A spirited, sincere documentary challenges Christianity’s role in the culture wars
By Steven Foster
No one’s going to doubt Michael Moore’s impact on the documentary film. But if Moore ever decided to tackle religion in America, or Christianity’s place in the body politic, it’s doubtful Moore would ever construct a confessional, place it in the middle of a Portland gay pride festival, and apologize for the church’s sins against the LGBT community. Which is precisely one of the stunt-y shtick tricks filmmaker Dan Merchant performs in the winning new documentary Lord, Save Us from Your Followers. Unlike Moore with his bullhorn, however, Merchant isn’t just trying to poke a hornet’s nest. Merchant’s cause is to actually create a dialogue, not a screaming match on MSNBC. Is Save Us as provocative and polished as a Moore doc? Close, but not quite. More sincere? Perhaps. Is it more noble? Definitely.
For four years, Merchant traveled the country—sometimes in a white jumpsuit emblazoned with pro and con Christian bumper stickers—to investigate the church’s often anti-Christian persona in Americana culture, mainly because his own Jesus karma was continually at odds with the with-us-or-against-us stance of the noisy rightwing believers. Growing up evangelical, his spirituality tended to skew more Compolo than Coulter (both of whom appear in the doc) and therein laid the rub. The silken robes of the prosperity gospel irritated his skin, what with that nagging world poverty business getting underneath. The talk show vitriol of hate dogma grated against Christ’s message of agape love. Republican started becoming scarily synonymous with Christian, while Democrat became more portrayed as Demoncrat. To Merchant, there was a lot of speck-seeing, yet scarcely little examination of the redwood sticking out of the church’s own squinty eyeball.
Though not as aggressive (obnoxious?) as Moore can be, Merchant does crib certain plays from the fatman’s handbook. Cute animation cues make barbwire bombs land a little softer. Like Moore, interviews with John Q. Public provide both heartache and humor. But unlike the jolly Roger & Me moviemaker, Merchant’s penchant is not to humiliate or score points for “our side,” but to offer a well-rounded, even-keeled representation of potentially explosive positions. If someone says something horrifically offensive, sneaky editing doesn’t render the statement more shocking. Merchant is content to let the quote speak for itself. Unfortunately, that makes former Senator Rick Santorum appear more harmless than he is in reality. But this non-judgmental stance also shows how Jon Stewart (Jew) and Bono (Christian) have more spirtitualized intellect and true Christian compassion than an entire Crystal Cathedral full of Robertsons, Falwells, and Bushes. Strangely, this you-watch-and-judge-for-yourself approach is shockingly impactful.
Seeing KINK-FM’s agnostic disc jockey reduced to tears as she relates her stint with faith-based World Vision is genuinely humbling. Hearing Christian thinkers indict the faithful on their strange skew toward bedroom action, while turning away from the less fundraising-friendly hot topics of war, race, and poverty has a stirring honesty. And Merchant’s own stammering apology to gays on behalf of the church is tender and moving, especially when you see the impact a single, heartfelt “I’m sorry” has on damaged gays and lesbians.
This is, indeed, a doc worth seeing and should be required viewing at every house of the Lord. Probably every house, for that matter. As Merchant says in the film, an “apology created the foundation for the conversation.” And that’s all he’s wanting to do: stop the screaming and start a genuine conversation. Lord, Save Us from Your Followers is a good icebreaker.
Lord, Save Us from Your Followers plays at the AMC Studio 30 on Dunvale through October.