Director: Jeanine Isabel Butler
Runtime: 85 minutes
“In Oklahoma, you can be a Democrat, or you can be Christian, but you can’t be both.”
So says the Rev. Robin Meyers in American Heretics, a new documentary directed by Jeanine Isabel Butler. In the eyes of some, that quip might not just reflect Red State Oklahoma, but the United States as well. For many, Christianity in America is synonymous with evangelical Christianity—the faith’s most visible and certainly most outspoken branch. And since Ronald Reagan was in office, evangelical Christians have been one of the Republican party’s most reliable voting blocks. The Pew Research Center found that 69% of evangelicals approved of the job Donald Trump was doing as president—much higher than the population as a whole.
American Heretics reminds us, though, that not all Christians vote in lock step with the GOP. For some, their faith leads them in a different direction.
The Rev. Meyers, author of the book Why the Christian Right is Wrong, is one of several progressive pastors in Tulsa, Okla., featured in the film American Heretics. His church—Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ—was marrying LGBTQ couples long before it was legal to do so, and, as shown in the documentary, votes to become a sanctuary church for illegal immigrants. Throughout the film, he and others discuss how they came to embrace a more left-leaning expression of faith.
Lori Walke, also of Mayflower, recalls that while playing basketball for Oklahoma State University, many of her teammates were lesbians who were “good people who loved God.” Rev. Bishop Carlton Pearson used to be a power player for Oral Roberts’ massive ministry. But when Pearson said he no longer believed in hell, he was essentially cast out.
Pearson is perhaps the person who most fits the movie’s “heretic” label—a title he says he never imagined anyone would ever connect to him. With tears in his eyes, he speaks about how his theological stance separated him from many friends, even family members, who loved him deeply and were so proud of his career. He feels a little like a left-leaning martyr — a guy willing to buck the establishment because he felt like God was pushing him in a different direction. He puts a face on the movie’s so-called “heresy,” and the cost involved. And in so doing, he gives American Heretics a needed dose of humanity.
Butler’s documentary works best, I think, as a reminder. In an age in which American Christianity is associated so strongly with the Religious Right, American Heretics taps us on the shoulder and whispers that you can call yourself a Christian and be a Democrat, and that many people do. When the subject of immigration comes up, New Testament expert Bernard Brandon Scott reminds us how often the Bible exhorts believers to care for the “widows, orphans and foreigners.”
“If you’re going to take a Bible position, you certainly should be fore illegal immigrants!” he says—a statement that would challenge many conservative Christians.
The Republican Party has claimed the language of the Christian church for so long, that for many American Christians there is no longer any distinction between their religious beliefs and their political opinions. This clinging to our political views as one clings to a theological doctrine is at least partially to blame for the growing animosity in our country today. American Heretics reminds us it is not what you believe, it’s what you do that matters. Instead of clinging to literal interpretations of the Bible and fundamentalist doctrine, these defiant Oklahomans are reminding us what really matters – love your neighbor as yourself.
Written by Paul Asay