Entertainment

07.22.14

‘Persecuted’ Is the Christian Right’s Paranoid Wet Dream

‘Liberal elites’ may be more contemptuous of the fervently religious these days, but it’s the hysterical rants of bad movies like ‘Persecuted’ that fuel this disdain.

Perceptive fiction has always been a venue for society to ruminate on the moral issues of the day. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein gave voice to the concern that science had parted ways with morality at the expense of the soul. The 1978 movie Coma explored deep-rooted fears about exploitation and medical advances in organ donation. And now Persecuted holds up a mirror to the perilous situation facing increasingly disenfranchised Christians in modern America.

(I have to warn you that in what follows there will be spoilers. This may discourage you from seeing the film. You should thank me now and later.)

The film’s hero is former alcoholic and drug addict turned televangelist John Luther (James Remar), as he defends his religious beliefs against an onslaught of vaguely defined political enemies. After refusing to support a piece of legislation called the Faith and Fairness Act, Luther finds himself framed for the rape and murder of a teenage girl. He spends the rest of the movie struggling to clear his name and channeling Harrison Ford from The Fugitive.

If we suspend disbelief long enough to put aside the paranoid fantasy that Christians are persecuted and Luther is important enough to frame for murder (if you grew up with The X-Files then this shouldn’t be too hard), this is not a good movie. It’s one thing to show Luther on his knees praying in moments of adversity, but why is he swimming laps in a pool while on the run? Why don’t the government bad guys use technology more advanced than a selfie? Why do the evil liberals think religious diversity will help them enforce the Patriot Act? Someone really needs to tell these people about satellite surveillance. Why, least realistically, is our hero using a flip phone? 

Or, most befuddling of all, how is it that Bible-thumping Luther’s father is actually a Catholic priest with a vast chalet in the woods and the detective skills of Sherlock Holmes? The fact that the movie’s website lists the priest’s name as “Dr. Carver” only adds to my unanswered questions. I realize that the friendly priest character makes Catholics feel included, but it’s a sad day when you find yourself hoping for a Sixth Sense-style “he’s an angel” reveal.

Despite all of the confusion, it’s easy to keep the bad guys straight. They’re the ones using liberal lingo like “diversity” and “evolution,” asking questions like “Don’t you want to be on the right side of history?” and making statements like “This is no longer a Christian country. In fact it never was.” If that’s too subtle, there are other clues. If a sidekick is flamboyantly dressed in pastels or tailored velvet, he must be morally corruptible. If the President seems to be doing his best Clinton impersonation, he must be evil. Not sure if the corporatized religious organization is perverted by the love of money? The dimmed lights and sizeable golden calf on the center of the conference table should tip you off.

Amid all of this there’s the predictable conflation of politics, patriotism, and religious belief. In the course of the movie Luther’s explanation for his actions transitions from religious witness beholden to scripture to patriotic libertarian defending the constitutional right to free speech. Is he risking death for Jesus or the Constitution? Darned if I know. Either way, though, he’s packing heat. Toward the end of the film he kills a bad guy holding a damsel-in-distress FBI agent hostage, proving definitely that access to guns when criminals are around can only turn out well. Shout out to the right to bear arms, you guys.

I realize that the friendly priest character makes Catholics feel included, but it’s a sad day when you find yourself hoping for a Sixth Sense-style “he’s an angel” reveal.

Some have noted that the movie never persuades us that Christians are under attack in modern America. But it doesn’t have to. For those weaned on Fox News’s “War on Christmas,” Bill, Rush, and Glenn already did this. Throw in the casting of Fred Thompson, who led the Republican primary for president in the fall of 2007, as Daddy priest and Gretchen Carlson of Fox and Friends as a TV news anchor, and it’s practically a documentary. Fox News calls it “timely.”

Given the amount of violence in the world—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ISIS’s destructive rampage through Iraq, war in the Ukraine, and actual persecution of various religious groups around the globe—it might seem strange or, I daresay, insensitive and delusional for any American Christian to claim that they are persecuted. And yet they do. Claims that American Christians are unfairly victimized, attacked, and persecuted continue. Some even think they are on the cusp of being martyred. Martyrdom, in this context, being defined as “mockery, slander, ostracism.” Or, as I like to call it, middle school.

This where the movie is true to life: Neither the filmmakers not their audience need evidence to back up their claims that they are persecuted. Persecuted opens with Luther saying that “every generation” has to fight for their religious freedom “even with blood.” Who needs actual mistreatment when it’s a fact of religious history? (Even if it’s not). Add to this the sense that the domain of still-very powerful Christian groups might be shrinking, and the realization that, in the future, Christians might have to persuade rather than pontificate in public arena, and you have the makings of a very potent persecution complex.

It might be true that “liberal elites” are more contemptuous of the fervently religious than 50 years ago, but it’s the hysterical rants and exaggerated boy-who-cried-wolf claims of movies like this that fuel this disdain.

Persecuted is a ludicrously mushy political thriller, but the fact that it can find an audience is downright terrifying.