Not all beats are created equal, but two in particular — obviously, the ones I like the best — have the distinction of being banned dinner table subjects for most family holidays, to the point of cliche: politics and religion. And while the former has a whole wing of the journalism industry to make up for the polite omissions over Thanksgiving turkey, religion remains a touchy subject, even among journalists. When it does make US news, it’s often packaged with scandals or crazy fringey stuff. There’s the Catholic sex abuse scandals, of course, and who could forget the Amish beard-cutting sect, led by a man with the last name of Mullet? These stories are eerie, sometimes they’re terrifying, and they’ve become characteristic of what many expect from coverage of the American religious fringe.
This depiction is no different when it comes to documentary. There’s a particular brand of American Evangelical that shows up again and again in documentary films, employed like a bump in the night, a monster under the bed for more progressive audiences. Think Jesus Camp, or Tony Kaye’s (excellent) Lake of Fire, or, from this year’s Sundance, God Loves Uganda. They all feature interviews with mission-minded leaders who speak of, say, a Third Great Awakening, outlawing contraception, or “America’s Christian roots.” And the films all tend to use on-camera interviews to let the “bad guys” explain their point of view in their own words.
One prominent interviewee in God Loves Uganda, which is about the connection between American mission work in Uganda and the country’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill, is Lou Engle, creator of The Call, a series of mass days of prayer that tend to have evangelical and political missions. Engle’s also featured in Jesus Camp, for what it’s worth. And while he’s not really a main player in the inception of the “Kill The Gays Bill,” in Uganda, he has supported it publicly in the past. The story of the bill has been well-covered in print journalism, with pieces about its origins, funding, and effect on LGBT activism in the country.
In the God Loves Uganda trailer, Engle is there, close up, telling the camera about how he sees God moving in Africa. As framed by director Roger Ross Williams, Engle and his cohorts at the International House of Prayer are the personification of a sort of missionary work that’s supposed to scare the viewer.
Engle seeks out media attention, and I’m assuming he knows, by now, that it’s not all going to be sympathetic. So why do these men and women, especially if they anticipate that their interviewer doesn’t agree with them, even bother talking to journalists and documentarians?
Obviously, some of these interviews owe their existence to deception on the part of the storyteller. I spent a lot of last year assisting Brooke Kroeger on a database of undercover reporting instances for NYU, so I know that stories like Craig Unger’s time on a Holy Land tour with the author of the Left Behind series, Kevin Roose’s semester at Liberty University, and Matt Taibbi’s three-day immersion in a Texas church, all notable works of religion reporting, relied on some significant undercover aspect to get access. But that’s not what everyone relies on to find sources in communities that might see media as an oppositional force. While a documentarian doesn’t necessarily stick to the same standards as a journalist would in getting and reporting a story, the question of why a suspicious subject would talk — what’s in it for them to speak to this “oppositional force” — remains the same.
While there’s not a ton in the way of getting sources to talk to you that is unique to religion reporting, wrapped up in some interactions with believers is the fact that they are trying to convert both me and all my future readers. It’s great for getting a story, because it’s an easy way to make someone want to talk, but it also can complicate how honest intentions play into making a source open up. I talked to a few colleagues who work on religion stories about this question, and we all hit upon some similar themes with variation: