Our Morally Superior Nation: Movies That Reflect The Corrosive Influence Of Religious Extremism

The disturbing, persistent vein of religious fanaticism and corruption existed in this country long before those interminable dog days of George W., as these film titles indicate.
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With a couple of recent celebrity scandals, a troubling aspect of the American character has reared its head once again: a moral absolutism and extremism fostered largely by the fanatical religious right -- be they fundamentalist, evangelical, or the more orthodox wing of the Catholic Church.

Their vocal and powerful presence in the social discourse of America marks ours as a country populated by more than a few intolerant, unforgiving prudes and, worse, hypocrites.

Just consider the Letterman case: the prevailing attitude seems to be that he got off pretty easy. Still, let’s not forget the inevitable media circus that came with his disclosure, with a growing list of young employees stepping forward with all the tawdry details of their encounters.

Of course, the press plays right into this shameless exploitation: in decline and desperate to milk any salacious tale that will drive sales, they assume (too often correctly) that their audience wants to know every last grimy detail. And as we in turn get drawn into the feeding frenzy, whatever position we take, we play right into the hands of the zealots: if we take a sympathetic stand, we are seen to wallow in the trash and expose our own low natures; if we take a more judgmental view, we appear to wag our collective finger at a miserable, dissolute sinner.

To me, it all feels grotesque.

My perhaps old-fashioned view is that in this specific instance the attempted crime was extortion; the fact the adultery was involved, while it can hardly be kept secret, should largely remain an issue between Letterman and his wife. Is this so odd? After all Dave is no role model, neither politician nor priest; he is a talented and famous TV personality. Those outraged that men in power are prone to straying are simply living in a fantasy world -- this is nothing new, nor will it ever go away through the power of prayer.

Personally I preferred the days when reporters and their public actually respected individual privacy to some degree. Maybe it was a silent acknowledgement of our shared, highly imperfect humanity, and perhaps also a belief that an Orwellian, “Big Brother” society should be avoided at all costs.

Times have certainly changed, in that today’s technology ensures most everything we do can be tracked. And in this environment where there is virtually nothing off-limits to the public, the rigid, black-or-white influence of the original Puritans endure, as far-right factions promote a culture of intolerance, character assassination and fear-mongering, and as they themselves trample on individual rights and commit crimes (like working to deny women's right to choose), all in the name of righteousness and morality.

The saddest part of this is that these corrosive forces undermine all the most positive aspects of organized faith and religion: the ideals of human generosity, humility, and forgiveness all recede amidst lies, corruption and condemnation.

The most recent Bush administration may have done more to empower these groups than any administration preceding it: our “born again” ex-President who relied on the Almighty to guide his decision-making.

However, this disturbing, persistent vein of religious fanaticism and corruption existed in this country long before those interminable dog days of George W., as the following timeless titles indicate:

Inherit The Wind (1960)- In this courtroom drama based on the landmark Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s, defense lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) and fundamentalist prosecutor Matthew Brady (Fredric March) face off when schoolteacher Bertram Cates (Dick York), is put in jail for teaching evolution in tiny Hillsboro, Tennessee, with the arrest instigated by his girlfriend's disapproving father, Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins). Kramer's spellbinding film features a deft performance by Tracy as the rumpled, deceptively plain-spoken Drummond (modeled on Clarence Darrow), matched by March's larger than life, virtuoso turn as Matthew Brady (based on William Jennings Bryan). Just sit back, pretend you're sitting in that humid courtroom, and watch two old pros at work. You'll re-live history. Also look for Gene Kelly in one of his only serious, non-dancing roles as a cynical journalist based on H.L. Mencken.

Elmer Gantry (1960)- Though obviously dissolute, charismatic street preacher Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) teams up with touring tent revivalist Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), and before long the two are making money hand over fist. Falconer falls in love with Gantry, and with her new spoils, builds an enormous house of worship by the ocean. But the mercurial minister's womanizing past is about to revisit them in the person of Lulu (Shirley Jones), a jilted prostitute out for a little payback. Based on the bestselling novel by Sinclair Lewis, this tale of a lustful, larger-than-life charlatan's fall from grace owes its strength to the force of Lancaster's dynamic, Oscar-winning performance. His Gantry preaches hellfire and brimstone, but loves life -- and women -- with a hearty gusto that is as pure as Sister Falconer's vanity is unbecoming. Jones also took home an Oscar, playing against type in a sultry turn as a minister's daughter who became Gantry's lover. Also great is Arthur Kennedy as an atheist journalist modeled on the legendary H.L. Mencken. Fiery and sharp, this satirical take on Bible-thumping hypocrisy and hucksterism speaks volumes in today's world.

Marjoe (1972)- This skin-crawling exposé of the tent-revival circuit focuses squarely on one Marjoe Gortner, a former child evangelist who returns to preaching as an adult, charging up sold-out audiences throughout the South with his fire-and-damnation-style sermons, and bilking them for every cent they're willing to cough up. A convert himself to the sixties counterculture movement, the groovily clad, charismatic preacher invites a film crew to trail him around when he decides it's time to end his sham double life and leave the lucrative "business" behind. Like a lightning bolt to the heart, the Oscar-winning Marjoe hits its mark with illuminating mercilessness. Opening with old videos of Marjoe preaching hellfire at age 4, the directors give us a taste of what the openly fraudulent evangelist, a flower child who professes no spiritual belief whatsoever, can accomplish with a microphone, as he works his congregations into a moaning, epileptic fervor. Even more fascinating is how honest the narcissistic Marjoe is about his personal misgivings, his atheism, and the profit motive behind these Pentecostal meetings, which he headlines with a mix of rock-star bravado and sanctimonious humbuggery. Marjoe is infuriating, but also strangely cathartic, as we witness Marjoe’s mask falls away.

The Apostle (1997)- After discovering that his wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) is having an affair with younger minister Horace (Todd Allen), devout Pentecostal preacher Sonny Dewey (Robert Duvall), a father of two young children, loses his wits and attacks the man with a bat, sending him into a coma. Fleeing Texas, Sonny assumes a new identity in Louisiana, opens a church, and revitalizes the faith of mostly black locals with his spirited, inspirational sermons. But Sonny’s past sins aren’t so easily washed away. Veteran actor Duvall wrote, directed, and starred in this stirring evangelical drama about faith, personal passion, and moral responsibility, a pet project he spent over a decade bringing to the big screen. Duvall is nothing less than sensational as Dewey, a pious yet deeply conflicted man whose belief in salvation is never in question. Excellent performances by Fawcett, Miranda Richardson, and Billy Bob Thornton as a bayou racist tweak the picture, but Duvall throws himself into the marquee role heart and soul. The Apostle will make a believer out of you.

Deliver Us From Evil (2006)- Grappling with the pedophile scandals that have brought the Catholic Church to its knees in recent years, Director Amy Berg has a harrowing heart-to-heart conversation with Father Oliver O'Grady, one of the most notorious child rapists, who recounts his crimes in painfully specific detail. Berg then interviews his many victims, still scarred by their encounter with O'Grady, and still angry at the unconscionable harboring of this serial molester by Church authorities. Of course there is something revolting and horrifying about O'Grady, now living safely in exile in Ireland thanks to the exertions of his superiors, but how remorseful can we really expect a sociopath who viciously assaulted children over three decades to be? Scarier still are the Church bigwigs, like L.A. Cardinal Roger Mahoney, who prefer to arrogantly deny their role in protecting a monstrous man of the cloth rather than remain true to their spiritual calling. This is disturbing stuff, but luckily Berg contextualizes all of it for viewers wondering how -- yes, in God's name -- these crimes were ever allowed to happen.

Jesus Camp (2006)- This eye-opening documentary trails Pentecostal children's minister Becky Fischer in her quest to, as she phrases it, indoctrinate the next generation of evangelical leaders. Glimpsed mainly at a "Kids on Fire" summer retreat in North Dakota for those under 15, these youths dutifully pray for theocracy and the vanquishing of Satan in cathartic sessions and hear tough-talking teach-ins about sin and salvation, abortion and politics, and laying down their lives for Jesus. By focusing intently on a single woman's efforts to raise a theocratic revival in America, film-makers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing have supplied us with a thumbnail sketch of this country's fastest growing, most influential social movement. Home-schooled by evangelical parents who teach them creationism instead of evolution, amiable preteens like wannabe preacher Levi and proselytizer Rachael are urged by Fischer to pray for George W. Bush and pro-life Supreme Court appointees, then given over to fervent prayer sessions in which they speak in tongues. The filmmakers opt to showcase radio talk-show host Mike Papantonio in lieu of critical voiceover, but they really needn't have: Fischer and her juvenile God's Army are alarming enough on their own.

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