[Jesus Politics premieres tonight at 7pm at the Cantor Film Center (36 East 8th Street) in Manhattan. A Q&A will follow the screening.]
The idea for Jesus Politics, a road trip documentary spanning 4000 miles and 17 states in which director Ilan Ziv interviews the religious activist supporters of both Democratic and Republican candidates during the presidential primaries, came when Ziv noticed the prominent role religion was playing in the most recent campaigns. As a veteran of the 1973 war in Israel, Ziv fled his homeland 35 years ago specifically to live in a society in which the separation of church and state was an inalienable right. Stunned and dismayed by the sudden rise in post-9/11 Bible thumping, he decided to investigate. Ironically, what Ziv found reveals more about this immigrant filmmaker’s romantic notion of America than it does about the country itself.
Ziv’s filmmaking approach is fairly standard and predictable—talking head interviews juxtaposed with archival and news footage—which leaves the heavy burden of keeping our attention to the material he gathers. And herein lies the problem. While the discoveries the director makes may be eye-opening to an Israeli, anyone born and raised in the U.S. will find them merely shrug-worthy. Case in point: one theologian tells Ziv that religious action and social action are combined in the black church, which Ziv follows with footage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Then the director goes on to express his amazement that the civil rights movement was headquartered in an Alabama church. (Though Ziv grew up listening in awe to the great reverend’s speeches, Israeli students were never told that this struggle fomented in the pulpit before it hit the streets.) Shrug.
Then there’s the downright dubious information he gathers from book-plugging theologian Randall Balmer, who cites the turning point when religion ceased to be an issue with voters as Kennedy’s 1960 speech in which the candidate declared the separation of his Catholicism from his politics (what Balmer has catchily dubbed the “Kennedy paradigm”). After running the archival footage, Ziv lets Balmer expound upon Nixon’s immorality as the cause of voters returning to religion as a ballot-casting factor, which, of course, cleared the way for born-again Jimmy Carter. It’s a nice pat explanation that Ziv accepts at face value, but which left this American scratching her head. If voters had become indifferent to religion upon the rise of the “Kennedy paradigm,” then how is one to explain all those Catholics proudly pulling the lever for JFK? It’s not that religion has ever ceased to be a factor—on the contrary, it’s been ingrained in all politics from day one. It merely goes through phases of its vocalization being more or less “politically correct.”
I longed for Ziv to interview the brilliant and humble journalist, and former priest, James Carroll, the author of the book, and subject of the terrific film of the same name, Constantine’s Sword. With history to back him up, Carroll clearly and meticulously proves that religion and politics have been entwined all the way back to the scape-goating of Jews for Jesus’ death (it’s bad politics to blame your Roman oppressors outright in biblical print—you’re liable to be slaughtered!). Likewise, every religion began as a center for community, encompassing every aspect of society including the political. America was founded as a place where people like the Quakers could practice their religion in peace. How could these voters’ religious values not seep into politics? Today, Obama making reference to Jesus as a grassroots organizer is merely stating the obvious.
So from the Iowa caucuses and the black Reverend Helen Seenster declaring, “My Sunday values must determine how I vote on Tuesday,” to New Hampshire and the evangelical activist Pam Colantouno lamenting “the aborted babies whose body parts were being sold on the black market. On the black market of pornography. Or in the underground of pornography. That issue,” Ziv manages only to tread well-worn territory. In the end the most shocking aspect of Jesus Politics (well, besides Pastor Hagee’s Christians United For Israel promo video featuring folks in cowboy duds performing Hava Nagilah as a country and western tune) is not “how much more” religious America has become, as Ziv concludes, but his own blindness to how religious it’s always been.