A Better Documentary about American Evangelicals

A Better Documentary about American Evangelicals April 30, 2022

A Better Documentary about America Evangelicals

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Recently I complained here about a documentary about American evangelicalism that I watched on Youtube that was produced by DW (Deutsche Welle) that focused almost exclusively on right-wing fundamentalists and that concluded with a claim that increasingly America is being influenced by dangerous fanatics. My complaint was that the documentary purported to be about American evangelicalism but did not show its diversity.

Now, please watch this CBS documentary on Youtube: An (Un)Civil War: The Evangelical Divide | CBS Reports. This is the “better documentary” I have here hinted at. The producers of the DW documentary could learn a lot from it.

The CBS documentary focuses exclusively on one American city—Nashville, Tennessee—which it says is “the buckle of the Bible Belt.” Of course, many cities and towns and even states have been labeled that during my lifetime. But I won’t quibble about that here.

Now, again, I don’t think it’s possible to portray American evangelical Christianity by focusing on one city, town or state or region. And, again, Nashville is a Southern city saturated with religion. There are many Christian colleges and universities there, to say nothing of numerous churches of almost all kinds. Unlike say Minneapolis or Phoenix or Portland, the “church culture” in Nashville is generally more conservative overall. Even the so-called “mainline Protestants” in Nashville are likely to be more conservative theologically than in the Northeast, Midwest or Northwest of the U.S.

Still, and nevertheless, I don’t object to this documentary choosing Nashville; there is genuine diversity among even evangelical Christians there.

Of course, the documentary focuses much (not exclusively) on a particular mega-church and its pastor that I find very strange and even somewhat scary. I would not attend that church or any like it. But the interviewer is at least calm and respectful and makes an attempt to show the difference between the pastor “on stage preaching” and sitting and just having a one-on-one conversation. He humanizes him. I respect that. But, of course, the point of the focus on that church and that pastor is to illustrate something relatively new that is happening among American evangelical neo-fundamentalists that frightens many of us.

What’s good about this documentary, however, is that it also focuses on two other genuinely evangelical churches in Nashville. It talks about the differences between “classical fundamentalists” (I would call them contemporary “neo-fundamentalists”) and “classical evangelicals” and well illustrates both without sensationalizing the difference.

The documentary focuses on a black evangelical church and its pastor and his wife (who is highly educated and very articulate). It is an integrated church, not exclusively black, but it appears that the church is more black than white. At least the white members/attenders do not dominate. The pastor and his wife and some members reject the MAGA narrative and emphasize America’s history of oppression of blacks, without abandoning evangelical faith. Without knowing them except from this documentary I will dare to all them evangelicals and congratulate the documentary makers for focusing on them.

Also, the documentary focuses on an integrated but mostly white evangelical Presbyterian church in Nashville (without naming the denomination). To me the pastor of that church is someone I could identify with. If I’m judging rightly from the documentary, without knowing more, I would say that is a church I, as an evangelical, could attend.

My point is that this documentary, unlike the other one I recently reviewed here, illustrates the real diversity among American evangelicals—from far right wing American nationalist that includes belief in the QAnon conspiracy to very moderate evangelicals who reject attempts by evangelicals to “take American back” for God using political means to black evangelicals who want everyone under their influence to know and do something about America’s racist past and present.

If you want a good “picture” of American evangelical Christianity and don’t have time to find and watch Randall Balmer’s excellent PBS series “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” watch this documentary. I congratulate the producers and the host/interviewer.

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