Thursday, January 25, 2007

Friends of God

Tonight, HBO is premiering "Friends of God: A Roadtrip with Alexandra Pelosi" at 9EST.

I was lucky enough to be invited to a preview showing last week here in DC. It started off with an excuse to hang out with some friends and eat well for free. It ended being one of the highlights of our time here in DC so far.

The basic premise of Friends of God is a trip through the South meeting evangelicals and highlighting some of the thing that make up the evangelical Christian subculture. We meet the Christian Wrestling Federation, a man who wants to put two $25,000 giant crosses next to freeways in each state, a family with a litter of uniformly dressed children, and the who's who of evangelical leaders.

The documentary shows that evangelicals are strange and how they unilaterally support the Republican party. The usual stereotypes are played up and a few people on the film clearly were earnest, but naive. Plenty of nice people wanted to convert Alexandra and used all the standard Christian jargon to do so. Do you know how strange "washed in the blood" or "bearing your pain like Christ did on the cross" sounds to people unfamiliar with the Gospel and Christian theology?

The evangelical 'leaders' were much more on message about evangelicalism and what evangelicals want for America. Joel Osteen was his usual "God wants to bless you", Jerry Falwell was his usual "Democrats are baby murderers and Hillary is the chief executioner", while Ted Haggard was open about why church is the modern village and how it feeds the spiritual hunger everyone is born with.

Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of Nancy Pelosi, didn't know two things would happen when she went on the road to film this documentary. She had no way of knowing that her mother would be Speaker of the House by the time the movie aired and she didn't know that Ted Haggard would self-immolate in a sex scandal. The first is an interesting coincidence, the second is an eye-opening revelation.

Haggard plays a main role in documentary. We see him hanging out front of his church with some parishioners, in his office, just before going on-stage on Sunday and in a small group leader meeting. I found Haggard to be very clued in about the role of the evangelical church and very articulate in expressing his viewpoints. He clearly analyzed the world we lived in and was aware of the good and evil. Which makes his downfall all the more interesting. How did he not see it coming? During one scene, Haggard is quizzing his parishioners on their sex life. Haggard claims that evangelicals have the best sex life and the guys back him up. Later, during the small group session, Haggard gives the leaders a very sound media relations lesson about acting and being normal in front of the camera because an image can easily be distorted in the press.

Overall, I thought it was interesting. At parts, I was convinced evangelicals were weird, but at other parts I thought they were misunderstood. Southern evangelicalism is certainly different that what I practiced in Seattle, London or here. Many of the stereotypes are played up, while insinuating that all 60 million evangelicals act the same way. For my evangelical readers, the documentary isn't a bad hour spent. For my non-evangelical readers, all I ask is that you adhere to the 'grain of salt' advice.

The advanced viewing that Mrs. Expat Teacher and I attended with Stubble-Jumper and Mrs. Stubble-Jumper was packed with Democratic politicians. Of course, Speaker Pelosi showed up to support her daughter. She walked within a few feet of us. Chairman Miller and Representative Harman both rubbed elbows with other important people within earshot. Chris Matthews blew past our table and headed for the bar. Helen Thomas shuffled to her seat of honor at the Pelosi table and Mrs. Expat Teacher went over to speak with her. They had a nice 2-minute conversation (I have photographic proof if you disbelieve!) about Mrs. Thomas' autobiography and No Child Left Behind.

After drinks and political rubbernecking, we headed into the ball room to watch Friends of God on the big screen. Plenty of folks around us gawked and openly mocked some of the people they saw on the least for the first 20 minutes. Pelosi did a good job getting past the actions and into the motivations. All the average people she talked to were motivated by their faith - men were spending a small fortune to erect crosses, young men were destroying their bodies for Christ (via wrestling), singles were attending church rather than the bars, etc. That won over the crowd to some extent. The snide remarks and open hostility calmed down (until Jerry Falwell was on the screen, but I was probably leading the crowd on that one).

After the screening, Chris Matthew's moderated a panel of two pollsters about evangelicals and their impact on modern politics. Matthews' started by asking evangelicals to raise their hands (we were in the minority) and say whether the documentary was fair. The standard response was a quiet "no". The pollsters were interesting, but didn't say anything I didn't know already. At the end, we were interview by ABC News because we identified ourselves as evangelicals, about the movie and our thoughts. The next day, I was pleased to see I was quoted correctly.