The Religion Business

A few weeks ago in the run up to the Oscars, I was browsing wikipedia’s list of past winners of the documentary statuette. The seventies seems to be the decade with the most consistent quality, with Hearts and Minds (1974) and Harlan County (1976) among the winners. Those two films brought to the attention of mainstream America information and stories about war abroad and poverty and corruption at home. There is a scene in Harlan County (not on the net but a very worthwhile DVD purchase) where a group of coal miners living without running water in shacks travel to New York to protest at Wall Street. The New York City cops, on duty at the protest, chat to the miners and their astonishment at the terrible pay and conditions the miners have endured mirrors what must have been happening in the minds of the audience.
These two films have lasted long enough to be referenced or parodied in the Simpsons and have entered the film school canon, but there is a third film from this era which has not had the same staying power despite fulfilling the same criteria. It exposed a huge part of American society, the creepy evangelicals, whose power and influence has grown alongside their bank balances. Marjoe (1972), promoted under the tagline “You keep the faith, Marjoe keeps the money”, told the story of a young evangelical preacher whose first name was a contraction of the names Mary and Joseph. Groomed to be a preacher from birth by his parents, themselves big players in the travelling medicine show market, the young Marjoe performed to churches filled with people happy to open their wallets for a chance at salvation. The problem was that unlike the other preachers Marjoe worked alongside, he felt guilty about taking money from those who were struggling, or helping to promote the intolerant beliefs for which evangelicals are now famous.
His answer was to go on one last tour, this time with a film crew, and expose the greed and avarice of the evangelism business, severing his links with it forever. The resulting film is extraordinary. The other evangelists, knowing Marjoe as an accomplice since his earliest days, are not in the least suspicious, and the glimpse into a very crooked world is one which might have stopped the growth of the religion business in America in its tracks, were it not that the very people who needed to see this film were denied it. The film was never shown anywhere south of Des Moines. Had it been, could it have done for religion in America what hearts and Minds did for foreign policy, or Harlan County did for Appalachian corruption?
If you don’t have time to watch the whole film, start at minute 41 for a beautifully edited sequence about the sticky fingered behaviour of some very unpleasant people.

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