‘Alone Yet Not Alone’ and the Racial Tone-Deafness of Conservative America

‘Alone Yet Not Alone’ and the Racial Tone-Deafness of Conservative America February 12, 2014

It’s arguably one of the strangest entertainment stories of the year so far, and, depending on who you ask, can easily be spun a number of different ways.

It’s either a classic David-and-Goliath tale cut tragically short when David had his chance taken away at the last second, or it’s a tale of an insidious subculture mercifully stopped short of infiltrating the mainstream. The press is, of course, spinning it both ways.

Here’s what we know for sure: when the Academy Awards were announced, one of the nominees for Best Original Song was “Alone Yet Not Alone” from the equally cleverly titled movie Alone Yet Not Alone, which few had even heard of and even fewer had actually seen. A bit of digging revealed that Alone was an independent Christian production, and the song was composed by Bruce Broughton, who had ties to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and had apparently spent a few moments e-mailing members to encourage them to give the track a listen.

The nomination had come out of nowhere, and then, equally out of nowhere, it was revoked.

Why, though? The Academy’s official explanation was that Broughton had behaved unethically by sending the emails, but it’s hard to take that explanation seriously knowing that major studios shamelessly spend millions of dollars on awards campaigns for their films every year. If a handful of e-mails is unethical, what does that say about the lavish catered screenings, full-page ads in Variety, and shameless schmoozing that literally every other studio does routinely?

Whatever your political or religious preferences, it’s hard not to read a very different narrative into the events that transpired: the Academy revoked the nomination not because of Broughton’s handful of e-mails, but because it came to light how racially problematic the film is.

And, well, it is problematic. I confess that, like nearly everyone in the world, I haven’t seen the film, but its official summary is damning enough on its own: “Fleeing religious persecution in Germany, the Leininger family seeks a new start in uncharted country—America. . . . Delaware warriors kidnap the two young Leininger daughters and attempt to indoctrinate them into native culture” (emphasis mine).

Suffice it to say that if you read that and said, “What’s the problem?” you’re probably located perfectly in the movie’s target demographic; if you read it and winced, well, you’re not. This is why it’s so easy to frame the revocation as a simplistic red-state-blue-state conflict: the summary itself reads like a litmus test for your political preferences. Accordingly, you’ll see pieces like this one from Mark Tooley at the (conservative) American Spectator, insisting the film was DQed simply because it was religious; similarly, there’s a would-be exposé over at the (liberal) Daily Beast which essentially amounts to 2,000 words of “How dare these filmmakers have different values from ours!”

I can appreciate the conservative impulse—there is much to be learned from the past. But the sort of idiosyncratically American conservatism you’re likely to encounter in Alone Yet Not Alone is a unique phenomenon, hacked off at both the root and the branches, behaving as if we have everything to learn from our Founders and very little to learn from anyone before or after them. (As a thought experiment, try to imagine the filmmakers here making a picture about St. Ignatius or St. Thomas Aquinas.) I have no reason to think the filmmakers are racists, but the summary referenced above betrays a disturbing lack of sensitivity to the racial interactions of the last century or two, and particularly to what the Church has to learn from those interactions.

The reality is that, as a culture, we used to recount this particular narrative—of the white freedom-lover oppressed by the savage Indian—all the time. It only fell out of favor in the last couple of generations, and it did so for some really, really good reasons: namely, it became harder and harder to deny the essential humanity of Natives and whites’ culpability in their genocide and the theft of their land.

Liberal America (at least as embodied in Hollywood) tends to overcorrect for this by portraying nearly all whites as evil and nearly all Natives as good when the two are in conflict (see: Last of the Mohicans, Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, Avatar)—and it’s not terribly difficult to understand how that take can be distasteful to certain whites. Still, jerking back just as hard on the cultural narrative can hardly be seen as a solution.

Protestants, who have, in theory, rejected the Catholic Church’s endless hierarchy of saints, should be careful whom we choose to venerate. While religious freedom can certainly be thought of as a noble cause (and a valid concern in post-Reformation Europe), it does not negate the callousness with which these freedom-seekers took land that already belonged to other people. Nor does it justify the atrocities (from either side) in the endless ensuing conflicts.

As Christians, we should be working to cultivate a culture that venerates Christ above all else, instead of descending into racial fistfights: one that portrays Christians from all eras not as heroes but as sinful—often despicably so—and saved only by the grace of God; one that regards every era in the Church’s history as full of sins and heresies, but even more full of grace; one that has room for both Martin Luther King, Jr.’s prophetic admonitions and his wanton adultery; one that has room for both his namesake’s fearless preaching of the Gospel and his despicable antisemitism.

The impulse from the Right to “set the record straight” and portray America’s settlers as heroes rather than villains may be understandable to a certain extent, but it behooves white Christians at least to try to understand why so many find the narrative offensive. If we don’t, how can we possibly obey the command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)?

Luke T. Harrington has published stuff in Reader’s Digest and Cracked.com. Visit him on Twitter or at The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism.

Photo via Wikipedia.


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