The film American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel, now screening in select cities nationwide, celebrates the work of progressive Christian leaders behind the pulpit and in the statehouse, as they carve a narrow path for themselves in the politically conservative, Bible Belt state of Oklahoma. Directed and produced by Emmy award-winning sister documentarians Jeanine and Catherine Butler, it takes as its case studies two liberal Christian communities in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The featured ministers see themselves as defenders of imperiled immigrants, champions for LGBTQ rights, and advocates for the marginalized more broadly. In contrast to a Christianity whose focus is on saving immaterial souls for an as-of-yet inaccessible future, the Christianity we observe in this film self-consciously strives to relieve hell on earth. Kids are hungry. Women are incarcerated at alarming rates. Undocumented Oklahomans need sanctuary. These Christian leaders see their job as a call to combat such suffering and injustice. Their struggle has a political edge.
As it weaves its story, American Heretics constructs a conservative Christianity against which its progressive stars can shine. The film’s establishment shots show a series of barren flatlands with the occasional homestead and laundry out drying on the lines. We see boarded up storefronts decorated with American flags and hand-painted Bible verses. Old trucks drive along small hills with nothing but power lines interrupting the miles-long vista of farmland. In front of someone’s home, we see a homemade “MAGA-Trump 2016” sign alongside a Virgin Mary yard decoration and a discarded Target bag blowing in the wind. These vistas on the landscape paint a picture that is as much a class divide as it is a theological one: the educated urbanites of Oklahoma City and Tulsa versus the “backwards” evangelicals of a dilapidated and nostalgic Trump country.
Where, I wondered as I watched, are the shots of Oklahoma City and Tulsa? Where are the trendy Republican kids studying their Bibles in local breweries? Where are the massive mainline Protestant churches that line the thoroughfares of the state’s midsized cities? Where are the hipster church startups and the mega churches? A Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study of Oklahoma found that while 79% of the respondents reported themselves to be Christian, only 47% of respondents identified as Evangelical Protestant, with 18% Mainline Protestant, and 8% Catholic. A stunning 18% identified as “nones.” The film’s foil, as foils are wont to do, fails to account for the full picture. (The filmmakers are not themselves Oklahomans. They are originally from Maryland and reside now in Virginia and California, respectively.)
The assessment of Oklahoma’s political climate is spot on, however. As the film points out, all counties in Oklahoma went for Trump in 2016. It’s on this pressure point that American Heretics makes its most compelling intervention: it shows us how liberal Christians engage in—and, more interestingly, explain—their fight for traditionally blue causes in a deeply red state.
As American Heretics unfolds, we watch its progressive Christian protagonists, whose position the film endorses, defend their rendition of Christianity in full recognition that it’s not typical for Oklahoma. The main visionary here is the Rev. Dr. Robin R. Meyers, author of Why the Christian Right is Wrong, among several other books, and senior minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC Church in Oklahoma City. With a glimmer in his eye, Meyers describes what he calls “the politics of the gospel,” a phrase featured in the subtitle of the film that does the work of attempting to ground these Oklahomans’ politics in an “original” orthodoxy.
By claiming that they represent the gospel, Meyers and his fellow liberal Christians see themselves as the true representatives of Jesus. This timeworn self-authorization strategy in the 2,000-year history of Christianity depends on a historically unsustainable notion that there is an original form of “true” Christianity that can and should be recovered, eschewing others as deviant along the way. The most famous example, perhaps, is fourth-century church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, whose categories of orthodoxy and heresy sought to render the diversity of ancient Christianity into two competing camps, one right and the rest wrong. Eusebius’ rhetoric largely defined the terms of how Christians since have organized who is in and who is out. In point of fact, though, Christianity was diverse from its inception. American Heretics embraces its subjects’ failure to fit in without challenging the way inclusion and exclusion are organized. The film flips the traditional categories—attempting to make heresy cool.
While Meyers’ theo-political vision may take center stage, the story of his associate minister, the Rev. Lori Walke, steals the show. She is identified on her website as “the High Heel Rev,” and on her whiskey decanter as the first half of “the Reverend and the Representative.” Her husband, Collin Walke, is a Democratic state legislator from Oklahoma City. We learn in the film that she came up with the tagline “the Rev. and the Rep.” because she sees their work, religion and politics, as two sides of the same coin. They are engaged in the same fight on different fronts.
As she is interviewed throughout the film, we hear Walke describe something of a conversion narrative. She transformed from a Southern Baptist in the pews of a church whose pastor was teaching that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for sin into a different sort of Christian—one who now leads in the charge of Mayflower UCC’s vote to denounce racism and become a sanctuary church.
The most touching moment in the film gives us a glimpse of the toll of Walke’s conversion. We sit in the passenger seat of her truck as she drives away from her grandmother’s home, where we’ve just seen the two women reflecting awkwardly (but with great compassion) on their connection as Christians, despite their current theological and political divide. The two women sang together an old-time hymn about heaven. But the voices in unison could not cover up the palpable tension, as her grandma, Novella Lore, appeared to struggle to find something to say about her granddaughter’s making headlines in the local paper for public LGBTQ advocacy. In the truck afterward, Walke confides that Lore is worried about her granddaughter’s eternal salvation. “I just want to know one thing. Are you going to go to heaven when you die?” she says Lore asked her. Tearful but determined, struggling to navigate between deference and conviction, Walke tells us she answered yes. “I did not also add,” she confesses, “I don’t think that there is a hell. So I don’t think anybody is going to hell.”
The costs of liberal Christianity in Oklahoma are also on full view in the story of Bishop Carlton Pearson, who in the ’70s and ’80s rose to meteoric televangelist stardom as an African American protégé of Oral Roberts. Those interested in his tale will be best served by seeking out the episode of the public radio program “This American Life” that featured him, along with its recent dramatization, “Come Sunday,” currently available on Netflix. Pearson also appears prominently in the book Watch This!, a treatment of African American religious broadcasters by Jonathan L. Walton, dean of Wake Forest University Divinity School.
Pearson slowly became uncomfortable preaching fire and brimstone and eventually realized that he no longer believed in hell. His vision of a radically inclusive Christianity did not sit well with his congregation, fellow pastors, or nationwide network of friends in ministry. American Heretics tells just bits and pieces of Pearson’s story, his “gospel of inclusion” portrayed as serving a merely complementary role to Meyers’ “politics of the gospel.” But Pearson’s story is worth dwelling on, for he is the only person in this film who has actually been expelled by a church governing body. He was officially declared a heretic in 2004 by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops Congress. “The world doesn’t really see me as a bishop,” he wryly quips to the camera; “they see me as a son of bi…shop.”
American Heretics would have done well to let us hear more from both Walke and Pearson. The liberal political causes that these progressive Christians engage in are articulated mostly on screen by white men—those who have the privilege to choose transgressively the title of heretic. Walke’s and Pearson’s stories are reminders that the greatest toll of heresy, which is really just an institutional term for exclusion and erasure, is paid by the historically marginalized: women and people of color. Both narrate painful fissures with family as a result of their breaks with the conservative Christianity of Oklahoma. They have to be braver, stronger, and more resilient than those who fit more comfortably in white patriarchal systems.
But American Heretics is not principally a chronicling or a narrative of reckoning. It’s a defense for liberal Christianity. Interspersed through the film are threads of expert talking heads whose historical claims the filmmakers use in an attempt to render the heretical orthodox. The commentary serves to authorize by implication, ostensibly providing the historical grounding for the Christian practice endorsed in the film. Bernard Brandon Scott, an emeritus professor of New Testament of Tulsa’s Phillips Theological Seminary, brashly confronts the viewing audience with some valuable information: Christianity survived for centuries without a Bible; women played a part in the development of early Christianity; the United States was not founded as a Christian nation. It becomes clear that the type of Christianity the film (and perhaps some or all of its subjects) polemicizes against is a Christianity that wants a stable, authoritative Bible, patriarchal hierarchies, and a Christian nation. What the commentary does, then, is attempt to evacuate Christian conservatives of their claim on the Bible, to pull the ground of authority out from under them, to disrupt the idea that it’s necessary to be a political conservative if one is a Christian.
Oklahoma orthodoxy is indeed one in which conservative Christianity and conservative politics are wedded. But the film’s visual juxtapositions of conservative (and rural) and liberal (and urban) do not map cleanly onto the diversity of Christianity in Oklahoma. Nor do the filmmakers seem to recognize fully what they’re up against. The conservative evangelicals that flock to houses of worship in Oklahoma City and Tulsa are just as urbane and cool as their counterparts in Brooklyn and Silver Lake. Perhaps the most famous Christians in Oklahoma today are the fundamentalist Greens—the Hobby Lobby dynastic family who founded the Museum of the Bible, a $500 million dollar evangelical museum near the national mall in Washington, and also serve as loud advocates in conservative politics. Members of their family are engaged in a mission to rebrand the Bible in order to get it in people’s hands, hearts, and policymaking on a national level. The Museum of the Bible, which is headquartered in Oklahoma City, held its 2017 opening gala at the Trump Hotel near the White House. To put it bluntly, the “orthodox” opponents that American Heretics represents are in actuality slicker, wealthier, and savvier than the film captures.
American Heretics is not a film that will convince stalwart conservative Christians to switch sides in the culture war. It’s preaching to its own choir. But there are some in the audience who will benefit from overhearing the sermon. For those who have a narrow view of what kinds of politics can be practiced by Christians today, the film is poised to open minds to a wider set of possibilities. Liberal Christianity in the Bible Belt here gets a visibility that it heretofore has not had in popular culture. Moreover, the film’s mode of advocacy is just as interesting, if not more so, than the subject matter itself: American Heretics helps us see how progressive Christians tell their own stories and bolster their attempts to make a place for themselves in the popular imagination of American Christianity. The film shows a process by which liberal and politically active forms of modern Christianity are constructing their identity as Christians, deploying historical arguments that ground less familiar forms of Protestantism in a new political matrix.
Historians of Christianity attuned to the problems of the orthodoxy/heresy binary know that this is a contest over Christianity that no one can really win. We would all do well to pay attention to how those who are already marginalized lose more than others.
Jill Hicks-Keeton is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of Arguing with Aseneth: Gentile Access to Israel’s Living God in Jewish Antiquity, published by Oxford University Press in 2018, and co-editor of The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction from Lexington Books/Fortress Academic.