TV Critics Smear "Scary" Bible Belt

To New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley, the Christian South is ''the Loire Valley of American extremism.'' Not to be outdone, Washington Post critic Tom Shales calls the Bible Belt ''scary as hell.''

The two critics unveiled their warped view of evangelical Christianity in reviews of Alexandra Pelosi's new HBO documentary, ''Friends of God,'' which premiered Jan. 25.

Shales and Stanley appeared to be competing to see who could use the most demeaning, stereotypical rhetoric to dismiss evangelical Christians.

By contrast, Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of the new speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, came away from her 18-month exploration of evangelical culture with a vow to take her newborn son to church. Apparently she didn't find these folks so horrifying.

Here are excerpts from the reviews. From The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley:

''The Bible belt is the Loire Valley of American extremism – visitors glide across vast highways in the South and West to marvel at the revivalist megachurches and ''Honk for Jesus'' road signs with the giddy awe of tourists exploring an alien civilization…The documentary is a good-natured travelogue: it glances on the more intolerant and grotesque manifestations of Christian fundamentalism and also the faith's vast following and political clout. Ms. Pelosi's film doesn't go deep; it doesn't even explore why so many televangelists seem to follow the trajectory of Elmer Gantry. But it doesn't snicker. ...''

Note to Stanley: You might want to apply over at National Geographic, where ''exploring an alien civilization'' is what they've been doing expertly for decades.

From The Washington Post's Tom Shales:

''…the Christians we see in this film are unyielding in the rightness of their ideas (i.e., evolution and abortion are wrong, 'Jesus is the only way' and America is a Christian nation), and if someone challenges them, they simply say God has told them the truth. Certitude is the common bond…much of what the evangelicals say has to do with loving thy neighbor and finding 'eternal life.' But there is also an unmistakable combative tone that grows more aggressive as Pelosi's travels continue…Teenage Christian zealots attend a ''training camp'' for ''young warriors.'' A man identified as a Christian comic shouts from the stage, 'We want our country back, and we'll fight for it' and a solicitation letter from Jerry Falwell is headlined in large italic type, 'Will you join me in a declaration of war?' They call it a culture war, Christians vs. 'the secular progressive movement'…Christians vs. abortion rights advocates, and Christians vs. science…everywhere, beneath the widely smiling faces and facade of love in this film, there's a lurking hyper-nationalism that tries to link evangelicals with the U.S. flag and the Founding Fathers, and a seemingly paranoid hostility that maintains Christians are the most persecuted group in America…''Friends of God'' is powerful filmmaking in a uniquely understated way, a tour through another America that is sometimes funny, sometimes touching, and sometimes scary as hell.''

Note to Shales: With reviews like this, you think evangelicals are paranoid for no good reason? And by the way, when Christians talk about kids becoming ''warriors,'' they're typically talking about ''prayer warriors,'' the folks who spend hours praying for people who smear and ridicule them.

Pelosi herself has another take. While making the rounds of the talk shows to promote the film, she repeatedly made the point that she was changed by the experience.

''…something that I took away from this was that it's important to expose your children to religion,'' she told Good Morning America's Diane Sawyer. ''Whatever is important to you, because otherwise, they will be called unchurched. And those are the ones that later in life may fall into some of the more extreme religions.'' You mean like…no, never mind.

One wonders if either critic has traveled outside the confines of greater New York and Washington, D.C. to see for themselves the people they think of as ''aliens.'' They might just find normal, everyday folks who happen to love Jesus.

Using their TV columns to castigate people they don't understand verges on journalistic malpractice, not to mention outright bigotry.

Robert Knight is director of the Culture and Media Institute (CMI), a division of the Media Research Center. Kristen Fyfe is a senior writer at CMI.