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:
Kiera Feldman, an investigative reporter who works often with religious subjects, has written about a sex-abuse scandal at the Grace Fellowship Christian School near Tulsa, OK. Speaking from that experience, she said:
There is a common ground upon which secular and religious people can meet. A shared interest, a universal language. In my stories, that happens to be abuse. Perhaps medicine becomes the faith we share. Thanks in large part to the mental health profession, my subjects and I might have different religious beliefs, but we believe many of the same things about trauma. And we bond over these very human things: We are all capable of feeling many of the same things like pain, grief, betrayal, the big stuff of life.
Kathryn Joyce’s first book was on the Quiverfull movement, and she has a forthcoming book on adoption and religion. Here was her take:
I think evangelicals speak to journalists, despite the frequent cultural divide, for a couple of reasons. For a lot of people who believe God is directing their lives, being approached by a reporter can also be part of the plan. I’ve been told by a number of devout sources — including those who know I come from a very different background — that God sent me to cover their story. I’ve also found that many people, including those who are conscious that their convictions or lifestyle are unorthodox, believe in what they’re doing so strongly that they’re willing to speak publicly about it even to skeptical journalists; it’s a matter of honoring their beliefs. In the end, why does anyone talk to reporters? Because, mysteriously enough, people want to talk about their lives.
When I run into trouble with a source, rare but heartbreaking, I’ve found that the answer to our conflict is not the old, tired, “secular” vs. “religious” clash of cultures. Rather, it’s contained in their anticipation of my conversion. Though we’ve already established that we see the world differently, that we have our reasons for talking to each other and our uses for each other, the fact remains that people who believe—really believe—want the writer, and everyone else, to believe, too.
While the “liberal media” is often framed by conservatives as activist and acting on an agenda, it seems that the deeper criticism contained within that charge is the simple fact that, after hearing The Word of their side of the story, the media refuses to become an activist force for their cause. It questions the power of what they believe in, to see that an open mind might hear their testimony and not heed it. And yet, as is true for most people, we can’t help but recite our stories and mantras to someone who will listen in good faith.Abby Ohlheiser is a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire. She also contributes to the New Humanist and the Revealer