This week, the second part of my interview with two-time Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Bill Jersey on the subject of religion and race in the age of a certain presidential charlatan.
At 91 years of age and with more 60 years of filmmaking experience, Bill Jersey has been strongly identified with a deeply humanistic, politically progressive brand of social justice-documentary. But he was raised in—as he calls it—a “Bible-believing” fundamentalist Christian family, giving him a unique frame of reference on the bizarre state of affairs in which America now finds itself. (See end of post for Bill’s full bio.)
Last week Bill pondered the mystery of Christian conservative support for Trump. Given the gobsmacking hypocrisy inherent in that phenomenon, the upshot—as many have written—seems clear. Actual theology is no longer the defining charactertistic of what we call “evangelicalism”; political partisanship is. In other words, the values (cough cough) associated with Trump—racism, misogyny, jingoism, xenophobia, avarice, and an absolute disregard for morality, truth, and integrity gussied up as hardnosed utilitarianism—are not antithetical to American evangelicalism, or even uncomfortable baggage to be awkwardly explained away, but rather, have become its very heart.
Writing in the New York Times (“America’s New Religion: Fox Evangelicalism”), the progressive evangelical author Amy Sullivan smartly reverses the usual question, provocatively asking not how these religious people can square their faith with Trumpism—and indeed, the guns, greed, and racism of reactionary politics in general—but whether the right wing has fundamentally changed what “evangelicalism” itself means:
Journalists and scholars have spent decades examining the influence of conservative religion on American politics, but we largely missed the impact conservative politics was having on religion itself…..We kept asking how white conservative evangelicals could support Mr. Trump, who luxuriates in divisive rhetoric and manages only the barest veneer of religiosity. But that was never the issue. Fox evangelicals don’t back Mr. Trump despite their beliefs, but because of them.
….While one-quarter of Americans consider themselves to be “evangelical,” less than half of that group actually holds traditional evangelical beliefs. For others, “evangelical” effectively functions as a cultural label, unmoored from theological meaning.
Neal Gabler recently made a similar point on BillMoyers.com (“Why the Trump Era Won’t Pass Without Serious Damage to America”), as did Peter Beinart in the Atlantic (“Breaking Faith”). Bill Jersey has lived it firsthand.
In the second half of our interview, Bill explains how reading the Bible actually led him away from the church, how his family reacted, the tragically renewed relevance of A Time for Burning, and why religious belief gets a free pass when we assess our politicians.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
THE KING’S NECKTIE: When you underwent this sort of gradual change to moving away from fundamentalism, how did your family react?
BILL JERSEY: (Long pause) Well my mother said, “I don’t approve but you’ll always be my baby.” Pretty good. (laughs)
My father never really understood my shift. I never talked with him, I never could. When he died I cried because that’s what you have to do when a parent dies, but in point of fact I never had any kind of meaningful relationship with him. He was an athlete, he was very good; I was terrible. He was a strict believer, a dedicated believer; I was struggling. I was an artist. I think he thought I was an interesting curiosity. He would take my artwork to the bank where he worked and I would trudge along with it.
And it was partly my mother’s fault. She told me, “I said to your father that if he ever touched my child I would leave him.” Well that’s not helpful for a father/son relationship. Now she meant hit, but she said touch.
TKN: Oh, he misinterpreted that?
BJ: No, no, no. I think…..I don’t know what he thought, but I know she used the word “touch” and I know she meant the word “hit.“ So she probably said hit, but it was just interesting that it came out touch.
There’s a picture of him and me standing next to one another and we both have pocket handkerchiefs and polka dot ties, both looking very dapper, but we’re not touching one another. That’s the other thing: he loved clothes and I didn’t give a shit about what I wore. (laughs) He loved sports, and that was funny because he would watch hockey when we finally got a television set, but we couldn’t watch the news because the news was too violent. How about them apples? (laughs)
TKN: What about your sister?
BJ: Well, both of my sisters were real Christians, and I will say that when my sister was dying of cancer—and it took about two years for her to die—she was always content because she knew she was going to see Jesus. My father got lymphosarcoma when he was 45. He lived until he was 57. He outlived two of his doctors. He lived long because Jesus kept him alive. He believed that he was not gonna die until Jesus wanted to take him. And I believe that belief kept him alive, I really do. I believe in the power of belief, for good or for bad. Therefore be careful what you believe because it’s going to affect what you do.
TKN: But as we discussed last time, by the time you finished A Time for Burning in 1966 had you drifted away from the faith?
(NB: A Time for Burning follows a Lutheran minister in Omaha, Nebraska in 1965, fighting to integrate his all-white church over the objections of many of his parishioners.)
BJ: Well, it’s an interesting question. Had I drifted away from the faith? I still have the faith. I still have the faith that there is a truth that Jesus taught that would change the world if I could really embrace it, which I can’t, or if the church would really embrace it. But we don’t. We don’t because the world is too much with us. The world is too appealing. There is an invasion of things that debilitate any kind of commitment to a really fundamental truth. It’s really tough to hang on to, really tough, but I still have the belief—I wouldn’t call it Christian because to me “Christianity” has become such a disgustingly abused and misused and misappropriated term that I would never call myself a Christian—but I would say that I have a very abiding and sustaining and supporting and enabling belief that derives probably as much as anything from the teachings of Jesus. That’s true.
TKN: So it’s more correct to say the church drifted away from the faith?
BJ: Oh God, did it ever. I’m not sure it was ever connected.
THE TYRANNY OF HIS FOLLOWERS
BJ: I have no human heroes. What I do have is a belief in the human capacity to be heroic. I’ll never forget, a critic from the Philadelphia Inquirer came up to New York to interview me about one of my films that had gotten an Emmy. And he said, “Jersey, how come all of your films have flawed heroes?” And I said, “Because that’s the only kind I know.“
That’s my view of Jesus. That’s the whole gospel message really, that you need to to do some changing in your life. That’s really fundamentally what it’s about. Look at yourself. Get the log out of your own eye. Don’t throw stones at a prostitute, think about your own prostitution, you know? The Jesus I know was a very wise, gentle, caring, and tough dude. And I try to be those things. And sometimes I go too far in the one direction with the gentle, sometimes I go too far in the one direction with the tough. What Christianity taught me is that it is not just what you say or what you do but it’s who you are that matters. That’s what God is concerned with: He is concerned with who you are. You can say the right things, but that’s not enough.
What did Jesus preach? “Not all who say ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” The Bible is full of really good stuff like that. It really is. The problem is, the Bible is also full of pure unadulterated bull. Once again it’s a matter of filtering, and filtering is what ideologues never want to do. They want to filter as in “leave out what’s inconvenient for them, but they don’t want to filter as in “leave in.“ So I did get a lot—not from my church, but from the Bible.
And that was the fortunate part of fundamentalism. Back when I was a boy, fundamentalists did not focus on politics as most modern churches do today. They focused on the Bible as the word of God. So that’s what we did in our church. I remember I got a dime in a contest when I was 10 years old because of the Bible verses I remembered in Sunday school. In 1935 a dime was pretty good! And those verses keep coming up, and I keep appreciating them coming up, and it’s not because they came from the Bible, it was because something in me says, “That’s a truth that needs to be remembered and acted on.” I had a funny, quirky feeling—I was never conscious of this, I’ve never said this before—but I have a funny feeling that it was the words of Jesus that actually liberated me from the tyranny of his followers. I think that could be true. Because his followers would say things, and I would say, “But didn’t Jesus also say such-and-such?” I’m constantly quoting the Bible to people.
I think it takes too much faith to believe there is no god. So I can’t go there. That’s too much like work. I worked at faith and that was too much like work, so I prefer to be an agnostic. I said to my mother once, “You know, mom, it doesn’t matter whether Jesus really exists or really said these things, these Bible verses really empower me.” And she snapped at me and said, “Don’t say that!” So people need to believe a real Jesus exists.
TKN: It’s fascinating that you say that actually listening to what Jesus said caused you to see the hypocrisy and how it had been distorted.
BJ: Well, I never said it that way but I’m wondering if that wasn’t true.
TKN: It’s ironic because they said, “Believe this,” and you believed it, and it led you away from the church.
BJ: Yeah well, Jesus didn’t do a lot of gathering people into the synagogues of his day either! (laughs)
TKN: Right. It’s like that Woody Guthrie song, “Jesus Christ”, that says if Jesus came back now and preached what he preached in Galilee, they’d kill him all over again.
BJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, when somebody says, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven,” holy cow—you’re not gonna become president! (laughs)
ANOTHER TIME FOR BURNING
BJ: There’s a Biblical verse that I get up every morning with, though I don’t believe it literally for even two seconds: “This is the day that the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Now, I don’t do that easily. It’s like that comedian said in the documentary, If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast. That’s me too. Or like we sang in the Navy, (singing) “Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning.” That’s still me. But once I get up it’s, “Thank you, Jesus.” That’s what we say in my tradition when something good happens, we say, “Thank you, Jesus.”
TKN: That’s almost like a Buddhist sentiment, to say, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice in it.“
BJ: If I’m anything I’m a Buddhist. Thich Nhat Hanh did a wonderful thing for me. I did a little interview with him, and I said to him “I need for you to concretize some of, your philosophy.” I’m not big on philosophical constructs. He said, “All right.”
He picked up an apple and said, ”What do you see?” Well, me being a brilliant graduate of Wheaton College and the University of Southern California with a masters degree in cinema, I knew exactly, and I said, “I see an apple.” And he said, “I see the sun and the rain and the Earth nourishing the seeds which grow into a tree, which blossoms into a beautiful flower, which becomes the apple.” I have never looked at apple the same way since.
TKN: While we’re talking about A Time for Burning, it’s had a kind of renaissance. The film is 52 years old, and it’s as topical as it ever was—sadly. So what is it about that film that is resonating in the present day?
BJ: I think one thing is that I was able to convince to people that it was OK for them to be who they really were. And having a brilliant editor, Barbara Connell. In this film we have essential aspects of the human condition—the nature of faith, the nature of belief, the nature of fear—that always will resonate. The issue of race will never go away it, and it’s tragically relevant today.
AT&T bought a copy of the film. And I said, “What do you want a copy of a film about a church struggling over its religious faith?” And they said, “That’s not what it’s about. It’s about how difficult it is to introduce a behavioral shift in a situation where that behavior is entrenched.”
TKN: That was very savvy of them.
BJ: Very savvy of them. They got it. “Guys, we’ve always done it this way.” That’s not an argument anymore; that doesn’t fly, bubala. I don’t know how they used it, but they bought a print.
Maybe ten years ago I took the film back to Omaha and showed it to high school kids there, about 200 of them. They had never experienced anything like what was in A Time for Burning, not literally. So they had a discussion about it, and they talked about race and back forth. And a young Nigerian girl about 16 years old looked at it, and said, “No, no , no. What this film is really about is how hard it is to change when you believe something so deeply.” When you see people in such a certain way, so clearly, and you really believe that you know what those people are like, it’s hard to change that. So she empathized with the difficulty of this particular Lutheran congregation in trying to see African-Americans differently than they were used to seeing them. And I thought, ”Holy crap, you’re a 16 year old black chick from Nigeria and you’re recognizing that? You’re able to understand and empathize with the white people wrestling with their bigotry?” Wow.
TKN: So despite how bad things are at the moment, do you see any progress—culturally and socially—in terms of race from ‘65 to the present?
BJ: I feel there’s been a regression. But remember, more people voted for Hillary than voted for Donald. Sorry Donald! But I am an eternal optimist only because I think that’s the best way to function in the world. Not because I honestly and always think things will inevitably get better. I’m not that kind of progressive.
I do think that if Hillary had been elected these people would have only gotten worse. The assholes would have felt justified in their hatred and they would have gotten worse, and it would have been more covert and therefore scarier in some ways. I mean look at what they said when Obama got elected: they said our goal is to get him out. That was their main goal! Now, with Trump, they’re emboldened, which is bad, but to have them working beneath the radar would have maybe been more dangerous.
TKN: Yes, Trump’s election lifted the lid off of that sewer. At least it exposed the scumbags to the light of day.
BJ: That’s what I think. If we’re lucky it’ll be like a fever breaking.
TKN: I do think there has been forward progress in some areas, however slight or limited. Nobody today would be taken seriously as a politician if they said we should have segregation, that we should have separate drinking fountains, for example. At least I hope not. After Trump, I’m not so sure. But I think we have cleared that incredibly low bar.
BJ: That’s right.
TKN: But I think the illusion we had when Obama won was, “Oh, racism is over now. We’re in a post-racial society.” But first the rise of the Tea Party in backlash to Obama, and now Trump’s election even more so, have exposed this group of deadenders who are clinging to that 1965—or 1955, or 1865—mindset. They are still with us.
BJ: How could any African-American, how could any person of any color, how could any person at all, look at Trump’s election and say this man wants to make America great? No, this man wants to make America white, folks! Would you just please look? Forget about words, forget about ideology, forget about sermons, just look at the damned picture!
TKN: But that’s exactly what you were saying before. It’s undeniable. But like the Nigerian girl said, when you’re so entrenched in a belief or a way of viewing something, you can’t see the facts.
BJ: See the problem is, if you believe a thing to be true, then it is true in its consequences. It’s not true, but it’s true in its consequences. One of the characters in the barbershop in A Time for Burning said that. And that’s what it is. People believed that Trump was gonna make America great and therefore the consequence was he got elected. Now, do they still believe he’s making America great? I know he’s a great liar and he’s very good at it, and he’s very consistent and that’s important. You got to continue to lie. Machiavelli said it best.
TKN: So did Roy Cohn, Trump’s great mentor.
BJ: And so did Roy Cohn. Yeah. And what’s so tragic in our country is that the Republican Party is not taking a stand against Trump. They’re riding his coattails, thinking either they have to do it, or that it benefits them. 30% of Americans support Trump and 70% don’t. So whose coattails are you riding and why? I don’t know.
DA CAPO (or, THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE)
TKN: So how does the church—to be sort of broad about it, but especially evangelicals who have completely betrayed all those things you just said in embracing a figure like Trump—how do they come back from that? Or is this a breaking point for evangelicalism?
BJ: If what evangelicals believe Jesus taught is not what Jesus taught, I don’t know how you get out of it. “If you believe a thing to be true, it’ll be true in its consequences.” For instance, I think Donald Trump believes is that he is wiser than anybody else. He may not, but I think he believes that. So even if he tells a lie, he’s done it for a good reason. The consequence of that is not that he fulfills something for himself, but that collectively a group begins to embody that in their behavior. He says he is gonna “make America great again.” Well, maybe that was a mistake to believe that. So if it was a mistake to believe that, what in fact is he about? And if you’ve got an answer to that, man, I want to hear it.
Beliefs are obviously so much more powerful than facts. But to me that’s what you have to do if you’re going to be the best possible human—I won’t even say good, but the best possible human you can be—given all the garbage that you grew up in, all the bull you laid on yourself. The only way to do that is if you’re willing to begin again. As Rilke said, “If the angel deigns to come, it will be because you have convinced him, not by tears, but by your humble resolve to be always beginning: to be a beginner.” Every day I say that to myself.
TKN: But here’s the question. Are any of those people—or a significant number of those people—gonna get to a point where they say, “Oh shit, we got suckered.” Or do they double down? Because right now there’s a lot of evidence that they’re doubling down.
BJ: Oh yes. I think the believers will double down. It’s the only choice they have. Are you kidding? To admit that their assertively held belief is a lie? Oh, that’s asking a lot. They built their whole lives around that.
These mega churches, their whole life is that. My whole life was built around five times of going to church a week. Three times on Sunday—Sunday school, morning worship, evening worship—Tuesday youth group, and Friday prayer meeting. Five times a week I went and heard exactly the same thing.
TKN: But you’re the hope, Bill, because you broke out of it! You saw through it.
BJ: I was helped to break out of it and that’s why I believe strongly in continuing to make films and being involved with crazy people like you doing blogs because I think that’s all we can do. Lighting a candle is better than cursing the darkness. And lighting enough candles brings so much light that those people can’t hide anymore, and that’s my hope. And also I’m not responsible for the fricking world, thank you Jesus. I’m only responsible for me. So I’m just gonna spend my life trying to light little candles.
That’s the kind of risk I think we have to take. We have to take the risk of exposing the tragedy that is the political mood today. We have to take the risk. You have to do what you’re doing, and I’m glad you’re doing it. That one guy a couple of weeks ago, Jim Carroll, he was terrific. He was just great.
TKN: Yeah, he’s amazing. I talked to him yesterday and I told him I was gonna interview you today which is a continuation of that exact topic. You guys are of a piece.
THE ORACLE OF THE HAIR DRYER
TKN: So this raises another question I wanted to talk about, which is all related. In America, religion and politics are intertwined, despite this charade that they’re not. We’re the only Western democracy I know where politicians are required to profess their faith. It’s not a law, of course, but it’s a norm, which is even more insidious.
An atheist is not gonna get elected President of the United States—not right now in 2017 anyway. Whereas in other countries it’s the other way around for politicians: you have to keep your religious beliefs private, and they can actually hurt you at the ballot box. Tony Blair is a born again Christian, but in Britain he had to keep that quiet.
BJ: I didn’t know that.
TKN: That’s how quiet he kept it! But here in the US, religion is simultaneously tied up in our politics and yet off limits for criticism. Remember when Mitt Romney was running, you couldn’t talk about him being a Mormon or the problems with the Mormon Church. A few pundits did and they got slapped down. A person’s faith is considered off limits for scrutiny in terms of how they will lead and what political actions might result from the religious beliefs they subscribe to.
BJ: Well, look at Kennedy and his Catholicism. That was a big one to overcome.
TKN: Right. The resistance to Kennedy was part and parcel of this same litmus test, which used to be “Protestants only,” but he broke it open just a little bit to include Catholics too. We don’t talk about a candidate’s choice of faith as a qualification or a disqualification—as long as they’re a Christian, which is an unspoken prerequisite.
But here’s the question. Why are a candidate’s religious beliefs off limits? Because it you’re Mitt Romney and you subscribe to a faith that believes black people are inferior, that’s germane to you running for president.
BJ: Yes. To you functioning as the leader of all Americans.
TKN: And it doesn’t even have to be that extreme. Sam Harris, the atheist neuroscientist and writer, has this great line about George W Bush. Bush used to say that he regularly talks with God, and everybody thought that was great. But if Bush had said, “I regularly talk with God through my hair dryer,” we’d have locked him up. And Harris’s comment was, “I fail to see how the addition of the hair dryer makes that statement any less ridiculous.
BJ: (laughs) That’s a very good statement.
TKN: Well, Harris is a smart guy. But the point is, should we not hold our leaders accountable for their beliefs and the implications of those beliefs—the consequences, as you put it—whether they’re religious or not?
BJ: Yeah, well, there’s no question in my mind that we should, because it’s their beliefs that will define their behavior. Surprise surprise—hello operator! Of course we should hold them responsible. And it’s not about religion, it’s about belief systems that will alter behaviors and will influence people. It has nothing to do with religion, except in its origin, but not in its execution.
TKN: So this is what we were saying before. You were able to recognize the irrationality. But so many people don’t. I mean, why do people stay in a completely irrational belief system?
BJ: Oh they would say that we don’t understand, we don’t know why God allows these things. Why does God allow earthquakes? Well, we don’t know that. And God created us for free will; that’s why people are terrible, not because God was a bad designer of human beings.
TKN: I’ve always contended that there’s some comfort in this idea of a god, even a malevolent god.
BJ: I don’t know about that, but yes, it is comforting. That’s why I say if you take care of the universe, the universe will take care of you. And there’s a sense in which I think that is true. I’m amazed at the good things that have happened to me in my life, inexplicably.
TKN: It’s karma, right?
BJ: Well, I don’t know, but I do think it’s something, I really do. I don’t even care to label it, but there’s something about paying attention to what’s possible instead of paying attention to what doesn’t work.
TKN: Yeah. Well, I don’t believe in justice in the sense that there is justice in the world….
TKN: But I do believe that what goes around comes around and good behavior is its own reward.
TKN: So that might be naïve, but that’s a better way to live than being like Donald Trump.
BJ: We’ll see. I think that’s it. And the thing is, what we don’t know is our capacity to infect others through our ideas. It’s not a matter of convincing others. I’m not big on convincing. My films are never logical arguments. I’m not interested in logical arguments in the first place I think that for a believer logic bears no relation.
BJ: But I do believe that that truth can be infectious. My only hope is that I may infect somebody. My nicest example to date is Henry Hampton, who wrote me a note when Eyes on the Prize got its first big award. He said, “Bill, I just wanted you to know that it was your film A Time for Burning that got me to believe that I could do honest films.” Who knew?
TKN: Who knew?
BJ: And that’s not why I did it, but that’s what happens. And that’s my only hope, is that we can infect one another with confidence. We can make a difference, and we can take actions that make a difference. And they make a difference not because we set out to make a difference, but because we set out to be authentic in our response to the world as we see it.
TKN: Cut. That’s the perfect ending.
Illustration credits:left, Albrecht Altdorfer, circa 1515; right: Getty Images
Transcription: Sherry Alwell / email@example.com
Bill Jersey – Biography
Bill Jersey has been producing groundbreaking documentaries for over 60 years. Since establishing his reputation in the 1960s as one of the pioneers of the cinema verité movement, he has produced films for all of the major networks including a long association with PBS stations such as WNET New York, KCET Los Angeles, KQED San Francisco, and WGBH Boston, among others. Jersey’s body of work includes the award-winning documentaries A Time for Burning and Super Chief: The Life and Legacy of Earl Warren, which were both nominated for Oscars; Children of Violence (about a Chicano family) and Loyalty & Betrayal: The Story of the American Mob, which both won Emmys; The Glory and the Power (about religious fundamentalism); Faces of the Enemy (on the uses of wartime propaganda); and Renaissance (a four-part series on the history of the Renaissance), all of which were nominated for Emmys; and The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, a four-part series on the Jim Crow era, which won a Peabody. Among this other films are: Fighting Ministers; Crime & Punishment in America; Learning to Fly; Naked to the Bone, Stopwatch, and The Next Big Thing? (all three with Michael Schwarz); The Making of “Amadeus”; Everyday Heroes; Evolution: What About God?; Ending Aids: The Search for a Vaccine; America at a Crossroads: Campus Battleground; and Hunting the Hidden Dimension (for “Nova”). His most recent documentaries are Eames: The Architect & The Painter (about Charles and Ray Eames), which also won a Peabody, and American Reds (a history of the American Communist Party, with Richard Wormser).
A graduate of Wheaton College (with a B.A. in Art) and the University of Southern California (with an M.A. in Cinema), Jersey has been the head of Quest Productions for over fifty years. In 2000 he was awarded the Gold Medal for his body of work from the National Arts Club in New York City. After many years in Berkeley, CA, he and his wife and partner Shirley Kessler are now based in Lambertville, NJ. Jersey is also an accomplished landscape painter whose works have been shown widely in galleries across the US. He is represented by the Lambertville Artists Gallery.
Other relevant articles on this topic:
God’s Plan for Mike Pence (The Atlantic)
Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore? (The New Yorker)