American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel is a 2019 documentary directed by Isabel Butler about the intrinsic connection between religion and politics in America. It focuses on a group of Oklahomans liberal Christian leaders going against the grain; thus often labeled “heretics.” They face many challenges in Oklahoma—a state described as ‘the reddest in the country and Southern Baptist in political orientation.’ Where the majority, made of conservative fundamentalist Christians, uses the Bible to justify nationalism and threaten civil liberty laws protecting minorities.
The main voice is that of Reverend Dr. Robin Meyers, senior pastor of the Mayflower Congregational UCC Church. He considers himself liberal in the literal sense of the term, ‘open-minded, tolerant of differences and exceedingly generous,’ and often jokes about the fact that ‘in Oklahoma, you can be a democrat or you can be a Christian, but you can’t be both, that would be peculiar!’
Another participant is Reverend Carlton Pearson, who became (in)famous for questioning the existence of Hell. After being accused of heresy, he found a new place at the All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa where he, and other leaders there, strive to make it an inclusive, tolerant and modern mega-church. He denounces the “elite attitude of superiority” of the American Christians who wrongly see themselves as “the chosen people from the chosen country with the chosen culture” and who want to “evangelize the world.”
“…the reddest in the country and Southern Baptist in political orientation.”
We also have Dr. Bernard Brandon Scott, acclaimed author, scholar, and theologian. He presents a gloomy picture of the region, the weight of religion in the States and throughout history demonstrating how negative partisanship had always twisted biblical interpretations, like when the power of Christianity was on the wrong side of the US history during the Civil War, and the Bible was used to defend slavery.
We are then introduced to a couple nicknamed “The Rev and The Rep” by those around them. Modern woman reverend Lori Walke, and her husband, State Representative Collin Walke, a representative for Oklahoma City serving his second term as a Democrats – who are outnumbered and outvoted. They vow to fight for the underrepresented.
The film paints with broad strokes a complex issue by bringing it down to the microcosm that is Oklahoma, that has more churches than almost anyone, yet some of the worst social statistics in the country. So, these few progressive leaders and their congregations are trying to spearhead a movement with concrete actions to make it a better place.
“…never really digs deep into the concept of heresy itself.”
It’s a nice little expose illustrated by historical documents, paintings, maps, and animated collages that are entertaining and informative. We see old ads and pictures showing how Christianity is rooted in American foundation or the religious connection in people’s daily lives.
The human stories are at the center, but, for better or worse, they are surrounded with side stories that only acted as a (nice) distraction, and it never really digs deep into the concept of heresy itself. Although, the historical aspect of the evolution of Christianity in the South – or in general – was truly interesting, unfortunately, it should be the subject of its own documentary.
One can learn few things from watching American Heretics, but for those already on one side or the other of the issues presented, the film might just comfortably tell ones what they already know bringing new hope, or will probably be, at best, ignored by others.