The Uses of Suspicion

Populists are the virtuosi of ugly emotions. They always hit the right notes. So, in examining the evangelical version of the populist aesthetic, I started with resentment, the pedal tone that rumbles underneath us-and-them rhetoric. Now we examine the populist use of a related chord, suspicion.

The formula is well-known: the elite few have not only amassed money and power for themselves (which we resent), they're conspiring (we suspect) to use their unfair advantages to destroy our way of life.

Consider two quite different incidents of evangelical suspicion in response to films.

In 1989, evangelicals got wind of a Martin Scorsese film not yet finished, The Last Temptation of Christ. Lines from the screenplay and descriptions of scenes had leaked, and the way Christ was portrayed was shocking. So the grass-roots operations that had helped elect Ronald Reagan twice, and the elder George Bush once, swung into motion to protest the film.

The line I remember was, "Those people in Hollywood have gone too far this time!" The film confirmed long-standing suspicions that the Hollywood elites were out to discredit the faith. The massive protests marked a new phase of push-back in the culture wars. We were mad as heck, and we weren't going to take it anymore.

But it was the evangelicals who went too far. Their protests ensured blanket free-media publicity for the film's opening -- and accomplished little else.

Moral: Negative emotions get the masses moving, but not always in the right direction. In the case of Last Temptation, using people's suspicions to rally them for battle plugged the film, rather than sink it.

In 2004, Mel Gibson used evangelical church networks in an under-the-radar marketing campaign for his film, The Passion of the Christ. He gained the endorsements of prominent evangelical pastors, and held rough-cut screenings in large churches to invitation-only audiences. The campaign was a huge success.

I recall that the push to get on board with The Passion unleashed many evangelical sentiments. Some of the feelings were understandable -- a sense that the film was a significant evangelistic opportunity, for instance. But others led to profound misjudgments. Just to take one example, there was a sense that this was "our film," when it was really more from Roman Catholic traditions. Such distinctions seemed not to matter.

There was also a sense that Gibson had put himself at risk to produce "our film," both in terms of his finances and his career. I remember people talking about what "Hollywood" could "do to Mel" because he had made this film. "So we'd better get out there and support him, make the film a success." I heard this kind of thing from lay people as well as pastors. The Passion became a way "we" could hit back at "them."

Evangelicals heavily invested their credibility in Gibson. They defended him, in particular, against charges that the film was anti-Semitic. So when Gibson made anti-Semitic remarks during his DUI arrest on July 28, 2006, there was nowhere for evangelicals to run. How were we going to defend "our guy?"

Moral: Suspicion drives groups to choose their friends based on their enemies. Gibson's testimony of life-change sounded a lot better when he was overturning the chessboard in Hollywood than it did when he was railing against the Jews.

I'm not saying that Last Temptation was really a good film, while The Passion was really a bad one. I'm not saying that Scorsese was really sincere and well-motivated, while Gibson was really just a slick manipulator. I've never seen either film, nor have I looked into the hearts of the two men, who have both been held to account for their public words and deeds.

I am saying that evangelicals got very public black eyes in both cases because of their addiction to us-and-them populism. They picked both fights and friends on the basis of point-scoring opportunism.

I am also saying that evangelicals learned populism from politics, not from the Bible. The uses of suspicion for organizing the grass-roots, for fund-raising, and for Sunday morning fulminations, are many. If the goal is to keep people's view of their own team inflated, then populism works.

But if the goal is to soften souls -- which the Bible says our goal ought to be -- then the uses of suspicion are few.