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America’s Greatest Threat? A New Documentary Argues It’s Christian Nationalism

In an election year full of anxiety, documentary filmmaker Dan Partland has given us another reason to lose sleep at night. The director of “Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump” returns with “God & Country,” a sobering examination of the rise of Christian Nationalism in the United States, collecting an array of experts, authors and pastors to dissect how a far-right fringe perverted the tenets of Christianity to build a frightening, militant national movement. And in case you think such concerns are overblown, the film draws compelling connections between the January 6th insurrection and Christian Nationalism’s desire to destroy democracy in order to achieve its political objectives. Well-armed, well-funded and convinced of their holy cause, Christian Nationalists may represent a minority in this country, but it’s a dangerously motivated minority determined to rule the rest of us, the Constitution be damned.

“God & Country,” which is produced by Rob Reiner, opens today. Earlier this week, I spoke to Partland via Zoom, curious to probe the troubling implications of his film. Below, Partland discusses his own religious background, why he thinks those on the left need to find common ground with moderate religious conservatives, and what’s up with Christian Nationalists’ insistence that Jesus was buff and tough. 

Before we talk about “God & Country,” I wanted to ask about your own religious background. 

I come from a secular, interfaith family. I was raised largely secularly because, at the time, my parents were from different faiths, and it caused a little bit of strife for the two families to figure out how to get together — so I think my parents felt like there was too much divisiveness. They wanted to raise the kids to find their own spiritual path and not consider it a deep part of their identity.

So did you dabble in different religions or philosophies?

I did, and I studied a lot. I grew up in a very conservative, largely Christian community — northeast United States, mostly mainline Protestants and some very traditional Catholics — and, honestly, I always felt a little left out. I wanted to understand what it was all about, and so I studied religion and Eastern philosophies and other things like that in college. 

The interesting thing is that, in my adult life, I really have quite a lot of close friends and important filmmaking collaborators who are deeply devout people and who represent the best qualities of religious devotion — they do good works and are about kindness and spreading compassion. So when I was asked if I wanted to take on this project, I talked to them first — I definitely was looking to them for guidance, because I recognized that I had an outsider perspective. 

One of my closest collaborators, when I said I was considering this project about Christian Nationalism, his total demeanor changed. He was stricken and I was worried — I didn’t know if I had said the wrong thing or maybe he felt like that this was a mistake. But when he gathered his composure, he said, “Thank you for taking this on. It’s tearing apart the country, it’s tearing apart the Church, and nobody’s talking about it.” That was a tremendous entry point for me to recognize that I was coming at it from the perspective of my concern for what it’s doing to American democracy — but I realized that the deeply devout are also really concerned about what it’s doing to their faith.

Did your friends and collaborators want to distance themselves from the extremism of Christian Nationalism: “Please don’t think we’re anything like those people just because we’re religious”?

Your question indirectly touches on the central difficulty, which is one of the things that helps Christian Nationalism to proliferate — it represents itself as being a faith and a faith-based movement. Americans deeply believe in religious liberty — if it’s a faith, Americans’ instinct is to not criticize it. Everybody is entitled to their own belief. The problem is it’s not really a faith — it’s a political movement masquerading as faith. 

Every family is touched by it right now in America. I come from a very religiously diverse family — intermarriage happened on all levels of the previous generation — and so the families that comprise my first cousins are Presbyterian, Catholic, atheist, Jewish and Greek Orthodox. None of the cousins shares the [same] faith — everyone has grandparents who are of different faith than they. So this is an American story — this is, for people who appreciate what’s great about the American experiment, [what they] love about it. But, of course, as we become increasingly diverse, the grip on political and cultural power of a certain portion of society is on the decline, and that’s really what has caused this rise in white Christian Nationalism.

People who don’t have a lot of connections to the Christian-conservative portion of the population aren’t understanding the size and scope of what’s out there. I had an idea of what the ‘80s-era Christian right was about — the Moral Majority, et cetera, which was clearly a politicized movement right out of the gate. That was small enough that you could shrug it off. But as a documentarian, you’re trying to give people a measure of what experience you yourself had in delving into [a topic] — just give people a sense of the scale that we’re really talking about. This movement has grown by leaps and bounds, and as we sit here in 2024, it is still an ascendant movement. It’s still gaining in cultural and political power.

“God & Country” touches on the belief some Christians have that they’ve been persecuted by society. Is there something inherent in a kind of Christianity that finds self-martyrdom — or seeing oneself as the victim — deeply alluring?

In the current political cycle, grievance is a really powerful motivator. The way that has rhymed with this Christian Nationalist movement is that Bible stories talk about the ways in which early Christians were persecuted — there’s a resonance that seems to validate people’s commitment when they feel like they’re being criticized for something related to their faith. 

This is a leadership-driven movement. The leaders are becoming very politically powerful and, in many cases, very wealthy. The rank and file — the majority of the followers — are really just trying to be good citizens, good Americans and good Christians. But when you’re in an information silo, and you’re hearing these messages repeated again and again that there is only one way to be a good Christian in America, there’s a tremendous coercive pressure.

The little glimmer of hope in all this is that a tremendous number of American Christians are growing very discontent with the ways in which [Christian Nationalism] flies in the face of centuries of Christian teaching about what the underlying value system was supposed to be.

With a film like this, an obvious question is “Who is the intended audience?” I imagine if you tried to show the documentary in a conservative church, it would be dismissed as left-wing Hollywood propaganda. 

Of course, the film is going to be attacked and discredited along those lines — it has been from the day that we put the trailer out. What cannot be discredited are the Christian-conservative bona fides of the voices in the film. All these people have written multiple books and a million columns and essays [about Christian Nationalism]. There’ve been tons of important works of journalism, but they’re just not making a dent. People, unless you’re particularly motivated, are not going to go out and read all of those books — but what a film can do is put you in that story emotionally, and hopefully that’s where the impact is. 

[People will ask,] “Who is [the film] for? Is there an audience for it?” It’s not that you don’t think about that as a creator — it’s just that it wasn’t workshopped and backward-engineered in order to lure a certain audience. It was an effort to include the best voices and the best insights and tell the story in a way that was going to feel comprehensive and fair. 

A lot of very literate people [will] say, “Well, this is just preaching to the converted.” Well, if something is preaching to the converted, from a market standpoint, that is a very good idea — that works. Michael Moore’s films are very popular, and nobody thinks that he’s winning people from the other side. Fox News, the entire business model is that there is a good market in reinforcing people’s existing beliefs. So when you go out and try to make something that is a little more complex than that, you still know that, ultimately, the film is speaking to a coalition of the willing. 

Lauren Boebert isn’t going to go see the film — if she does see the film, I don’t know what she’s going to get out of it. But I think that there is a broad secular audience, that is politically engaged, that is interested in this and wants a thoughtful dive that is fair to people of faith. And I think there’s a large swath of devout Christian conservatives, who have grown uncomfortable with the shape of the culture surrounding their faith, that are also very interested in hearing other perspectives.

When you’re interviewed by religious media for the film, do you ever have the urge to ask them, “Hey, can’t you all do more to fight this problem?”

I never feel like you need to do more. This is a democracy, and we all have to do what we can do, but I completely understand how difficult it is for devout people — Christians on the conservative end of the spectrum — to speak out against this movement. It’s an outgrowth of our hyper-partisanship — it’s an outgrowth of, some people would say, the tribal nature of humanity. 

There's 18 voices in the film — the overwhelming majority are fairly devout people. Within that, there’s a big spectrum [in] their belief, their political views and their backgrounds. The ones who the Christian Nationalists reserve their most vitriolic and nasty assaults for are the ones who are themselves Christian conservatives, because people who are viewed as apostate to the faith are always condemned in the harshest terms — as opposed to people who are viewed as, say, progressive Christians. There’s a very popular podcast — a great show — called “The Holy Post,” which is hosted by Phil Vischer and Skye Jethani [who both appear in “God & Country”]. They’re very aligned on a lot of things, but Phil is viewed as Christian conservative and Skye is viewed as a progressive Christian. [When] the trailer came out, Phil got viciously attacked online, and Skye got nothing.

The religious people interviewed in the film are not a monolith. Still, I assume you don’t agree with everything they believe. How do you respond to viewers on the left who will think, “Yeah, I know these people are not Christian Nationals, but they’re still Christians, and I have issues with them for their opposition to abortion or gay marriage”?

The voices in the film are very diverse — I don’t agree with any one of them on [everything], and they don’t agree with each other on everything. One thing that unifies them is their concern about Christian Nationalism — the other thing is these are honest, informed, good-faith participants in our civic culture. I have so much admiration for all of them — it’s courageous to participate in something like this. They’re doing it because they [believe] that speaking out about this is necessary to preserve our democracy — and their faith, in some cases. 

But I did hear that perspective from a lot of people: “Why would you put someone like that [in the film]? You know what he believes? You know what he’s tweeted about?” I think that’s just part of the bad route the culture has gone, which requires every examination of a topic to be in a sort of ideological orthodoxy — the people who vary on any point shouldn’t be included in there because they’re not part of “us.” I just think it’s a bunch of B.S. — you should collect the best ideas from wherever they are on the topics that you’re talking about. 

The one thing I will say, though, is we don’t interview Christian Nationalists for the movie. We thought about it — I think a lot of them would’ve participated. But the problem is, if you look at American media going back the past couple of decades, you can see that we went through this period where a certain laziness happened in the way we covered political stories — [we] believed that everything is a point-counterpoint. If you have somebody representing one side, you get somebody representing the other, and then inherently we had “fairness.” The problem is that created this false equivalency, which meant that any perspective is equally valid. I bet Ralph Reed would’ve given us an interview — the question is what would we have learned that we don’t already know from his existing public statements. [Then] what you’ve done is you’ve platformed a bad-faith engagement — people don’t need to hear more of that. 

Joe Biden is a churchgoer. Donald Trump is not. Why don’t Democrats speak out about the fact that Republicans don’t have a monopoly on faith?

The American left, going back for decades now, [has] not figured out how to communicate effectively with the faith community.

Is it abortion? Do they just know that’s a losing argument with so many Christians?

That’s a very important reason — I don’t know if it’s the only reason. 

There is a phalanx of political deliverables that have lined up on the religious right — that list has, in a sense, become the definition of white Christian Nationalism. [Because] the culture is really uncomfortable with people making alliances where there isn’t a perfect ideological alignment, it becomes politically difficult: “Wow, you’re aligning with this person, but this person is against gay marriage.” Both the left and the right in America have required absolute lockstep agreement on their important political points — [they] have been very wary to build coalitions out of people who agree on some things and disagree on other things. That’s been very bad for the political landscape — it’s contributed to this hyper-partisanship. 

Of course, when you actually look at the political deliverables that we call Christian Nationalism, that doesn’t make a lot of sense that the faith community is aligned with these. This is a movement that purports to be in the name of Christ and Christian principles, [but] it’s come down on the side of preemptive war, has condoned torture, believes in the death penalty, is against restrictions on guns, is against environmental protections. You look at this list and you’re trying to find, “What does that have to do with ‘doing unto others’? What does that have to do with ‘turning the other cheek’? What does that have to do with ‘loving your enemies’? What does that have to do with ‘lifting up the least of these, putting the last first’? [But] the [electoral] value of the Christian right has made it essential to Republican politics, so it’s been forced to carry the water for a whole list of right-wing Republican ideas that don’t really fit that well within the Christian umbrella that they’re trying to put it under.

You argue in “God & Country” that our democracy is at stake. If that’s the case, do people on the left essentially have to get over themselves and find common cause with more moderate religious conservatives? I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but that is the sense I’m getting from our conversation.

It’s what’s messy about democracy, but we’ve got to unite as Americans and collaborate on things where we share common ground. I don’t need to agree with everything that the speakers in the film believe, but let’s partner on the things that we share. Let’s partner on those things and move those things forward.

The film mentions how few Americans actually vote. If fear is a good motivator, is part of your agenda to scare nonvoters to go to the polls?

Democracy requires an educated public, and it requires participation. We’re not having a democracy if we’re not having people exercise their vote. The Christian Nationalists have proven — and this has been the case in different periods in history as well — that a particularly motivated minority can take control of an entire society. There’s no question, with the deep levels of investment and infrastructure that has been created by Christian Nationalist causes, they have maximized their ability to create engagement and participation in the democratic process — while, at the same time, taking a lot of anti-democratic means, both through the process of gerrymandering and suppressing the vote in areas where they’re not strong. [They have] a determination to take control and then force their agenda on the rest of us, even if they represent what might be less than 20 or 30 percent of the population.

One last thing: Obviously, “God & Country” is incredibly despairing and rage-inducing, but there’s one darkly comic section in which you examine Christian Nationalists’ desire to worship a super-buff, kick-ass Jesus. Over the years, Jesus has gotten more swole in their artwork. They seem hilariously obsessed with portraying him as hyper-masculine. 

Well, I will say that section does get laughs in the theater. One of the primary interviews in the film is the preeminent scholar in this space, Kristin Kobes Du Mez. Her fabulous book, Jesus and John Wayne, is essentially all about this topic — she paints it very well. 

On every level, the film is actually about identity — the movies that we watch and the way we think of ourselves as Americans as rugged individualists, it has a layer of toxic masculinity built into it. The scene you’re talking about is typified by one particular retired U.S. military, who’s now a pastor, who says, “You think Jesus is this peaceful, effeminate guy? No, he was a tough guy! That’s the Jesus I want to be like. He was a masculine guy!” 

I think that the historical Jesus — and the Biblical figure — is kind of a woke guy. I mean, that’s the terrible irony of it: What He was telling the world really flies in the face of that [Christian Nationalism] characterization. It flies in the face of a lot of things that we like to believe as Americans. It wasn’t about peace through strength — it was peace through spiritual strength. That sometimes means turning away from a conflict, turning the other cheek, being strong enough spiritually to not deepen the conflict. Other times, it requires the bravery to put those in need first — to put your compassion for people ahead of your own personal need. I just don’t see that this movement is really at all in step with the central messages of what Jesus was trying to teach.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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