Morgan Freeman on God, Islamophobia in Trump’s America, and Keeping the Faith

The Oscar-winning screen icon discusses the second season of his popular Nat Geo series ‘The Story of God,’ belief in the afterlife, and much more.

Richard Shotwell/AP

Time-honored actors always make for the best interviews. They’re freewheeling, delivering honest-to-goodness answers in lieu of vague observations prebaked by an army of high-priced publicists. Susan Sarandon, her divisive political views notwithstanding, is one of these actors.

And Morgan Freeman is another.

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Freeman, the Oscar-winning screen legend and star of countless cinema gems—from Street Smart and Glory to The Shawshank Redemption and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy—about a half-dozen times, and he’s always impressed me with his unique wit and good humor. During our chats, he’s called homophobia “the height of ignorance,” branded the human race “a parasite,” and sang marijuana’s praises (“How do I take it? However it comes! I’ll eat it, drink it, smoke it, snort it!”).

This interview was a bit different. We were discussing The Story of God, his highly rated National Geographic series that sees Freeman exploring various religions and cultures, but nearly all of my Trump and Obama-related questions were struck down by the show’s publicist, who interjected on the actor’s behalf. And no, the 79-year-old icon hadn’t seen Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech because he “wasn’t watching the Golden Globes.”

The second season of The Story of God, which premieres Jan. 16, consists of three episodes following Freeman across the world as he speaks with members of various faiths, including a 9-year-old Minnesotan boy who Tibetan monks believe is a reincarnation of a lama; Kenneth Bae, an American Christian missionary who was held prisoner in North Korea; and several prominent Muslims in various parts of the Middle East who, despite experiencing hell on earth, maintain their belief in a higher power.

“It’s about looking for answers to universal questions,” says the show’s executive producer James Younger. “The reason we’re doing this show is we’re here at this time of strife around the world—strife that seems to have a religious vein to it—so people are very much thinking religion is pushing us apart, and we’re here to show that it’s not. There are far more similarities than differences, and people are manipulating religion to push us apart.”

“Who is God?” adds Freeman in that unmistakable voice. “God is the question you can’t answer.”

Despite the vexing interruptions, which were not the fault of Freeman, he was as charming as ever. Here is our chat.

The second season of The Story of God contains many profound moments, from a 9-year-old who boy who Tibetan monks believe to be a reincarnation of a lama to a woman who believes she experienced heaven. What was the most profound for you?

FREEMAN: I think when we went to Minneapolis and met this young lama, whose name is Jalue Dorjee and is believed to be the reincarnation of Taksham Neuden Dorjee. He’s 9 years old and he’s got himself so in hand. You’re always amazed by how settled such a young person is with such what we would call “responsibility.” When I was 9 we were running around barefoot rolling tires, and that’s what you think about! Man, when I was 9 years old this was nowhere near my abilities. There was also a young man we talked to who experienced God at the World Trade Center [on 9/11], and he says he did not hear God speak to him, he did not see God, but he knew that was the presence.In the first episode of this season, Mr. Freeman, you met with members of the Shia community, and witnessed their holiest night, Ashura. President Obama recently had a wonderful line in his farewell address about how we should all reject discrimination against Muslim-Americans. How do you feel about the way Islam has been demonized by Trump and members of the conservative right?

I think that there are those areas among us that paint an entire group with the same brush, so that’s what’s happening.

Right. I’ve read statistics that have pointed out how the overwhelming majority of people in America who have unfavorable views of Islam have never so much as met a Muslim person.

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Exactly. Or never been to a mosque, don’t know the Quran. What we found out is that Jesus Christ is a prophet in Islam. So the paths, they intersect! They intermingle! That’s how they see Jesus: as a prophet. He’s not something alien to their beliefs.

The second episode is titled “Heaven and Hell,” and focuses on the afterlife. What are your views on the afterlife? Do you feel believing in the afterlife can be harmful—not allowing people to appreciate they’re lives on earth when they’re promised paradise after—or beneficial because it encourages you to lead a good life on earth in order to gain entry?

I think it’s an interesting balancing act. I think belief in the afterlife, as it is set up, is a good thing. I don’t think people lose track of what’s going on in this life in order to get to the afterlife. Most of the requirements to get in to the afterlife are to live a good life here. Amongst the Hindus, they believe in reincarnation—but you have to keep coming back until you get it right. [Christians] don’t do reincarnation, but it’s the same where you have to get it right to get to heaven.

You gave an interesting quote once where you said “I am God,” and it was taken a bit out of context, but I think you were trying to get at how God is within each of us. But I’m wondering if you can expand on that quote you gave.

Well, I’m simply one of those who believes that God is… what is the world I want to use… he’s aware of my everything. In The Story of God we had a wonderful interview with a monsignor and he made it very clear to me that God is us. So you live it, you got it. Just look around you: we see the manifestations everywhere, even in the world of technology. There’s this sense of being in the presence of something far greater. Is there a moment where you’ve ever had a crisis of faith, or reached a very pivotal fork in the road? And if so, how did you recover?

I’ve had a lot of fork-in-the-road moments, and when I came to a fork in the road, I took it. There’s not one that stands out for me, really. I’m tempted to say my second marriage. [Laughs] No, I don’t have anything in my background that jumps out at me with that.

The show is quite positive and uplifting, and there a lot of people out there—particularly young people—who are feeling down now and losing faith after a long year and a terribly long election. What do you say to those people to raise their spirits?

Hmm. The same thing that everybody who has a positive outlook on life would: don’t lose faith. Keep the faith!

A lot of people use the Bible and organized religion as justification for homophobia. We’ve discussed in the past how you’re a big ally of the LGBT community going back to your early days as a dancer, and I’m wondering if you could discuss the Christian community’s demonization of homosexuality.

I don’t understand it. I do not understand how you can go into the Bible and come out of it with this sort of attitude or idea about the gay community. I just don’t know how that happens. There’s a child’s prayer that sums it up: “God is love.”