American Heretics: A Film Review

Reflecting back 20 years on the protracted outbreak of radical Islamist terrorism and the overwrought reaction by its United States victim and the calamitous consequences that followed (and continue to this day), you might recall this challenge from liberals, conservatives, the religious, and the secularists: The Islamic religious leaders of should make it clear and punishable to those who carry out acts of violence and murder are not acting in accordance with Islamic law. Get control of your people!


So why can’t the same requirement made on the religious leaders of the Christian faith to call on all true believers in the Christian message of faith, love, and charity to renounce the grotesque images of racism, misogyny, homophobia, selfishness, xenophobia that evangelical fundamentalism and its followers are draping themselves with? Or why don’t Christian theologians point out the obvious inherent contradictions of avarice and idolatry involved in the so-called prosperity gospel? It might be said that these perversions of the Christian message are not so nihilistically vile as the death and destruction carried out by their Muslim counterparts, added to the problem is that with jurisdictions of Christian churches spread across hundreds if not thousands of separate large and small sects, diluting the power of the message and enabling easy deflection of responsibility by those who have embraced un-Christian-like principles. 


If one  thinks herself to be a true Christian and are turned away from what she sees, there are not many options. Start a new church. Or just forget about the church and practice your religion alone, or with family and friends. Or join a very old congregation of liberal and progressive believers and thinkers like the Universalist Unitarians, or one of the offshoots of the Congregationalist or United Church of Christ forms of the belief.


At NOSHA’s January meeting, visitors saw a screening of the documentary American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel which was the story of one such liberal church, the Mayflower Congregationalist  UCC in Oklahoma City, which included life sketches of key members of the church’s leaders. This group of social progressives could either be considered an oasis of sanity in a desert of true believing, politically reactionary, and mean-spirited conservative fundamentalism in Bible Belt America, or as an island of outcasts and heretics by the large majority of those same conservative Christian posures and charlatans. The Rev. Robin Meyers said he was following in the tradition of his father, who was the minister of a Church of Christ congregation but broke with it and formed a congregationalist group because his progressive stance on civil rights did not sit well with the racist bent of that sect of the Church of Christ. If you know in your own heart the Christian message to be true, there is no need for faith, says Meyers, and the only thing left is the practice of that message (orthopraxy) in real time: feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, advocate equal rights and opportunities for all, and give sanctuary to those seeking refuge from misery and persecution. Associate ministers Colin Pearson—whose career in religion began under the tutelage of faith healer Oral Roberts, eventually rejected the pervasive quackery he found there; and Lori Walke as the consummate listener and consoler to the troubled, and served as the occasional  chaplain in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, where her husband Colin holds a seat as one of only two dozen Democrats.


The film is uplifting as a sort of modern day morality play, where the consequences of belief-in-action are always always a better indicator of the good than a  belief unmoved, and its advocacy that the belief in universal social justice is preferable to its hierarchical distribution according to economic class, race, ethnicity, or sex. It is a message mainly for Christians and, to a lesser degree, other religious faiths; but secularists get a rare moment to sympathize with the goals and practices of a church group, even if that group is not vociferous in its calling out  their misguided Christian brethren.


But, as non-believers know, there is another option for those who have become disenchanted with the direction of religious orthodoxy: abandon it entirely, because one doesn’t need to hold God, or Jesus, or any fairy tale princess as  the embodiment of good, any more than it needs boogie men, devils, or immigrants to represent evil reified. This was a message missing in the film, and makes one wonder if the film was more about a tribute to the Mayflower Congregationalist UCC, or a chance to imply values we interpret as “Christian “ actually have Jesus/God as their source, rather than being developed from historical and evolutionary pressures, or about promoting a progressivist vision of the primacy of reason as the final arbiter of political and social justice.


 The motto Good without God was heard in the group discussion following the film.



Marty Bankson

The Humanist Advocate

Jan 19, 2020