the foundation of our actual personal, forget political, personal existence. When we can get the discussion into those areas on a one-to-one basis with people, we are back in a position where we can actually talk as human beings to each other. When it gets into the realm of who you voted for or who you’re going to vote for in 2020, that battle is lost. We’re not going to change their minds. That doesn’t mean every single individual will never change their mind, but it will not be on a political basis. When it gets into appealing to the empathy part of human existence rooted into the intrinsic value of the experiences that make us human beings, there I think we still have something to talk about, but you got to reach out and talk on that level and on a personal basis. And that’s where I think we have some hope.
Nima: This has been so great and that’s a great place to leave it. Frank Schaeffer, author, artist, filmmaker. Thank you so very much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Frank Schaeffer: Hey, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Adam: Yeah, it was great to get that insider’s perspective. I imagine that having once been in that world and being out of that world gives you a real sense of what, and this is something you hear from other people, that what kind of greases the skids, that it’s just the constant money and power. It becomes this total self-reinforcing worldview. And of course it’s a weapon for politicians to use as well to get asses out of the seats and into the voting booth. That’s a powerful force for the Democrats. They used to be unions, not so much anymore, but you know, there used to be a sort of a secular civil analog to that and that’s a powerfully reliable voting base.
Nima: Yeah, no, it’s true. And the idea of feeding people what they most want to see, that, like, just so reinforces what they already think and gives them even more tools to feel like they are the victims of a society that is holding them down, that they are the oppressed ones, that they are working against not only the terrorists and the overzealous Big Brother government, but they are working against your atheist philosophy professors and your journalists. You know, there’s a lot about not trusting the media as also Frank pointed out and so, yeah, I mean, they completely just reinforce the worldview.
Adam: And the constant grievances. It’s, like, it’s, they’re always being persecuted. It’s thrown to the lions. There’s a powerful like school shooter manifesto energy to it. It’s very, like, ‘I’m being oppressed by these outside forces,’ namely feminism and secularists and Muslims.
Nima: So that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. It will also do it for 2019 on Citations Needed. Remember, we are going to be off for the rest of the year. We will be back with hot new episodes in 2020, so thanks everyone for listening to us. It’s been an amazing year. We cannot thank you enough for all your support.
Adam: Definitely look for the next year. Uh, we’re going to raise the stakes. Maybe we’re going to kidnap the president. We’re going to introduce a love interest. So you never know what’s going to happen. Twist and turns.
Nima: We’re going to fucking steal the Declaration of Independence.
Adam: You know, I got to say, I think National Treasure is actually a very fun movie.
Nima: It’s a national treasure. I agree.
Adam: I would say it’s a national treasure. Part two, not so much, although I have a whole theory about Ed Harris in that movie, but anyway.
Nima: So look out for that in 2020, everyone. Thank you, everyone, of course, for listening. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work and the show at Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And as always a very special shout-out goes to our critic-level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Research and writing by Julianne Tveten. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks, everyone, for listening. We will catch you in 2020.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, December 11, 2019.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.