“Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul,” a biting satire starring Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall as a megachurch pastor and his wife, opened in movie theaters earlier this month. It’s often funny, and both Brown and Hall give fiery, charismatic performances. But it’s also a pointed illustration of what’s wrong with how Americans talk about religion in public and how hard it is to get beyond cliché.
The film falls into the hoary stereotype of portraying religious people as puritanical hypocrites obsessed with sex, and religious organizations as basically corrupt. This omnipresent cliché characterizes much representation of religion in the modern media. It is largely blind to the spiritual power that draws Americans who find value in devotion into the act of worship; it reduces religion to a reductionist caricature.
Under the logic of the cliché, people who go to church are not sincerely religious. Nor do they find genuine power or meaning in religious practice. They are either cynical manipulators or misguided dupes.
The fact that the cliché is profoundly shallow shouldn’t make us overlook the disappointing reality behind its origins. For the past two generations, American politics has orbited around a movement of socially conservative, mostly white Protestants, allied with some Latter-day Saints and Roman Catholics. Some of them called themselves the “religious right,” a name the media often use.
More than anywhere else, the religious right has taken the field on questions of sexuality. For years, its leaders have rallied voters on the issue of abortion and, more recently, on sexual orientation. But they have also supported conservative politics more generally, associating Christianity with deregulation of business or increased military budgets.
The religious right has formed a powerful voting bloc that has propelled candidate after candidate into office for the past 40 years. It has also gained some policy wins — most recently, the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.
But Christianity in America has paid for this success. Sociologists David Campbell and Robert Putnam have unearthed, in survey after survey, a correlation between the ascendency of the religious right and increasing alienation of young Americans from Christian faith. In the same years that the religious right has proved among the most powerful forces in the Republican Party, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has shown that the share of Americans who identify as Christian has dropped to 70% of the population.
According to Campbell and Putnam, this is due — at least in part — to the success of the religious right at identifying Christianity with conservative politics. Many young people who support same-sex marriage or worry about climate change are often faced with “cognitive dissonance,” a phrase popular among online communities of ex-Latter-day Saints. How can they call themselves a Christian and support the politics they believe in? The answer many come to — and many who have already departed faith push them to — is that they cannot. So they simply abandon Christianity.
And so we are faced with a rather bizarre conundrum. The religious right and the religiously unaffiliated left agree on one thing: the cliché. Christianity is nothing more than a staunch defense of Victorian sexual norms.
The very fact of this strange juxtaposition should worry Christians. It is easy and comfortable for many leaders on the religious right to affix the blame for the disaffiliation of their young on the very things they already oppose: secularists, liberals and so on. But that is circular logic. It is abundantly clear that depictions of Christianity like that in “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul” are trite, lazy and dismissive. But it is not as though they are entirely unmoored from reality.
Advocates of the religious right argue — with some justification — that, in fact, Christianity has been concerned with sexuality since New Testament times. The Gospels record Jesus commenting on marriage. The Apostle Paul was deeply suspicious of sexual intercourse, particularly outside marriage.
But it is also true that Christianity is as subject to the ebb and flow of the tides of history as any other aspect of human culture. The roots of contemporary American Christianity’s expectations about sexuality are not only in the Bible but also in norms established in the Victorian era of the late 19th century and resistance to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The religious right’s determination to center sexuality as the most significant and consequential aspect of the Christian faith is a choice made in the light of history. It is not necessarily an inevitable reading of the faith itself.
There are many other options. Throughout human history, and even the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there are resources to fuel a revolt against aspects of our sick society beyond questions of sexuality, to imagine a society free from poverty and hunger and war; what Latter-day Saint leaders have consistently called a Zion society. There is a scriptural mandate for all of these things, invoked by then-President Spencer W. Kimball when he condemned war and Brigham Young when he condemned poverty. And potential remains. Despite the religious right’s worries about secularization, few of those young Americans who have departed Christianity identify as atheist or agnostic. Many seek a Christianity other than that depicted in “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul.” Fortunately for believers, the possibility of that faith exists.
Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith” and “Christian: The Politics of a Word in America.”