The Supreme Court testimony is over, and Peter, Gwen, and Charlie debrief at a restaurant in Virginia named L’Auberge Chez Francois.
Upon hearing the name Gwen smiled to herself, “I guess I’m not in Spokane anymore.”
Gwen’s such a sweet country girl.
As they had back to her hotel Gwen recalls the packet of financial information Cindy had sent, which she’d glanced at and dismissed as unimportant the previous day. Peter’s curiosity perks up.
“I wonder what that stuff is?”
“I peeked,” Gwen admitted weakly. “It’s just a bunch of financial records.”
“That could be interesting,” Peter said. “I’ve wondered about all the money they’ve raised.”
I find Gwen’s lack of curiosity concerning. But more concerning actually, is an exchange later on the same page. Charlie jokes with Peter that he’s going to win nine-to-nothing, and Peter objects.
“Well, there’s no way it’s going to be unanimous in my favor.”
“It doesn’t have to be, does it?” Gwen asked.
“No, just five votes. You should start praying for five votes,” the professor said. “It’s going to be close.”
Oh, Gwen. Gwen, Gwen, Gwen. I suspect that Farris, as author, is using Gwen as a device to make sure the audience knows what they need is five votes, but there are other ways to do that, and this way—and this has been done repeatedly—makes Gwen look clueless and Peter look horrid. After all, even if Gwen had known nothing about the Supreme Court before this case, Peter should have made sure she knew the basics when her case headed in this direction.
They drop Charlie off at the airport to get back to his busy schedule at the law school, and we cut to Donna for a moment. Donna is upset that Stephen made her come to his place separately so that they wouldn’t be seen together because of the Supreme Court case. Donna is being ridiculous. Stephen risked his career attempting to get his boss to shelve an interesting case because the case involved his girlfriend. I’d imagine Stephen could get disbarred for something like that. If I were Stephen, I would have let Donna know it wasn’t safe to see her at all this visit (she’s in town for the Supreme Court, after all, and you never know what lengths reporters will go to)—and if I were Donna, I’d understand that!
Anyway, Donna had planned to go sight seeing but decides to instead mop around Stephen’s apartment because “being shunned by Stockton while she was at the Supreme court was more than she could bear.” WTF. I wrote before that Farris’s male characters are essentially all deeply sexist or ethically dubious, and frequently both, but his female characters are no easier to admire. Back when Donna falsified records and lied before the court, one could attempt to put that down to her anger at the law not giving her enough leeway to protect children (although what she did was wrong regardless of her reasons). This whole thing between her and Stephen, though, is weird. She sees him as her ticket out of Spokane. Well guess what! She could just move out of Spokane. She doesn’t need a man to do that. Rita did it without a man.
I was so caught up in Donna being ridiculous that I almost forgot to mention that while moping around Stephen’s apartment she finds a green barrette with three strands of long red hair in it under the couch cushions (she wasn’t snooping—she’d lost an earring while laying on the couch). Farris tells us that “Corliss’s spirit welled up with fear and anger.” The inclusion of fear is interesting—she’s afraid of losing Stephen, presumably.
Now we shift back to Peter and Gwen, who are on their way to the banquet. Peter has looked at the financial documents, but Farris has decided to have that happen off-book. Or something. I would say off-screen if it were a movie. Anyway, Peter notices the “Heart of America—Supreme Court Victory Banquet” signs and this happens:
“I hope no one gets in trouble for false advertising,” Peter said.
“We’re gonna win,” Gwen said confidently.
“Blind loyalty always scores points with me,” he replied.
Now that’s just uncomfortable. Blind loyalty should not score points with anyone. Blind loyalty is not a good thing, and frankly, it’s created a world of trouble throughout history and across the globe. But then, everything we’ve seen so far suggests that Peter likes his women blond, gorgeous, and blindly loyal. I can’t even with this relationship.
Humphrey sees them coming in, and we get this:
“Good to see you, Peter. And this must be Gwen. You are lovely, my deer. Peter was really lucky—I mean blessed, to have found you.”
“Thank you so much,” Gwen said with a courteous but distant air. She instantly distrusted him. “But I think I am blessed far more.”
Oh my gosh there is so much to unpack here. Why does Gwen instantly distrust Humphrey? Presumably because he’s a creep, and good, godly people have an instant creep-detector. Except that they don’t. In fact, this suggestion—that you should be able to sense a religious con artist when meeting him—is highly dangerous. Some of the worst abusers are the best at getting people on their side, at making people comfortable with them, at signaling belonging.
Let me give you an example. Farris, the book’s author, recalls being deeply impacted by attending a conference where Bill Gothard spoke in the late 1980s or early 1990s. In fact, Farris was so impressed with Gothard’s message that he and his wife gave up birth control as a result. Gothard was exposed several years ago for having serially groomed and molested dozens teenage girls and young women sent to him by their parents to work as his secretaries over the course of three decades. Good evangelical Christians do not have creep-meters. Suggesting that they do is dangerous.
Peter and Gwen are seated by a former Congressman, who is now retired and serves on the board of Heart of America. Farris introduces him as follows:
McElliot had a reputation as a true conservative, with a warm personality that made it difficult for even the most liberal person to dislike him.
I’m not sure that’s how that works, but okay. It’s also a lot of tell, don’t show, but I suppose Farris probably didn’t have much space to spare at this point.
Once everyone is seated the banquet begins with a patriotic song. Because of course it does. Then we get this very strange introduction by Humphrey:
“As you know, Heart of America is a conservative, non-sectarian organization dedicated to advancing the family. Our aim is to protect all families in America. Although we are not a religious organization, we recognize that the families of this nation are well-served by the three great religions of our land—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”
Gwen gave Peter a surprised look as the word “Islam” was invoked.
“We are committed to families. We are committed to freedom. And we are committed to faith—whatever faith one chooses.”
Oh my god this is so sloppy. Who are Humphrey’s audience, exactly? Who are the 250 people in attendance? By all appearances, Humphrey has been catering to an evangelical audience, pretending to be one of them and milking them for cash. If he’s been able pull that off, he has to know that “whatever faith one chooses” isn’t going to go over well with an evangelical audience. It’s incredibly tone deaf.
But I think I may know what is going on here. Farris has created a character who is posing as evangelical but in fact is a money-grubbing fraud. He wants to be very clear, though, that this figure is just posing as an evangelical. A real evangelical wouldn’t do things like this. Farris is making it as clear as he can that Humphrey isn’t actually an evangelical. Humphrey can’t even get the language right—in other words, he’s not actually “one of us.” Writing so soon after the Jim Bakker scandal, you’d think Farris would know better than this.
Humphrey could have been written so much more interestingly than this. Humphrey offered an opportunity to delve into the problem of fraud and financial mismanagement within the evangelical world. Instead, all we get is cardboard cutouts.
Also, notice Gwen’s response to the inclusion of Islam—and only Islam, the reference to Judaism didn’t bother her. Presumably, if Humphrey had referenced our country’s Christian and Jewish heritage, Gwen wouldn’t have balked. After all, that would be right in line with conservatives’ favored “Judeo-Christian” rhetoric. But Islam—Islam is treated as a boogeyman. Don’t get me wrong, I have problems with the limitations on women’s rights that exist within many Islamic interpretations (it should be noticed that Hasidic Judaism places similar restrictions on women). But there’s something cloying in the way evangelicals talk about Judaism that feels less like acceptance and more like erasure.
I could write reams about this, and probably should at some point, but not here.
Next week we’ll find out how—or if—Peter exposes Humphrey for his unethical fundraising practices. Stay tuned!
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