Soldiers of the Cross

The Battle Cry rally in San Francisco was one stop on documentary filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi's tour of evangelical America.
The Battle Cry rally in San Francisco was one stop on documentary filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi's tour of evangelical America. (Hbo)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 25, 2007

"Friends of God: A Road Trip With Alexandra Pelosi," a new HBO documentary about America's army of impassioned evangelicals, doesn't address the question "Why are we in Iraq?" -- but the film's parade of believers has a fervent certainty that echoes President Bush's unwavering belief in the war.

The ranks of the Bush administration include more born-again Christians "than any other administration" in American history, one of the evangelical leaders says, and Bush is heard enthusiastically addressing an antiabortion rally via telephone hookup.

Bush has used evangelicals as a power base, and is not one to shy away from a quest. Meantime, the Christians we see in this film are unyielding in the rightness of their ideas (i.e., evolution and abortion are wrong, "Jesus is the only way" and America is a Christian nation), and if someone challenges them, they simply say God has told them the truth.

Certitude is the common bond.

Pelosi, an intuitive and accomplished filmmaker, calls her documentaries "road trips" because she drives around listening to people espousing beliefs, and the Christians eagerly oblige everywhere she goes.

Pelosi was out to define the movement through the words of the faithful -- words spoken from pulpits and blaring from billboards. But her film turned into another story more or less on its own. One of the many evangelicals Pelosi interviewed was the Rev. Ted Haggard, whose National Association of Evangelicals claims, or claimed, 30 million members. Haggard rails against gay marriage and, late in the hour, says that "if a pastor falls into corruption . . . it's heartbreaking."

One year later, Pelosi reminds us in a printed postscript, Haggard was charged with engaging a male prostitute for sex. He resigned his office with the National Association in November and was also dismissed by his church for "sexually immoral conduct." During one segment of the film, he boasts that Christians have "the best sex lives" of anybody and questions a few male believers about the frequency with which they have intercourse and their wives have orgasms.

Pelosi, daughter of Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House, races from state to state, and much of what the evangelicals say has to do with loving thy neighbor and finding "eternal life." But there is also an unmistakable combative tone that grows more aggressive as Pelosi's travels continue.

By their own deeds shall ye know them. And by their words, of course.

Joel Osteen, a pastor seen weekly on national TV, says Christians must "fight the good fight." Teenage Christian zealots attend a "training camp" for "young warriors." A man identified as a Christian comic shouts from the stage, "We want our country back, and we'll fight for it" and a solicitation letter from Jerry Falwell is headlined in large italic type, "Will you join me in a declaration of war?"

They call it a culture war, Christians vs. "the secular progressive movement" (a phrase favored by Bill O'Reilly, Fox's nut-in-residence), Christians vs. abortion rights advocates, and Christians vs. science. Ken Ham and Buddy Davis indoctrinate children in the precepts of Creationism, which claims, among other things, that Job (as in the Book of) lived among dinosaurs and that those dinosaurs roamed the earth mere thousands of years ago -- not millions.

In addition to the Christian comic, there's Christian rock, Christian wrestling (the president of the federation wrestles under the name "Jesus Freak"), a hot-rod group called Cruisers for Christ and even a pro-Christian miniature golf course, replete with a replica of the tomb in which Jesus was buried.

"We skateboard for Jesus Christ," says a smiling adolescent near the end of the hour. Evangelicals also have their own Disneyland, The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, where a mock-Jesus walks around in sandals with a wireless microphone pinned to his robe.

At one point, a Christian rocker says that death is not to be feared, because "we've settled the issue of eternal life." But everywhere, beneath the widely smiling faces and facade of love in this film, there's a lurking hyper-nationalism that tries to link evangelicals with the U.S. flag and the Founding Fathers, and a seemingly paranoid hostility that maintains Christians are the most persecuted group in America.

"If you don't believe in Jesus, you're a big-time loser," says an old man who drives around in a red truck decorated with Christian bumper stickers. Meanwhile, Falwell urges his congregation to vote their "Christian convictions." And while he says he won't endorse any candidates, it just so happens, Falwell says, that three Republicans running in his state embrace those very convictions.

Pelosi plays fair most of the time, although she captured a shot of Falwell, used more than once, in which he looks like a parody of a mean, blubbery Southern politico. The documentary moves at the speed of light, not so much roaming the territory as plunging through it.

"Friends of God" is powerful filmmaking in a uniquely understated way, a tour through another America that is sometimes funny, sometimes touching, and sometimes scary as hell.

Friends of God: A Road Trip With Alexandra Pelosi (one hour) debuts tonight on 9 on HBO.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company