Jonathan Swift once wrote, “We have enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” In addition to being the greatest satirist of the seventeenth century, Swift was also an Anglican priest and a staunch advocate of religious rationalism. Rationality and religion, however, rarely seem to be found in the same place. Swift illustrates this fact in Gulliver’s Travels, using the absurd conflict between the Big-Endians and Little-Endians over which side to crack open a soft-boiled egg to represent the often bloody struggle between Catholics and Protestants (which in Swift’s native Ireland managed to last from the late Renaissance to about 1998 when the hypnotic sounds of the Spice Girls brought peace to all of Europe, finally making it possible to sign The Good Friday Agreement).
Religion stirs up passion like few other things, and although that passion is often love (see: Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa) it is sadly just as often hate (see: Osama bin Laden, Pat Robertson). Why? Well, at the risk of sounding glib, I think it’s for the same reason that Philadelphia Eagles fans and New York Giants fans get into fist fights each year: on Sunday, if the guy next to you is rooting for the other team, then he must be rooting against you, right? And thus we have the great irony of humanity that every major religion preaches peace and yet the adherents of each sect have at various times in history waged war against the "unbelievers."
That paradox is central to Kevin Smith’s Red State, currently available for download OnDemand after its traveling circus limited release/tour earlier in the year.
Prior to Red State, over the course of his career Smith has made three very good (if not great) films, one decent film, three mediocre films, and at least two truly awful films. Red State is a solidly good (though not quite great) film in part because it returns to the topics of sexuality and religion explored earlier by Smith with Chasing Amy and Dogma, and in part because it marks such a radical departure for Smith in terms of style and tone. Often I felt as though I was watching a Robert Rodriguez film (and not just because of the presence of Michael Parks), as the film shifted fluidly from teen sex comedy to grindhouse horror with religious themes before finally giving way to a shoot-em up action thriller with subversive (albeit not very subtle) political commentary in its excellent third act. The film demonstrates tremendous growth for Smith as a filmmaker, which is actually kind of a shame since the director has announced that he will retire from making films after he completes his next project, a two-part adaptation of Warren Zevon’s song “Hit Somebody.”
The film is most interesting in its treatment of its villains, a family of Christian extremists loosely based on Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. Unlike the Phelps, however, the Cooper clan are doers rather than “suers.” Not content to merely protest funerals, the Coopers have taken to performing executions on young men they trap with false promises of sins of the flesh. Pastor Cooper and his family live to hate, whether that hate be for Gays, Jews, Blacks, Catholics, lustful teens or the “Govn'ment.” Simply, they hate.
But Smith avoids making these characters caricatures by also showing their capacity to love. For all their hatred, the Coopers do genuinely love each other in a deeply powerful way. They love God according to their vision and act based upon their faith in the Almighty’s will. Cooper has raised his children and grandchildren to believe in a vengeful and unforgiving God — and in the sermon in which he lays out his beliefs, he doesn’t have to twist The Bible very much to fit this notion. One can infer that these fire and brimstone sermons are a nightly event, and after a lifetime of listening, is it any wonder that his children devote themselves to his cause?
Smith realizes this and even flirts with giving them an ending that will validate their beliefs. The family’s faith remains unshaken even when the ATF begins a raid on their compound with the goal of assassinating Cooper and disposing of any witnesses. Smith flips the movie on its head, by making the villains into sympathetic victims in the final act. In the end, the film is even more about society and government’s handling of extremism than it is about extremism itself. One can easily interpret the Coopers as a Western stand-in for Islamic terrorists, as the PATRIOT Act enables the ATF to shoot first and ask questions later. However, the circumstances are more directly evocative of events that transpired almost a decade before September 11th: the federal raids on Ruby Ridge and Waco.
Earlier this year I had the pleasure to read Them: Adventures with Extremists, a collection of articles written by British journalist Jon Ronson published in 2001. Ronson, who has also authored the off-beat nonfiction classic The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test, released this year to much acclaim, spent several years visiting people who had one thing in common: they had been labeled an extremist by the mainstream media in either the US or UK. Ronson, who is ethnically Jewish, spent weeks getting to intimately know Ku Klux Klan leaders, Islamic fundamentalists, Neo-Nazis, American militia members (not to mention David Ickes, a man who believes that the world is secretly being controlled by Lizard People like the Queen of England and Dick Cheney).
Among those that he interviewed was Rachel Weaver, who as a child watched her mother and brother killed when U.S. Marshalls performed a raid on her family’s property (after her family resisted) on Ruby Ridge in Northern Idaho. Rachel’s parents were separatists who raised her and her siblings in a cabin completely cut off from society. Her father’s paranoia about the federal government turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy when he illegally sold a rifle to an undercover ATF agent at an Aryan Nations gathering, beginning an investigation into the family’s strange activities and stockpiling of weapons that ultimately ended in tragedy. When reading Rachel’s account of the federal agents swarming her family — a mother, father, and their children — it’s hard not to feel a rush of sympathy with these victims, getting overcome with horror at the actions of the federal government and its decision to authorize lethal force. Surely, there must have been other options? At the same time, one shouldn’t absolve Randy Weaver (Rachel’s father) of his culpability (a U.S. Marshall was also killed) and mistake him for a lamb hunted by wolves.
What Ronson shows in his book is that the people that we would like believe are monsters when we read about them in the newspaper or watch the news— al Qaeda, the KKK, and any other groups built upon ideologies of hatred— are actually just people. People like us. And that their drives are actually not all that different from ours. They want to be accepted and they want to be loved. Some belong to these groups out of family loyalty and devotion to the beliefs of their upbringing. Others are converts; people who are seeking desperately to belong to something and find meaning in their lives by joining a cause (check out the satiric film Four Lions released earlier this year for a hilarious example of this).
They are all human and even display quirks that might be charming in another context. The Grand Wizard of the KKK is as neurotic as Jerry Seinfeld. After his interview was initially published in The Guardian the Muslim cleric, Omari Bakri Mohammed, went on an anti-Semitic tirade about Ronson in another newspaper only to apologize to Ronson on the phone later that day, explaining he was merely trying to keep up appearances.
Written over the course of the years that directly preceded September 11th, Them: Adventures with Extremists serves as a strangely comic prologue to that tragedy of which ten years later we still struggle to make sense out of. During the years following 9/11, it became easy to characterize Islam as a religion of violence without fear of reproach, but as the horrific events in Norway this summer demonstrated, extremists adhere to many different faiths and are impossible to predict. If we are to overcome religious violence then we must make sure to do something that extremists fail to do, and remember, as Red State demonstrates, that a difference in belief doesn’t mean a difference in humanity.