Faith at Altitude

Religion and spirituality in the shadow of Pikes Peak

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Pelosi and her Friends

"I don't agree with the politics of a lot of evangelicals, but I do agree with them that you have to believe in something," Alexandra Pelosi told The Gazette's T.V. reporter Andrew Wineke. "'What do you believe in?' I was asked that question so many times on the road that we have to figure it out."

Pelosi, whose evangelical documentary "Friends of God" airs tonight on HBO, has publicly declared her sympathy -- if not allegiance -- with evangelicals in a host of published interviews. The documentary shows some of that sympathy, albeit with a heaping helping of "gee whilickers, look at what these crazy evangelicals do for fun!"

Pelosi's 60-minute film starts out almost exactly like "Jesus Camp," a much-buzzed about evangelical documentary that was released earlier this year: We viewers are in a car, listening to snippets of evangelical diatribe as Christian-themed billboards flash by the window.

But while "Jesus Camp" focused on one narrow and extreme snippet of the evangelical movement, Pelosi's film showcases more than a dozen evangelical churches, events and happenings -- from Joel Osteen's 35,000-member Lakewood Church in Texas to a Christian Hot Rod show.

The stop that's getting the most attention, of course, is Pelosi's visit to Colorado Springs' New Life Church, where she spends lots of time with the Rev. Ted Haggard. It's an odd and creepy segment in many ways, particularly when Haggard starts talking about what great sex evangelicals have. Haggard, of course, was dismissed from New Life just days after the documentary was completed because of his alleged relationship with a male escort.

But if one could somehow put aside Haggard's well-publicized fall, the former Colorado Springs pastor comes across pretty well. He points out that evangelicals aren't all that unusual and that, yes, many even live in Pelosi's hometown of New York City. The difference, he says, is that folks can see Midwestern and Western megachurches like New Life from the highway, thereby creating a more visceral sense of power. In New York, the visibility isn't as great, but that doesn't mean evangelicals don't live there. Evangelicals are part of a broader, national "we" -- not a "them," as "Jesus Camp" seemed to stress.

Pelosi, though, didn't take Haggard's lesson to heart. Here, evangelicals are still very much a "them." Throughout the film, we hear Pelosi say frequently "you'd never see THIS in New York." It's almost as if she takes viewers on a field trip through an evangelical zoo. "And over here, you see the Christian Wrestling Federation ..."

But in fairness, Pelosi goes through this zoo with sympathy and some disarming humor. She doesn't treat her subjects all that seriously, but she doesn't appear to take herself all that seriously, either. When Pelosi talks, she makes no pretention of being anything but a fairly liberal New Yorker in a culture completely foreign to her. She thinks her subjects are a little wacky at times. They think she's going to hell. But that doesn't mean they can't enjoy one another's company.

And there are moments of poignancy. In Tennessee, Pelosi visits a family that believes sex was created by God to procreate, and they've taken that to heart. They have 10 children. The mom, a one-time blond fashion plate who had ambitions of becoming a lawyer and politician, spends her days homeschooling her broad brood.

But when she says she has the best life of anybody she knows, we want to believe her. And, as a result, we -- like Pelosi -- have to ask ourselves what we believe in.


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