A lot of non-Christians have rather negative perceptions of Christians. Dan Merchant wants to find out why.
Dir. Dan Merchant, 2008, 100 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
At a certain point in Lord Save Us from Your Followers, I looked up the Netflix progress bar to see how much time was left, because surely it was almost over. There were still twenty minutes left. And it was agonizing. This is a horrific disaster of a movie. I can’t even say that it bungled good intentions, because it’s aim is actually far shadier than it’s trying to say it is.
Dan Merchant recognizes that Christianity has an image problem in America, and goes in search of the reasons for this, and things the Church could do to change it. Now, any outsider to the faith or generally sensible person would immediately point out that there’s a pretty simple answer, something along the lines of “stop condemning and trying to control the behavior of others.” In fact, numerous people-on-the-street whom he interviews say as much. But Merchant somehow manages to complicate this issue, and he does it by refusing to call out hatred as hatred. Ironically for a movie that tries to get Christians to be less judgy, it could have used a little more judgment.
For a while, I couldn’t understand why this movie wasn’t connecting with me. I agree with Merchant’s basic idea, which is that focusing on the “culture wars” has been a huge detriment to the Church. It wasn’t until he covered an event that went down in San Francisco that I finally understood. A rally held by a youth organization called “Battle Cry” took place on the steps of City Hall, and gay rights groups staged a counter-protest. Merchant depicts the clash as that of meany-head San Franciscans attacking the poor innocent Christians (although he also blames the “bad Christians” who have poisoned the well for the attitudes of the protestors towards the faith). Every single thing about this sequence rang false, and I finally realized that it was never mentioned what, precisely, the rally was about. A quick bout of research shows that Battle Cry takes part in numerous anti-gay rights movements, including supporting Prop 8. So hey, turns out these guys are part of the problem that Merchant is going after.
Except Merchant would have you think that the problem isn’t that large swaths of Christians hold beliefs that are inherently hateful. In this worldview, the answer is just to be nice about it. You know, that “love the sinner, hate the sin” idea, that’s meant to be compassionate but which is instead massively condescending. Tolerance solves little. Acceptance is what leads to progress. The Church isn’t going to grow just by ceasing to be vocal about how homosexuality is “sinful.” The Church has to figure out that there’s nothing wrong with it.
Of course, that’s just one issue the movie tackles. Another terrific/terrible example is the look at the “War on Christmas,” which Merchant immediately disqualifies himself from knowing how to talk about by accepting that it is actually A Thing. It isn’t. He finds a city where the Easter Bunny was taken out of a public display and cites that as an example of how, truly, the culture is, in some ways, oppressing Christianity. Again and again, Merchant sets up a false dichotomy where there are “liberals” and “conservatives” and both sides are somehow valid, and the answer is to meet in the middle. No. When one side advocates hate and degradation of human rights, there isn’t any compromise that will help anyone.
In many ways, this movie reminds me of God Bless America, Bobcat Goldthwait’s anti-meanness screed which was itself quite mean spirited. LSUfYF is pleading for civility in the “culture wars” but is itself a rather uncivil film. The thing is that, much like the majority of conservative Christianity today, it couches its incivility in a harmless smile and soft voice. But all it takes is a critical look at what the movie is actually saying to realize that it’s contributing nothing helpful to the conversation.
Merchant himself is a big part of that. He’s trying to be an outsized, Michael Moore-type personality, except he’s horrifically grating (“So just like Michael Moore, then? Ho ho ho” – say the Michael Moore haters). Every joke, every set-up sketch (yes, this movie has sketches) falls flat on its face. From the Empire State Building. I am not exaggerating when I say that Merchant is the least likable narrator/host of a doc that I have ever seen.
There are isolated scenes here that are kind of good. In particular, I liked a sequence that visualizes the Church as a Frankenstein monster, with some parts trying to live out Jesus’s words, while other parts thwart all attempts at good with self-righteousness or ignorance. I must admit that, despite my strong distaste for the man here, Merchant’s intentions are at least pure. There’s one rather nice setpiece where he holds a confessional during a gay pride festival – where he’s the one confessing to and asking forgiveness from the patrons. Sure, he still believes that they’re going to hell, but he’s being nice about it.
Lord Save Us from Your Followers seeks to change the conversation, but it fails because it approaches the conversation the wrong way. It falls into the trap that’s already been set by the right wing element of Christianity (which is adept at “winning” arguments by setting up phony premises (example: the “what the founders would have wanted argument,” which sets the standard that it actually matters at all what the founders would have wanted (it doesn’t))). If you go into the conversation as if both sides are acting in goodwill, you will lose to the side that wants to turn back the clock on progress. For pete’s sake, this film features Rick Santorum talking as if he’s a voice of compassion and moderation towards gay people. Rick. Santorum. This movie is itself nothing more than a pile of santorum.