06/10/2010 07:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Finding Our Commonality: How a New Documentary Reveals that Evangelical Kansans Are Human, Too


Human nature can be finicky as a cat. It often causes us to turn up our noses and reject people from our circle of trust at the first whiff of difference. Like cats, we react instinctively to appearance, smell, and behavior. Studies show that we instinctively analyze faces for degree of symmetry. Bet you were never conscious of that! But being higher apes, we simultaneously subject others to a cultural and political checklist, deciding in a flash whether they are "our kind of folks."

High on the American checklist these days is how biblical a person is. If they're wearing a gaudy cross around their neck, or a John 3:16 t-shirt, or even a purity ring, they're instantly either brethren in Christ or dweebs from Jesusland. It's human nature to react this way. But, in an interdependent world, and even in a nation "indivisible, with liberty and justice for all," we simply cannot afford to be so dismissive.

That's why a documentary film now slouching its way through Midwestern and West Coast art houses toward a New York opening this summer has such value. It gently nudges us beyond our stereotypes to consider the humanity of the "Other."

At first glance, though, the idea of making a film version of historian and political commentator Thomas Frank's 2004 book What's the Matter with Kansas? seems absurd. How could a film capture the sort of overarching historico-political thesis that Frank advances in his book about the Heartland state's shift from far-left socialism to far-right religious populism? How could it incorporate his analysis of the role of religion in distracting Kansas voters from pressing their own economic interests in party politics?

The film barely attempts to do so. It was "a real labor of love," director and co-producer Joe Winston told me in an extensive interview. For reasons I will elaborate below, I entirely agree.

On hearing him say he wanted to turn Frank's book into a documentary, his wife, co-producer Laura Cohen, reacted with less than perfect confidence. "Are you crazy?" Winston reports her as saying. "There's no movie here! What's going to be on the screen?" She was not alone in her doubts. Any author would love to see his book up on the big screen, but Frank felt it might prove impossible. "You can't make a book of political theory into a movie," Frank told me in a phone chat this week.

Winston found the way. To be sure, his documentary provides a staggering historical context. Frank himself appears briefly in the film to walk us through Kansas' radical past, when it was home to the nation's largest socialist newspaper -- which also happened to be the nation's largest-circulation paper, period! Imagine that.

But the heart of the film lies in the lives of present day Kansans. What's the Matter with Kansas? follows the lives of a handful of rural folk on either side of the Bible divide. Some of them are memorable yet flat characters, such as M.T. Liggett, a crusty, small-town sculptor who welds provocative works to his fence in hopes of offending his pious neighbors. (He is quite possibly the first artist to combine a swastika, a vagina, and a toilet bowl all in one piece of art.)

As unforgettable a character as he may be, it's the Bible-thumpers and God-botherers who really stick with us, and that's in large measure because Winston stuck with them long enough to capture an astonishing series of events in their lives. Angel Dillard, a gospel singer and true believer, reveals a past that would make anyone question the existence of a loving God. The huge church she belongs to, led by a fire-breathing, anti-abortion, evolution-denying fundamentalist preacher, turns out to have a congregation that is anything but a submissive flock.

I don't want to be a spoiler, so I'll just add that once the preacher has separated the sheep from the goats, things become even more interesting for the members of the Summit Church. In the end, like most of the overwhelmingly liberal audience attending the Nebraska premiere, I felt more than anger or contempt for the church members. I felt sympathy. And don't think this is just because we live in the neighboring state. Author Frank says, "I think the movie is fantastic. I'm very happy with it." Of social conservatives the film portrays, he adds, "I disagree with their politics, but I liked them as people."

After decades of culture wars, to evoke this kind of response among liberals is quite an accomplishment.

To do it, Winston had to interview more than a hundred possible subjects and then earn the trust of the best of them, and shoot 165 hours of footage over three years. Two editors then spent a year crafting the film.

The result is a documentary that everyone who has ever had a visceral reaction to Pat Robertson ought to see. Not because it will rehabilitate Rev. Pat in any way. If anything, viewers come away a deeper understanding of how right-wing scoundrels use religion to manipulate true believers.

No, the reason to see the film is for an opportunity to connect with the humanity that lies within the bosoms of those whose politics we fear and loathe. These are people who, however misguided, self-deluding, and dangerous they may be, have authentic fears, real challenges, and the same desires for community, continuity, and a decent future that we do. Their vision of such a future is radically different, but their (pardon the expression) fundamental impulses are the same.

That they insulate themselves in the bubble-wrap of Bible myth -- as reinterpreted by the religious right -- is scary and deplorable. That they despise and distrust liberals is beyond doubt. That they are ultimately self-defeating becomes all too evident in this moving documentary.

Of course, in self-defeat they may sink the rest of society. I'm by no means suggesting that we rest for a moment in the daily work of rebutting the lies of the right-wing propaganda machine, defending civil liberties, and voting to keep reality-based candidates in office. To recognize and embrace our commonality does not make the conflict go away. But, short of war, it is the only way we can hope for resolution. It is, as Joe Winston remarked, a labor of love.