William C reviews America’s Hate Preachers, Hannah Livingston’s documentary on the homophobia and Islamophobia of the Christian far-right in the United States.
“To me, LGBT stands for Let God Burn Them.” The churchgoers laugh as if they’re listening to a cute anecdote about a child learning to walk. This scene, shocking yet typical, sets the mood of America’s Hate Preachers, a 45-minute BBC documentary directed by Hannah Livingston tracking the activities of two American hate preachers and the people around them.
The two main colourful characters are Steven L Anderson and Ruben Israel. Anderson is the pastor at Faithful Word Baptist Church, an independent fundamental baptist church located in a mall in Tempe, Arizona. For their homophobic messages and incitements to violence, they are classed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, and the preacher is banned from entering the UK, South Africa, and Botswana. Predictably, he also believes the Nazi holocaust to be a hoax and that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by the US government. Ruben Israel is better known outside of church walls as a confrontational street-preacher who shows up at college campuses, pride rallies, and major regular events like the Mormon general conference in Salt Lake City. Raised in a Catholic family, he started preaching as soon as he was saved. He explains: “At age 17… I cried out to God in my bedroom.”
Israel and Anderson do not accept the popular Christian belief that God loves everyone. There are others who teach that God hates many of the people he has created, including another church categorised by the SPLC as a hate group, the hyper-Calvinist and anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church. (There are biblical arguments for this view: Anderson quotes Psalms 5:5 in one confrontation with a liberal Christian.) Generally such people maintain that they preach and protest how they do out of love for their neighbour and to warn them about hell. Steven Anderson differs: he says openly that he hates homosexuals and believes this to be the correct position of every Christian, not just the privilege of God. Where mainstream Baptists tell us to repent, he tells us to kill ourselves.
America’s Hate Preachers exposes an already well-established truth: that well-off conservative Christians, especially the white ones, are desperate to be oppressed. It must be a continual source of anger for them that the biblical prophecies of persecution are not being fulfilled. In calling for the death penalty for “faggots”, hate preachers don’t simply believe, as they claim, that they’re only preaching God’s word. This is just how hard they have to try, how outrageous they have to be, to get any kind of backlash. Having it easy has never been so hard.
Pastor Anderson shows off some of his insulting and threatening voicemail, which he receives daily, and in one sermon complains, “Isn’t it amazing how all the homos hate Christians? And they’re not considered a hate group?”
During an interview in his home, Ruben Israel takes a break to call Ken who is fixing one of his megaphones. He does this so that he can explain that he often gets his equipment damaged by counter-protesters and passersby. After that he takes us to his preaching shed, full of banners and megaphones. He also carries little prop Bibles (King James Version, of course) while preaching and can’t help but mention how he goes through about two or three a year, as people tear the pages out or try to set them on fire. “It’s not very glamorous nowadays to be a Christian,” he moans.
Most revealing of all was how Israel and a band of followers prepared for a counter-protest against those opposing presidential candidate Donald Trump. Gas masks, 30lb ballistic vests, and other military gear were apparently necessary. On the way to their destination they talk about the “coming fight.” Hannah Livingston summarised the situation well: “I sensed a distinct feeling of paranoia coming from men.” One of them echoed the EDL by bringing bacon to try upsetting any Muslims present, but we don’t get to see him use it.
None of them came to any harm, in case you were worried. There was a brief racist (and sexist) exchange with Black Lives Matter activists: “if black lives matter, stop aborting your babies!” Their action was finished after a couple of hours and they went safely home.
Compare this with the Pride event in Phoenix, AZ, which Ruben and friends also picketed. A Pride organiser, Justin Owen, explains that Phoenix has a large transgender community. They are led, he says, to depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. But when they come to Pride, for many it’s the first time that they can be their authentic selves. “There’s no discrimination in those gates.” Rightly, the implication is that once the event is over, transgender and non-binary people return to a world of oppression where many of them aren’t able to express themselves properly.
The controlling of women is often overlooked in this kind of documentary, but America’s Hate Preachers includes an interview with Zsuzsanna, a mother of nine and the wife of Steven Anderson. She was a non-Christian before meeting Anderson but now defends his ideas that women should keep strictly to housework and child-rearing. The idea of a woman being US President is “awful on many levels” to her. “It’s just not their realm of expertise.”
Another way in which we’re shown the negative effects of this brand of Christianity is in an interview in the home of two of Anderson’s congregants, Juan and his wife. Juan’s brother is gay — or a reprobate in their terms — and after hearing a sermon proclaiming that “No homos will ever be allowed on [sic] this church as long as I’m the pastor here,” they decided they to disown him, to stop speaking to him altogether. Livingston puts it to him that the rest of the world would be very put off by these actions. It’s unclear why she points this out–surely she knows they won’t care or will take pride in that. Juan responds by asking, “Would it be any different if he had killed someone?”
Anderson puts across his view that gays should be considered no different from paedophiles. Livingston asks why he conflates the two. “Any man who would have sex with another man would have sex with anything… would have sex with an animal.” An extreme view, perhaps, but still very common. Every queer person has surely come across it.
My strongest memory of this idea was in an all-male church meeting (I had been a member of this congregation for about two months) that became a discussion about homosexuality. A local church leader told a story about a gay couple near him who had adopted a child and were found to be abusive parents. He was convinced that this “always happens” and showed why we must oppose same-sex marriage and parenting. Nobody tried to speak against this except for one friend who saw I was crying, but he was shouted down. Later on, the church leader heard that I was upset and invited me to his office to apologise and explain himself. A part of his explanation was that lesbian couples should be allowed to adopt, but not gay men.
Reading liberal LGBT media, like Pink News or Gay Star News, you might get the impression that the primary force against gay rights is the actions of a minority of hateful religious literalists. Individual hard right politicians might be held responsible but never the violence of the state. Some local groups aligned with the Human Rights Campaign consider the fight to be finished now that marriage and adoption equality are written into law.
While I liked America’s Hate Preachers for what it shows about a particular mindset, I can’t help but wonder if it will further this perspective that ignores class and sees the battleground as bigoted religious people vs. sensible secular people. There’s a far stronger case to be made that the struggle for queer liberation and the struggle for socialism are one and the same.
America’s Hate Preachers was first broadcast on 11 October and is available on BBC iPlayer for the next 5 months.