Examining Church and State through film

By Matt Zakosek

It’s often said that two things one should never discuss in polite conversation are religion and politics. Well, that old adage is suddenly a lot easier to remember, because for the first time in recent history, religion and politics are becoming inextricably linked. Don’t be fooled by the declining ratings for CBS’ Joan of Arcadia—whether brought up around the dinner table, whispered over the water cooler, or blared from a preacher’s pulpit, the blending of these two arenas is a hotter topic than ever before.

“Faith-based initiatives.” “Abstinence-only education.” “Reproductive rights.” One need only examine the buzzwords from the recent presidential election to know that issues of faith were paramount to both candidate’s campaigns. But whether dealing with Bush’s evangelism or Kerry’s Catholicism, what does it all really mean? Though the battles of the day have drawn them together in heated debate, just how inseparable are religion and politics anyway?

We live in a culture of contradictions, I think. We hear a phrase like “separation of church and state,” seemingly guaranteed by our government, but “In God We Trust” is emblazoned on every penny. No one can decide if Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl breast-flashing is indicative of a reprehensible decline in public morality, or just a sign of a lagging career. Even the Supreme Court tip-toes around the issue. Earlier in the year, they were expected to rule once more on whether the inclusion of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. Rather than rule decisively one way or the other, they dismissed the case because the father filing the suit on behalf of his daughter was involved in an unresolved custody battle with her mother. Sounds like they’re just as confused as the rest of us.

It’s been repeated ad nauseam that moral issues were the deciding factor in this presidential election. I’m a little skeptical about this decree, myself. According to Salon.com—I know, I know, hardly a non-biased source of information, but bear with me now—a few of the questions on those exit polls may have been misleading. For example, issues such as the “war on terrorism” and “economics” were broken down into smaller categories, while “moral issues” was left as one all-encompassing category.

But regardless of what we think about notoriously fickle exit polls—I mean, by that kind of conventional tracking system, Alexander should’ve been a hit—there’s no doubt that a culture war is heating up. I mentioned TV’s Joan of Arcadia earlier, in jest, but I do think the entertainment industry is usually pretty successful when it comes to capturing the zeitgeist of America at any given time. A recent episode of Meet the Press dramatized this pretty well, when the sexuality of Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry was somehow seen as salient to the conversation (FYI, he identifies as a gay Republican). Using that wisdom, a brief glance through the TV Guide is the only evidence we need of a nation bitterly divided.

At the same time, though, that statement could be used in a dangerous oversimplification. If only it were that easy—do you watch PAX or MTV? CNN or Fox News? Reba or reality TV? Ah, but if something sounds too simple to be true, that’s because it probably is. If this generalization sounds like an appealing option to you, try asking each one of your friends if they come from a red or blue state. Then, treat them in the most clichéd manner possible, using all the tropes we’ve come to define as “red” or “blue” in the month following the election. By the end of the year, see how many friends you have left! I’d put good money on a bet that you’ll be ringing in the New Year alone.

Now, more than ever, we need honest debate, nuanced arguments, and a careful examination of the role religion currently plays in our political system—in addition to the role we think it should. No, it’s not going to be easy, but then again, anything worth doing rarely is. This kind of rigorous discussion leaving a bad taste in your mouth? Fine, worry about something else instead—like what’s going on happen on next week’s Desperate Housewives.

Oops, guess we’ve established why even that’s not purely escapist anymore.

Interested in joining the national debate—or at least a campus one? Judy Hoffman’s Political Documentary Film class is putting on a screening, open to all, as its final project. Two films—The Jesus Factor, highlighting President Bush’s evangelical underpinnings, and The Gospel According to Bush, a student-produced film—will show this Friday at 7 p.m. in the Film Studies Center. A panel featuring Professor Jonathan Z. Smith and a reception will follow.