Filmmakers and religious scholars discussed shifts in social justice and politics in churches following a Sunday screening of the documentary “American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel.”
The 2019 film, screened on the last day of 32nd annual Virginia Film Festival, largely focuses on leaders of two Oklahoma churches who are trying to effect positive change in their conservative areas.
According to the festival’s description, these Bible Belt religious leaders refuse to accept that religion is meant only for a specific faith and are more interested in saving people from an earthly hell than the otherworldly one.
Despite running a tight 85 minutes, the film examines the complex and fraught history of Christianity in Oklahoma and the broader United States, which interview subjects argue has become more politicized in recent decades, losing sight of the tenets and practices on which the faith was founded.
Screened at Piedmont Virginia Community College’s Dickinson Building, the audience attentively watched the film and asked questions of the panel.
The panel consisted of the film’s director, Jeanine Isabel Butler; its co-producer, Catherine Lynn Butler; University of Virginia professor Larycia Hawkins; and Sabrina Dent, director of programs and partnerships at the Religious Freedom Center in Washington, D.C.
Jeanine Butler said the documentary started as a short film intended for biblical scholars, but they decided to expand it after meeting some of the people who would come to be the part of the film’s focus — the Rev. Robin Meyers and the Rev. Lori Walke of Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City.
“We kept seeing it as small stories with big messages that resonate across the country,” Butler said. “With what is going on now in the United States, we couldn’t resist tugging on the line, ‘if you’re in Oklahoma, you’re either the future or the past.’”
As someone who grew up in Oklahoma, Hawkins said the film intersects with number of experiences she had growing up in a conservative Baptist church, speaking at the Mayflower church and attempting to interview one of the film’s subjects, the Rev. Bishop Carlton Pearson, for her university dissertation.
“There are a number of personal intersections in terms of thinking about how film reads but also thinking about the future, and that [Oklahoma] really is a crossroads of the United States in a lot of ways, and not just because of the highways that cross through it,” she said.
Dent, whose non-partisan organization educates on religious freedom as a constitutional protection, said she found the film valuable as a way to have conversations about the role of faith in politics and how Americans choose to treat those who are different.
“I think it speaks to what it means to find common ground, to live with our differences in spite of what could happen to us going forward. I think a lot of that is necessary for humanity to move forward,” she said. “People haven’t quite figured it out yet, but this film provides a great entryway for us to have that conversation, not just in this large group but also in our homes.”
Later in the panel, while answering a question from the audience about the role of mainline Protestant churches in politics, Hawkins said declining church membership is not necessarily an indication that faith is waning.
“The two churches featured in the film are both mainline Protestant churches and as both [Pearson] and [Meyers] pointed to, while church membership is declining, if you look at other data, people remain quite spiritual. It’s not evident that there’s a lack of spirituality in this country,” she said. “What’s interesting is that the churches that are losing market share the most are those who are reforming socially the most, and I think Rev. Meyers is right when he says these are the churches young people will gravitate toward.”
In a couple of decades, Hawkins said people now in their 20s are likely to grow just like other faith and church movements grew in recent decades. With the younger generations continuing to value social justice, she said it seems natural that churches like the two featured in the film will become the new popular choice.