Does Mike Pence masturbate? And if he does—and he does—what constitutes the fodder for the vice president’s most lurid fantasies? Does he cry out his mother’s name in orgasmic bliss? Is he waiting for Karen to fall asleep and dream of towels so he can sneak out of the bed and lock himself in the bathroom for half an hour? Does he illustrate his sheets with a fine ejaculatory cursive spelling out the stations of the cross? Does he, like a normal person, briefly entertain all that he claims to find repellent by the sober light of day in order to reach peak transfiguration of the lower depths? The horror of it is that, all things being equal and despite all telltale protests to the contrary, Mike Pence is probably beating out a confession as we speak, attaining secret communion with every other masturbator—a cosmic network of nocturnal self-pleasure under God. In a preface to his 1968 pamphlet “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” J.G. Ballard wrote that “a complete discontinuity existed between Reagan’s manner and body language, on the one hand, and his scarily simplistic far-right message on the other.” That the haunted marionette we call Mike Pence—famously allergic to women, virulently anti-LGBTQ, a born-again apologist of intelligent design—can rise in the morning, voided of troublesome semen, and live with himself suggests that there is a slavering beast dwelling within this silver fox and while, being made of simpler stuff, I don’t share Ballard’s ambition vis-à-vis Pence, I would content myself with a single dirty phone call, a faded polaroid, some hint of humanity in the form of a floppy (I assume) shopworn Horcrux of a penis. What’s more, every American citizen is owed the same call.
One thing for which Mike Pence need never want is a surfeit of pornography. And when it comes time to hide the Kleenex, stem the geyser of creamy sweetness, and face another day of perpetrating subhuman political horribleness with a straight face, there is the salve of porn’s woebegone twin, that most masturbatory of genres, the Christian film. The two have common origins: stag films and religious movies were in demand from the get-go, with the first explicitly Christian film, Soldiers of the Cross, premiering in 1900 courtesy of the Salvation Army. The Religious Possibilities of the Motion Picture by the Reverend Herbert Jump was published in 1910 and many heeded the call. By 1951, the new Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had moved into film production, but it wasn’t until 1979 that the genre saw its first surrealistic masterpiece, the anti-Roe v. Wade semi-documentary Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, featuring baby dolls festering in the Dead Sea and elderly actors consigned to wire cages (go figure). By this time, the Christian picture had split itself into roughly three categories: the biblical epic, a cash cow for mainstream Hollywood since 1941’s The Great Commandment; the end-times picture, exemplified by the evangelical-produced A Thief in the Night series, beginning in 1972 and following the Rapture and Tribulation; and a third, more nebulous subset that I have come to think of as “Christsploitation.”
Now robust, once obscure, Christsploitation might be said to have begun with 1971’s Preacherman and its sequel Preacherman Meets Widderwoman. Conceived by forgotten auteur Albert T. Viola, the Preacherman movies follow the rollicking, frequently ribald adventures of whisky priest Amos Huxley, made to play for a Dixie-fried drive-in cheapo market. Of course, the modern iteration of the Christsploitation movie is nowhere near so gallant, beginning as it does, at least in the mainstream, with Mel Gibson’s arduous The Passion of the Christ. Screened for church groups and calculated to appeal to a fundamentalist audience, Passion now resembles two other early zeroes zeitgeists, the torture porn genre made famous by Saw and Hostel and Matthew Barney’s nineties/zeroes Cremaster films. As a niche market, the Christian film could rely on its curiously obliging audience. 2008 was a banner year, courtesy of the evangelical-produced Fireproof, that beat out the revenue hauls of the secular independent film industry.
Fireproof set the standard formula: a figure of authority (a firefighter in this case) faces marital and professional adversity and gradually comes to accept Christ, after which the conflict is miraculously resolved. Fireproof, along with the feel-good cop picture Courageous and the Christian football jock-fest Facing the Giants, was funded by the Sherwood Baptist Church, a megachurch with an average attendance of 1,500 based in Albany, Georgia, which churns out critically trashed, highly successful, disposable melodramas.
In fact there may be no genre as disconnected from the mainstream as the Christsploitation picture—you can’t call it propaganda because it preaches to a choir that already absorbs a steady diet of paranoia and Fox News. Take 2014’s Persecuted, which follows a hard-knuckled pastor who refuses a sinister interfaith union with Muslims and Jews (the “Faith and Fairness Act” cooked up by a shadow government controlled by a scheming Dean Stockwell) only to be framed for the murder of a prostitute and go on the run. Co-starring Gretchen Carlson, Persecuted is goofily adamant in its isolation, compelling our hero to lament that “It’s either the world and its religions and its politicians and its pleasures, or it’s the Lord.”
Another frequent conflict in Christsploitation cinema is a marriage between an atheist and a believer; see The Case for Christ, in which a jealous reporter (“You’re cheating on me with Jesus!”) interviews a series of scientists and professors, including, randomly, Faye Dunaway and Robert Forster, and is surprised to discover that many of these elite intellectuals are themselves converts to Christianity and that faith in Christ is ultimately the only viable logic. That settles that, I suppose. Part of the fun of Christsploitation is spotting otherwise distinguished actors like Christopher Plummer (The Gospel of John) and Liam Neeson (Pilgrim’s Progress).
“You’re cheating on me with Jesus!”
But nobody shills quite like Kevin Sorbo, of Hercules fame, who stars in the watershed of the genre, 2014’s God’s Not Dead (the first in a trilogy), in which Sorbo plays a philosophy professor who demands that his students deny Christ, whom he calls a “supreme celestial dictator,” prompting a series of debates with one brave soul who refuses to put Bertrand Russell before God. As much fun as it is to see ontological arguments dramatized, the $64 million-grossing God’s Not Dead is so rancid it practically draws flies. Subplots include a Muslim-raised girl who removes her niqab and attends church to the horror of her abusive father, a glib reporter who is afflicted with cancer as she arranges an “ambush interview” with the guy from Duck Dynasty, and Sorbo’s girlfriend, who has had quite enough of the smug, wine-swilling atheists that make up their circle of acquaintance. In the end, Sorbo is struck by a car and acknowledges Christ with his last breath. The pastor who administers the rite happens to be one David A.R. White, not coincidentally a founder of Pure Flix, a distribution company that aims to be a sanitized, Christian version of Netflix, with titles like pro-life screed Unplanned and The Imposter, about a Christian rock singer addicted to oxycodone.
If the Christian film industry feels like a parallel universe, it’s partly thanks to White and his regular director Harold Cronk, the auteur behind the sequel to God’s Not Dead, in which poor Melissa Joan Hart plays a teacher jeopardized for bringing Christ to the campus and goes to trial opposite a prosecutor played by Twin Peaks’ Ray Wise (definitely channeling that show’s phantasmal serial killer BOB, uttering “We’re going to prove once and for all that God is dead!”). Mike Huckabee also shows up. The common thread in all these flicks is a sense of retreat from difficult ideas in favor of a reactionary, flustered brand of Christianity. How else to explain an artifact like Heaven is For Real, adapted from the testimony of a three-year-old after a near-death experience? Or Ben Stein’s odious creationist documentary Expelled? Still, when it works it works, as in the case of perfectly serviceable, occasionally affective melodrama I’m in Love with a Church Girl, featuring a performance by Ja Rule that totally sells the story of a man trapped between his past as a drug dealer and the godly Beatrice of his affections.
If there’s a film that exemplifies the genre’s sense of persecution, it’s 2014’s nearly unwatchable Left Behind, based on the popular books and starring Nicolas Cage as a pilot struggling with his wife’s newfound faith in God (“If she’s going to run off with another man, why not Jesus?”) when, wouldn’t you know it, the Rapture claims every child and devout evangelical while Cage’s plane is in mid-air (this all happens to a smooth jazz score). Like Blaxploitation, Christsploitation caters to a minority audience, presenting itself as an alternative to Hollywood. In his 2004 GQ essay on Christian rock John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote that
every successful crappy secular group has its Christian offbrand, and that’s proper, because culturally speaking, it’s supposed to serve as a stand-in for, not an alternative to or an improvement on, those very groups. In this it succeeds wonderfully. If you think it profoundly sucks, that’s because your priorities are not its priorities.
I’m not sure the same rationale applies to Christsploitation, because the majority of its films are just so bad, from the cheesy Soul Surfer, about its comely star’s crisis of faith after a shark attack, to the seemingly endless installments of VeggieTales. Still, Christian movies have enjoyed a renaissance since God’s Not Dead, proof that there is no God, because how could he let the evangelical shitshow Do You Believe? happen?
The seamless conjunction of faith and bland advertisement comes as no surprise. In high school, the Christians were the bullies and preps wearing knockoff T-shirts with a Calvin Klein logo repurposed to read “Christ the King.” The Hot Topic version of Christianity was everywhere. The Christian film industry depends on a steady influx of youths for whom commercialism and mysticism contain no contradiction. The God’s Not Dead movies end with the invective to “Join the movement” and “Text everyone you know” or even download the accompanying app. The whole series exists in part to hock books by Rice Broocks (God’s Not Dead: Evidence for God in an Age of Uncertainty), Christian apologist J. Warner Wallace, and evangelical scribe Frank Turek. Corporate Christianity has come to seem like the face of the religious right, from Christian coffee joints, to bootleg faith-inspired Nintendo games, to the ACA-allergic Hobby Lobby. To watch Christian films is to participate in a deeply politicized industry that has less to do with actual faith than it does with the kind of commerce that gave us InfoWars and the birther delusion.
Make no mistake: Christsploitation is exploitation cinema. Nowhere is there the faintest whiff of sincerity (except in I’m in Love with a Church Girl, the exception that proves the rule). The films’ naked opportunism represents the aggressive co-opting of Christianity by the right wing. Christsploitation, meanwhile, doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon. Still, the genre is a window into this new, weird Christianity with its endless stream of products, of which the films are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a world saturated by Duck Dynasty, Mike Huckabee, and Fox News. And like heaven itself, it might be nice to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.