A MORE RIGHTEOUS PATH
The Pro-Immigrant Bible-Belt Preachers Standing Up to Trump’s Xenophobia
The new documentary ‘American Heretics,’ now playing in theaters, follows a group of Oklahoma preachers who feel Christianity’s embrace of Trumpism is a step too far.
America’s political polarization is a pervasive fact of 21st-century life, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is taking it lying down—including, stunningly, in the heartland of the conservative Christian right.
American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel, now playing in theaters, is a documentary about a handful of Oklahoma preachers who are taking a stand against what they see as the radicalization of their faith. That open-minded priests, and congregations, exist in the U.S.—championing more liberal interpretations of the gospel, and conceptions of the Almighty—is not breaking news. Yet Jeanine Isabel Butler’s film remains an eye-opening look at iconoclastic men and women who are going back to the biblical source in order to reclaim Christianity from extreme Evangelicals, who they argue have found, in President Trump, an ideal figurehead for their warped religious views.
The senior minister of Oklahoma City’s Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ, which is dedicated to preaching the Bible’s foundational lessons of compassion and charity, Reverend Robin R. Meyers suggests early on in American Heretics that Donald Trump is beloved by Evangelicals because he embodies their idea of an Old Testament-style God who’s angry, unforgiving and vengeful. Moreover, Meyers maintains that the commander-in-chief’s popularity is wrapped up in white Christians’ belief that their time as a popular American majority is coming to a close—a notion that, coupled with their traditionalist cultural values, has pushed Christianity into ever-more-radical terrain. Especially when it comes to politics.
Meyers and his colleague Lori Walke contend that they’re not interested in promoting politics from the pulpit, insofar as that means directly advocating for Democratic or Republican platforms. Instead, per American Heretics’ subtitle, they’re all about preaching the politics of the gospel—i.e. returning to the Good Book and adopting what it says about how to treat one’s fellow man, and how to live a just and moral life. As Meyers avows, he has no interest in becoming a mouthpiece for a particular party ideology. He does, though, think it’s vital for preachers to use the Bible as a vehicle for investigating the pressing problems facing Americans today—a process that, by its very nature, is inherently political.
Located deep in the Bible Belt—Oklahoma didn’t have a single county go for President Obama during either of his two presidential campaigns, whereas all of its counties went for Trump in 2016—Mayflower is a liberal outpost behind enemy lines. Valuing people’s literal actions more than their convictions, it opposed the Iraq War back in the early-2000s, and began issuing gay marriage licenses (and performing ceremonies) before it was legal to do so. In its later passages, Butler’s film depicts a vote conducted by Meyers and Walke to determine whether Mayflower should become a sanctuary church for undocumented immigrants. By a 2-to-1 majority, its parishioners ratify that measure, deciding that the Bible’s principles command them to protect those in need (and suffering from persecution), no matter the potential legal ramifications.
Given that its purview is broader than this single topic, American Heretics isn’t capable of addressing the complications of the immigration debate. Consequently, its snapshot of a single mother struggling to care for her ill child while facing the threat of deportation—and Meyers and Walke’s efforts to help her—comes across as a cursory footnote. Nonetheless, Myers and Walke’s stance on this issue is emblematic of their forward-thinking approach to Christianity, which bucks the movement established by Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts in the ‘60s and ‘70s that’s now spawned our present mega-church-dominated Evangelical environment.
The rise of the radical white Christian right is a concurrent focus of American Heretics, which alongside its concentration on Meyers and Walke’s philosophy, also spends considerable energy—via talking heads, and the usual collection of archival material—detailing the evolution of Southern religious dogma during the 20th century. That historical recap proves a handy, if somewhat hasty, primer designed to provide context for today, and the forces that Mayflower opposes. And it’s also complemented by commentary from Bernard Brandon Scott, a longstanding Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Oklahoma’s Phillips Theological Seminary, who discusses the ancient origins of the Bible and how they run contrary to current Christian-right opinions—including with regards to immigration, which Scott says is supported by the Bible because Jesus, Joseph and Mary snuck into Egypt, and thus were illegal immigrants themselves.
American Heretics’ most fascinating figure turns out to be Carlton Pearson, who rose to Evangelical prominence during the ‘80s and ‘90s as an acolyte of, and chosen successor to, Oral Roberts. In old TV clips, Pearson is seen preaching the gospel with an intensity that’s infectious, commanding the stage in front of thousands. Now at 66 years old, however, Pearson is the affiliate minister of Tulsa’s All Souls Unitarian Church, where he counsels a far different congregation—one whose membership, per the sign on the door, includes “everyone.” That shift was the result of Pearson’s realization, in the mid-‘90s, that he didn’t agree with Christianity’s conception of a God that wanted to punish non-believers by dooming them to eternal torment in Hell. When, through research, he opted instead for a doctrine of inclusion, he was dubbed a heretic and ostracized from his flock—thus opening a new door on a more empathetic faith.
Pearson’s story is compelling proof of genuine religious transformation, and that by hewing closer to the Bible, fundamentalists can become more tolerant (and, dare one say, liberal). American Heretics, unfortunately, skimps a bit on Pearson’s journey, which is all the more frustrating in light of its final scenes regarding All Souls Unitarian Church, which play as runtime-padding filler. Even those minor missteps, though, can’t neuter the film’s inspiring advocacy for a devout Christianity that’s in tune with both scripture and modern attitudes about equality and kindness. For Meyers and company, the politics of fear—against any number of “others”—are in direct opposition to the teachings of Christ. And embracing His values, even in the center of red-state America, is not only possible but necessary if one covets a truly righteous future.