There is such a thing as a documentary becoming too timely. When Alexandra Pelosi (Journeys with George) set out to make a movie about the culture of evangelical Christianity for HBO, she found a Virgil to guide her through the–well, it’s a loaded analogy, but you get the point. Ted Haggard, one of the highest-profile evangelical leaders in the country, introduced her to peers and parishoners to explain the ways of the faithful, making several cheerful points about how he, and his Christian fellows, had the best sex lives with their spouses of anyone in the country.
Oops. Pelosi handed in her documentary in late October. In November, Haggard was disgraced in a sex-and-drugs scandal with allegations that involved a male prostitute. And–oh, yeah, by the way–her mother, Nancy, became the first female Speaker of the House. Since then, Friends of God (which debuts tonight) has been covered in the press mainly for the ironies–and there are plenty–of Haggard’s lines about the wonders of red-state Christian monogamy, as delivered to the daughter of the House’s top Democrat. It’s become Journeys with Ted.
Which is unfortunate, because Friends is much more interesting for what it says about the 50-odd million (depends who’s counting) Christian evangelicals who have had such influence on the direction of the country in the early part of this century. We’ve all read plenty about evangelicals, megachurches and so on in the past six years, but I’ve never seen a film that lays out so well the entire alternative cultural world that these Christians have created: a parallel universe with their own rock music, stand-up comics, movies, pro wrestling, education and so on, to match every equivalent in the secular world. It is finally not that revelatory that one minister turned out to have feet–or another body part–of clay. It’s more important (and to this viewer disturbing) to see a group of young children being taught in a "science" class that evolution is a lie because the Bible teaches us that dinosaurs co-existed with men. As the kids are led in a peppy song by their teacher–"Behemoth was a dinosaur!"–you can practically hear America’s scientific competitiveness eroding.
Mind you, I think that. But that’s just me–I’m probably going to Hell. The strength of Friends is that Pelosi keeps her opinions and biases well to herself. She may be the blue-state daughter of the Queen of the Dems, but she approaches her subjects (as she did candidate George W. Bush in Journeys with George) with a cheerful, nonjudgmental curiosity and charm that gets them to open up to her; she doesn’t hide who she is, exactly, but she doesn’t let that overtake her film either.
Whether the novelty of Haggard’s role in Friends will keep people from seeing its greater strengths, I don’t know; but if it gets this enlightening movie more attention, that will indeed be a blessing.