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Jesus Politics: Religion in the 2008 Election

A new documentary looks at the troubling -- and mystifying -- mix of religion and politics in America.
 
 
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In 1973, Ilan Ziv was an 18-year-old soldier in the Israeli army. In the Sinai Desert, he remembers, he became "consumed by the question of what got me here," that is, how war had become the norm in the Middle East, how he had come to expect he would participate. Troubled by what he calls "the obsessive mixing of Bible with politics," Ziv told himself, "If I get out of here alive, I'm leaving this country."

And so he did. As Ziv recounts in "Jesus Politics", on arriving in the United States in the mid-'70s, he found a new sort of freedom, means to pursue his ambitions and raise a family. A photo from those early days shows him looking bushy-haired and bearded, the World Trade Center Towers visible in a distant background -- a point underlined by a zoom over Ziv's shoulder. The shot cuts to another, the Towers burning on 9/11. Ziv explains: "By coming to America, I thought I was starting a new chapter in my life ... After September 11, I wondered if I was wrong. First there was the war on terror and then, the 2008 election campaign."

Listening to candidates declare their faith early and often during the primaries, Ziv wonders, "Was it just political rhetoric or my personal nightmare come back to haunt me? I decided to see for myself." His documentary takes the familiar form of a road trip, at first visiting primary states Iowa and New Hampshire, seeking out not the candidates per se, but "the religious activists who supported them." As the film shows Ziv driving -- his face framed by side view mirror -- he worries about the "mystifying and troubling" mix of religion and politics, a mix he knows from experience leads to intolerance, distrust, and violence.

The road to such effects is not plainly marked. In fact, Ziv finds that devotees see themselves as Iowa in January 2008, Reverend Helen Seenster of Koinonia Ministries Full Gospel Baptist Church, is using her church to register new voters for Barack Obama. She's a believer and then some. "I believe that he is Osiris," she tells her parishioners, "that God has anointed him for such a time as this." When theology historian Randall Balmer reports that black churches have long served communities as social, spiritual, and political centers, the film illustrates with familiar footage of police abuses during the Civil Rights era; Balmer and Reverend James E. Jackson compare Obama not to Osiris, but to Martin Luther King, Jr. beginning as an "outsider," by virtue of his race and his "fresh" status in the Senate, Obama, Balmer says, is "running as a kind of redeemer candidate."

Ziv's film's consideration of Obama's religious contexts and foundations stops here, without consideration of Reverend Wright or efforts to call Obama a Muslim. Instead, it turns from the "sense of history" Ziv identifies in Obama's candidacy to the work of the religious right. At first, the conservative Christian vote seems inclined toward Mike Huckabee (this after he won in Iowa), but it's not long before energies shift. Again providing historical background, this time in 19th-century revivialism: Ziv finds a group of evangelical reenactors in Kentucky, earnestly reciting scripture in old-timey costumes.

Balmer says that the anti-slavery, early women's suffrage, and common school movements (among others) emerged from revivalism's "impulse to create the kingdom of God in America." He also notes that this "impulse" took a hard right turn during the 1970s. He argues that this followed revelations of the Nixon administration's many corruptions, with a brief detour through Jimmy Carter's appeal to born-again beliefs as a basis for morality. Observing the irony that Carter opened the door for the more emphatic "values voters" who followed. "Jesus Politics" paints these enthusiasts as the scariest effects thus far of mixing religious and politics in the U.S. When evangelical Bonnie Ally describes her anxieties about the 2008 primaries, she sounds prototypically small-minded: "We are all supposedly Christian, right?" she asks her compatriots. "And we have a Muslim running, we have a Mormon running. Everything's okay, and we, as Christians, we don't even bring it to the people that that is not what God says."

Ally serves as introduction to other current conservative groups, expecting access to political power structures, in particular through the Republican party. Such expectations were stoked by Karl Rove and George W. Bush's campaigns, naming the religious right the party's base, who used "issues" like gay marriage and abortion to get out the vote: Moral Majority cofounder Paul Weyrich describes the ways that organization used the pro-life movement to "motivate" voters.

In 2008, Pastor John Hagee looms as an especially disturbing figure. The film notes John McCain's initial courting of and eventual "distancing" from Hagee -- warning about the imminent end of times -- as an example of how religion is deployed to get votes. Hagee's Christians United for Israel appears here as an acutely ironic point of connection for Ziv, who sees the group as a fundraising organization more than a means to shape or promote values per se. The sight of performers in white cowboy hats and boots, singing "Hava nagilah," underlines essential disjunctions.

If Ziv's methods are occasionally heavy-handed and his reliance on Balmer's explications sometimes wearing, the fundamental questions raised by "Jesus Politics" are crucial. The relationship between religion and politics is difficult and complex, in need of close attention by all.

 

 

 

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