God On My Side
Directed by Andrew Denton
In cinemas now
Given the opportunity to make a doco about six thousand zealous homophobes coming together to discuss spreading god's word at the Gaylord Convention Center, most atheists would probably be tempted to take the piss.
Not so Andrew Denton, whose feature-length documentary, God On My Side, utilises the annual National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) convention in Dallas, Texas, in February 2006, to give a sensitive, up-close and personal insight into how US President George Bush's evangelical supporters see the world.
Denton is a well-known figure to Australian television audiences. His latest project is the ABC TV interview program Enough Rope.
Of all his interviewees, says Denton, he most admires musician and outspoken refugee-rights supporter John Butler and author-activist Arundhati Roy, which perhaps tells us something about where his sympathies lie.
Revealing his political leanings is something Denton is at pains to avoid in God On My Side, however. Rather, he sets out to let US "everyday believers" and "foot soldiers of Christianity" speak for themselves.
What follows are moving stories of religious conversion, an insight into the mind-boggling array of Christian media in the United States, and a range of Christian characters described somewhat generously by Denton as "extraordinary souls - passionate, committed, eloquent".
However, God On My Side also uncovers a much darker side to Christian fundamentalism in the United States.
"There are 70 million evangelical Christians in the United States", Denton tells us, "who make up 40% of Bush's vote". Looking at the ideas expressed at the NRB convention you begin to see why.
Rather than scrutinising the government or economic system, every problem and crisis in US society is chalked up to lack of faith, "immorality" (abortions, homosexuality) and the separation of church and state.
Dovetailing perfectly with US foreign policy, other NRB convention themes include a dogmatic hostility to Muslims. "It's a known fact", says one interviewee, that "[Muslims] don't even read the Koran"! There was also a willingness to support a "pre-emptive", even nuclear, strike against Iran, and an unquestioning loyalty to Israel "no matter what" - all because it is "the will of God".
But while God On My Side is very good at showing how religious faith can lead people to reactionary politics, it never really examines the powerful interests behind Christian fundamentalism in the US.
Two thousand years of Christian hostility to Jews, Denton tells us, has shifted towards a coalition between the two faiths in the United States over the last few decades. But why? Is it merely coincidence that this religious alliance corresponds with the increasing importance of Israel in US foreign policy?
Does God's newfound interest in attacking Iran - at least according to the big owners of Christian fundamentalist media - have something to do with the US ruling class's stepped-up offensive against that country?
And why does this particular brand of religion happen to have so much money and power?
God On My Side doesn't ask, let alone answer, these questions.
Denton makes a point of saying he didn't want to do a Michael Moore-type documentary "where it was me standing in front of the camera telling people what they should be thinking". He believes that Moore's approach in Fahrenheit 9/11 meant that it was "a missed opportunity".
But the strength of Fahrenheit 9/11 was not so much Moore's abrasive in-your-face style, but rather his ability to get across to a wide audience some underlying truths about how the system works (links between big business, the US government, and the war on Iraq for instance.). By contrast, God On My Side hardly considers how social, economic and political interests shape Christian fundamentalism.
No doubt Denton's more respectful approach allows him to get closer to some of his subjects than Moore, and in the case of God On My Side, this provides a fascinating insight into how passionate, well-meaning Christian folk are prepared to support, amongst other things, nuclear war and genocide. But I couldn't help walking away from God On My Side thinking that it was Andrew Denton, rather than Michael Moore, who missed an opportunity.