It’s helpful, when watching Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary Friends of God, to picture her as the late, great Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin. Mentally swap her urban-hip voice for an Australian accent and her New York clothes for khakis, and she leads a tour through her perceived outback of American Evangelicalism: “We’re far from home, mates! Perhaps we’ll spot the Red-Tinted Evangelical Warbler. Crikey!” Friends of God: A Roadtrip with Alexandra Pelosi, appearing on HBO, is a safari film for liberals to gawk at the Evangelical natives. This is not to say that the documentary is unfair: Pelosi makes a genuine effort to understand what motivates these God-minded fellow countrymen and, in the process, gives Evangelicals the chance to see themselves as others see them.
The film begins with a scene of thousands of congregants in Joel Olsteen’s megachurch, Lakewood, lifting up their hands, closing their eyes, and singing “I am a friend of God.” She spends a great deal of time in the now-disgraced Ted Haggard’s New Life Church, which gave her almost unlimited access. Then the film takes on more of a roadtrip feel, a stop with the Christian Wrestling Federation, a conversation with Christian Comedian Brad Stein, a parking-lot discussion with Cruisers (of cars) for Christ, and a visit with a homeschooling family of 12. She hits the HolyLand Experience theme park in Orlando, where tourists point their camcorders at an actor giving Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and then moves on to a Biblically themed miniature golf course and a drive-thru church. She meets with individual believers, such as the Rev. James Potter, who spends his own money to erect crosses all over the South, at $25K a pop. She follows one pickup-truck evangelist who has scripture emblazoned on his tail gate. Images of countless roadside crosses, religious billboards, and church marquees punctuate her interviews.
Finally, she visits political evangelicalism, such as Jim Sedlak of the American Life League, a Rock for Life rally, and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. She highlights the Big Three in Politics: Evolution, Abortion, and Homosexuality. She films Ken Ham, a creationist lecturer, asking children, “Who should you always trust first, God or the scientists?” Afterward, she asks the children what they believe, and, like children everywhere, including those who get a different kind of indoctrination in Manhattan’s elite prep schools, they dutifully recite the lesson they’ve just been taught. She shows some clips of Pro-Life speakers and the March for Life in Washington, D.C. She plays some clips of “one man, one woman” sermons. On one issue only, the homosexuality issue, does this child of San Francisco allow a rebuttal into her documentary. Mel White, a gay former-writer for Jerry Falwell, speaks of his perception of the evangelicals as anti-gay, then offers one of the most succinct assessments of evangelicals in the movie, “These people are sincere,” he says. In his mind, that makes them more threatening.
Filming took place before the recent election and when the debate over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Alito was in full swing. Alexandra’s mother, Nancy Pelosi, was still minority leader of the House Democrats. Ted Haggard was still a pastor and president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Days after Pelosi finished filming the documentary, Haggard resigned from his post amid accusations of drug use and sexual misdeeds. Much of the buzz about her work comes from the inclusion of Haggard. There are, in the clear light of retrospect, some very creepy moments with Haggard. He claims that Christians have the best sex lives, then proceeds to interview two men in squirm-inducing detail about their activities with their wives. One of the final clips of the film shows Haggard talking about sexual purity and the responsibility of pastors to live a pure life.
Haggard aside, the documentary is as interesting for what it didn’t do as for what it did. Pelosi makes no mention of fundraising, budgets, or requests for offerings, often a method used to criticize the church. She doesn’t film anyone speaking in tongues, being “slain in the spirit,” or any of the other more charismatic expressions of evangelical belief. A gentle swaying and a few tears are as extreme as the worship gets. She asks fair, difficult questions. When the pick-up truck driving evangelist declares, “With Jesus, you’re a winner,” Pelosi asks, “Does that mean that if you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re a loser?” Turns out his answer is yes. She doesn’t do a lot of commentary in voice over, letting the people talk for themselves. Fair and balanced? Perhaps not entirely, but the film gives the impression that Pelosi is genuinely puzzled by the evangelical sub-species and genuinely trying to figure it out.
Pelosi’s questions are telling. She does not come across as hostile, but certainly as skeptical. “Do you think the Holy Spirit is here in the Burger King parking lot?” she asks the Cruisers for Christ. Their quick response that He is highlights her failure to understand that for Evangelicals, God works everywhere. “How do you parlay your religious power into political power?” she asks Jerry Falwell, not understanding that for many evangelicals, there is no divide between their values at church and their values at the voting booth.
There are other things she leaves out which skew the film. She interviews a mother of ten, who formerly had a dream of law school and a career in politics, but gave it up for homeschooling and child-rearing. Pelosi comments to her, “Most people I know, being home with ten kids is a nightmare,” but gamely runs the woman’s smiling statements that she loves her life. Pelosi doesn’t interview any other women about their careers, although the megachurches must have been bursting with career women, whether single, married, or working mothers. All her interviewees but one are Caucasian, although some of the churches appear to have a racial mix in their congregations. Her interviews are brief, spanning an afternoon or a single event at a church. She never gets past the initial evangelical witnessing moment to a deeper understanding of a person’s past, struggles, or questions. She doesn’t highlight anyone’s “testimony,” their story of how they came to faith in Christ, although evangelicals are generally eager to share them. She does not explore the theological aspects of the political views she highlights, although some of them are quite complex. Although many Christians fail to properly defend their positions beyond “the Bible says so,” there are others available who have threshed out these questions in great detail. Although she provides an epilogue about Haggard’s fall from the pulpit, the documentary would have gained depth from an exploration of the church’s struggle to deal with the sins of its pastor. (Although, to be fair, they may not have been open to media at such a gut-wrenching time.) Documentaries are defined by both what they explore and what they don’t. In this case, what has been left out is probably more important to understanding evangelicals than what has been put in. All this turns adds up to a shallow exploration of the subject, more Crocodile Hunter than Jane Goodall.
The biggest lesson of the film is that normalcy is in the eye of the beholder. When Pelosi shows thousands of people singing “I am a friend of God,” a club of skateboarders “skating for Christ,” or even an impassioned sermon, those familiar with evangelicalism see nothing odd. However, your average New Yorker or San Franciscan, or even your suburban neighbor who has never walked through the door of a church, sees something very strange indeed. Turning a hobby, such as skating or cruising cars, into an outlet for proselytizing may come across as artificial, even manipulative. The fervor of emotional worship, multiplied by thousands of worshippers, can leave those without that experience scratching their head. “There’s something very strange about these people,” says Pelosi to Haggard about the enthusiastic worshippers, “They’re so happy.” Happy, perhaps, but disconcerting nonetheless — or all the more — to many liberals. In an interview with the gay magazine The Advocate, she says, “A lot of New York liberal Democrats who go to the megachurches come back talking about how scary they are.” To those who have never been a part of evangelicalism, the lingo, the constant referrals to the Bible, the personal lifestyles defined mainly by their biblically imposed limits, religious passion, even the pure power of thousands of people at a rally, can be terrifying. Evangelicals would do well to understand this, not to conform to the broader culture, but to speak a language those outside the church can understand. Haggard, to his credit, seemed to understand the need to cut through the Christian culture to communicate to the rest of America, which is probably why he allowed Pelosi such access.
It’s significant that Pelosi latches onto the worship song “I am a friend of God,” using it for a good deal of the background music as well as the title of the film. This is something that torments secularists and people of other faiths about Evangelicals. In their eyes, evangelicals glibly claim to not only know God’s values, will, and direction, but to be His friend. Christians may forget, with constant reinforcement in the echo-chamber of church culture, how audacious that claim that is.
— Rebecca Cusey writes from Washington, D.C.