"Ain't Gonna Study War No More"

My Photo
Location: Brooklyn, New York, United States

Right-To-Life Party, Christian, Anti-War, Pro-Life, Bible Fundamentalist, Egalitarian, Libertarian Left

Friday, March 03, 2006

Instead Of Indignation...A Big Yawn

Power, Maturity Steer Christian Movement

The publicity blitz surrounding Oscar front-runner Brokeback Mountain not only challenged stereotypes about gay relationships, it simultaneously cleared away persistent misunderstandings about the nation's Christian conservatives.

Instead of reacting with outraged calls for censorship or condemnation, the much-reviled minions of the so-called religious right have mostly ignored the movie, allowing it to collect every sort of honor with shockingly scant controversy. While derided by prominent liberals as "the Taliban wing of the Republican Party," conservative Christian leaders have displayed a new sense of security and confidence, in dramatic contrast to the paranoid Muslim mobs that riot across the globe over a dozen disrespectful Danish cartoons.

This doesn't mean that cultural traditionalists in the USA have abandoned their principles and suddenly embraced the much-discussed "gay cowboy movie": People who revere biblical strictures against same-sex relationships can scarcely commend a film that provides a lyrical celebration of a homosexual affair that wrecks two marriages.

Nevertheless, the publicists and activists involved in promoting Brokeback Mountain seem almost disappointed that religious conservatives have expressed so little indignation. No major organizations called for a boycott of the film, or threatened its producers, or made any serious attempt to interfere with those who might enjoy this artfully-crafted motion picture (it has become a modest commercial success). In the heartland of Evangelical America, Brokeback has generated more ho-hums than howls of protest (or hosannas).

Shattering a stereotype

The muted reaction to the film from religious communities strongly disapproving of its themes gives the lie to the common characterization of cultural conservatives as intolerant, incurably homophobic and implacably determined to impose their values on society. It's actually the film's adoring advocates who push for universal acceptance for their point of view regarding homosexuality, with newspaper ad layouts featuring the tag lines "Love is a Force of Nature" and "One Movie Has Connected with the Heart of America."

Though most conservatives continue to resist the radical redefinition of traditional male-female marriage, that doesn't mean they seek to punish every sort of same-sex relationship. The marriage debate centers on questions of public policy and governmental endorsement; Brokeback depicts a private, even secret, connection between two ranch hands. Conservatives might not offer Jack and Ennis (the two thwarted lovers in the movie) a Main Street parade and a legally sanctioned wedding ceremony in front of City Hall. Even so, that hardly means they'd send a posse up the slopes of Brokeback Mountain to arrest the two guys in the privacy of their pup tent.

This live-and-let-live attitude, plus an uncompromising commitment to personal principle, reflects an increasing sense of power and maturity on the part of religious conservative activists. They enjoy unprecedented influence in government at all levels (not just in the Bush administration), a fresh, dazzling array of educational alternatives (with the nationwide growth in Christian education and soaring enrollment and prestige for evangelical colleges), and startling success in the world of entertainment (with huge sales for religious music, novels, radio programming and even motion pictures such as The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Rather than worrying over industry-insider awards for Brokeback, conservative Christians flocked to see the recent movie End of the Spear, an audacious adventure that tells the true story of five heroic missionaries in Ecuador. Despite the fact that the leading actor in the film (Chad Allen) had publicly identified himself as a homosexual and even posed as a cover boy for The Advocate, a magazine dedicated to gay and lesbian issues, the great majority of churches and religious organizations remained supportive of the film.

Instead of railing helplessly about the degradation of secular culture and its decadent entertainment offerings, religious believers can increasingly immerse themselves in a vibrant counterculture and thriving church communities.

A shift from 'Temptation'

Eighteen years ago, Christian conservatives felt unsure enough about their position in society to react with horror and pain to The Last Temptation of Christ; 25,000 protesters rallied at Universal Studios to plead against the film's release - a response in no way echoed by religious organizations preparing for the arrival of The Da Vinci Code. Though Ron Howard's high-profile new project tells a story that contradicts Christian teaching about Jesus at least as thoroughly as The Last Temptation, even the Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei, portrayed by name in the film as a violent cult, pointedly plans to take "a less confrontational approach," according to The New York Times. Similarly, the recent NBC series The Book of Daniel, featuring a hippy-surfer Jesus as confidante to its drug-addicted Episcopal priest hero, collapsed after a few weeks because of low ratings - without significant assistance from major boycotts, petitions or demonstrations from the faithful.

This new confidence on the part of conservative Christians highlights the vast gulf between this nation's religious conservatives and the vulnerability and hysteria of Islamist militants in the rest of the world. Widespread rhetorical and real-world violence in response to rude caricatures in an obscure Danish newspaper doesn't express religious strength or zeal but reflects, rather, an underlying sense of powerlessness and desperation.

With the spread of democracy even in unlikely Middle Eastern locales, Muslim fanatics sense they are losing the struggle; on the other hand, religious conservatives in the USA who take a cleareyed look at their own position of influence see themselves as part of the nation's most dynamic social and cultural force.

The refusal to launch a battle royal against the pro-gay messages of Brokeback Mountain doesn't show the weakness or defeatism of religious conservatives. Instead, it displays their strength and optimism as a maturing mass movement currently more interested in creating than complaining.

Syndicated talk radio host and film critic Michael Medved is the author of Right Turns and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.