“Vote Jesus” is the anti-“Religulous.” Not because Vermin Supreme, who wears a conservative guise in order to infiltrate the religious right, disagrees with Bill Maher. It’s because his approach to revealing the small-minded, hateful, and downright bizarre beliefs of the so-called Values Voters is much more passive-aggressive. So much so, that it’s difficult to tell what he actually does believe. It’s difficult to trust our narrator and his motives. And that makes for very uneasy viewing.
In a trailer for the film “Vote Jesus,” the filmmakers reveal their plan. Vermin Supreme, a figure who’s already some kind of crackpot persona, will pose as a man named Ken Stevenson and run for president of the U.S.A. (To get the idea, think of a circus clown overlaying a Nazi uniform on his outfit.) To garner votes, “Stevenson” will travel through the breadbasket and Bible belt and intimately familiarize himself with the “values” that they hold dear. Once he arrives in Washington during election time, he will repeat these things back to them and hopefully, be the picture-perfect candidate for Red State folk.
It’s an interesting plan. But I’m really not sure what he hoped to accomplish. This was the 2008 election so, SPOILER ALERT, he didn’t win. But, if he somehow had been elected president, would he then have revealed that America got Punk’d? Or would he have run the country as a fake conservative? And just what does the real Vermin Supreme (his legal name, apparently) believe? A Google search reveals that he’s run for office before under a platform to promote dental hygiene and the promise to fund time travel research. It’s surreal performance art, to be sure. But he’s not exactly taking a stand.
As Stevenson travels across the country, he makes stops at places like the Mega-Creationist Conference, homophobic protests, and the Creationist Museum. He listens to their “proof” against evolution. (Hint: It’s the bible. That’s it.) Any evidence for evolution, they claim, was placed there by the Devil. “It’s his greatest deception,” they say. For an “opposing viewpoint,” he also visits with a family of atheists and atheist author Ed Kagin. He tells the former that their problems would all be solved if they just allowed themselves to be saved and calls the latter fat.
When he finally arrives in Washington and announces his candidacy, he’s surprised to find very little support for his platform. In fact, he meets with opposition from a Republican blogger who tells him he should be ashamed of himself for deviating from the two-party system. He can’t get his fellow conservatives to support his alleged values on the record. His “campaign” goes nowhere and he’s effectively shunned. He’s the conservative Ralph Nader.
“Religulous” worked very well because Bill Maher’s mission statement was clear. He does not believe in God or religion. He interviews people from all religions and asks them questions about their beliefs. In doing so, he reveals contradictions in their doctrines. They get mad and refuse to continue the interview or else they somehow think they’ve won the argument. In all likelihood, a viewer’s pre-existing views will be affirmed one way or the other. Those who agree with him will love him more. Those who oppose him will call him a tool of Satan. Ideally, however, some folks will hear Maher’s “Devil’s Advocate” arguments and just maybe he will open some minds.
Ken Stevenson’s approach is to pretend to be one of them. But to what end? In making what one assumes is an anti-propaganda film, he and director Vic David actually kind of make a propaganda film. We already know that members of Westboro Baptist Church are racist, anti-Semitic homo-hating bigots who are closer to White Supremacists than they are to Christians. We already know that there are a frightening amount of Americans who not only deny evolution, but also want to stop teaching it in schools in favor of the idea that man and dinosaurs lived together and the Grand Canyon was created by Noah’s flood. Agreeing with these people, even facetiously, accomplishes nothing and Vermin is the only one who’s in on it. It’s clandestinely subversive. And thus, his project, like his film, just feels like a big waste of time.
Editor’s Note: This review originally claimed that Ken Stevenson identifies himself as Vermin Supreme in the film. The filmmakers clarifed that this point is made only in the film’s trailer. We think it a moot point, but the filmmakers strongly believe otherwise. Check out the loony letter to Film Threat from Vermin Supreme, and Jessica Baxter’s response.