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Documentary Looks at Religious Activists in US Election Campaign

A few nights ago British television broadcast Jesus Politics: the Bible and the Ballot, a documentary by Ilan Ziv about religious activists in the current US election campaign. Ziv – who left Israel for America after the Yom Kippur War and who has a rather jaundiced view of religion’s political significance – spoke to a range of people, including a minister in Iowa who thinks that Obama is “a Cyrus for such time as this”, and a woman who claims to have facilitated the ill-fated endorsement of John McCain by John Hagee. As Ziv drives around America, he meets up with Randall Balmer in various diners along the way to discuss historical context.

Evangelical McCain volunteer Pam Colantuono explains the Hagee link:

I was instrumental in bringing the clergy together, and we had ninety-six pastors, clergy, ministry leaders that came to hear Pastor Hagee regarding Christians United for Israel and through that Pastor Hagee personally endorsed Senator McCain.

Colantourno also explains that “the Spirit” led her to emphasise a pro-life message, and she makes an incredibly lurid claim about

…the aborted babies whose body parts were being sold on the black market. On the black market of pornography. Or in the underground of pornography.

(Colantourno, the film fails to note, is the wife of Tom Colantuono, US attorney for New Hampshire. The film misspells her as “Pam Colantouno”)

Ziv also talks to Charles Giunta, of North East Ohio Values Voters, who explains that

There are only two nations that are founded on religious principles, ans that’s Israel and the United States.

Giunta goes on to expound on “End Times” prophecies.

Ziv also films a small meeting of some Mike Huckabee activists in Florida, which begins with prayers by Art Ally. Ally prays for God to forgive “our shameful behaviour”, by which he doesn’t mean anything he himself may have done, but rather the attitudes of other Americans. The prayer includes the observation that there was a time when “you couldn’t even run for office unless you were a Christian”. Art’s wife Bonnie Ally concurs, noting that in this election there is “a Muslim and a Mormon” running (this was when Mitt Romney was still in the picture), and yet Christians haven’t spoken out that “that’s not what God says”.

There are some other interesting stops: in Kentucky we meet members of the “Red River Meeting House Association“, who dress in early nineteenth-century clothes and re-enact the Red River Revival, which launched the Second Great Awakening. Pastor Frank Jarboe (misspelled as “Frank Jarobe”) discussed how religion was used against Thomas Jefferson in the election contest with John Adams, but members of the group say they are more interested in changing America through revival than through having someone achieve political office. Towards the end of the documentary Ziv talks to some Muslims living in Tulsa; one of these, Arief Hill, complains that he signed up for the “Norman Rockwell” view of a benign America, only to find a reality that falls short. Meanwhile, various Black church leaders explain the attraction of Obama in terms of the fruition of the Civil Rights era, but Ziv finds himself “uncomfortable” with the rhetoric of Rev Helen Seenster, who sees Obama as “a Cyrus” and as “a divine appointment”.

Balmer offers a historical interpretation for all this: he argues that Kennedy’s 1960 call for voters to regard his faith as merely incidental created a “paradigm on Church-State” which collapsed with the corruption of Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on the “language of morality”, by contrast, brought religion back into electoral politics, opening the way for the Christian Right. Balmer also unsurprisingly locates the rise of Obama to the faith-based leadership structure and “prophetic” rhetoric of the Civil Rights era. However, he also complains that the social concerns of nineteenth-century evangelicalism are not reflected in the current Christian Right.

Despite the emphasis on America, there are also a couple of diversions to Israel: Ziv meets Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nan (var. “Yoel Bin-Nun”) of the West Bank settlement of Gush Ezyon, where an elementary school has received $100,000 from Hagee. There’s also a scene at Megiddo, where a party of American evangelicals stand amidst the ancient ruins and look out across the plain, while a guide explains that this will be the location of the Final Battle.

A somewhat unenthusiatic review by Lauren Wissot, including a critique of Balmer’s perspective, can be seen here.

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