Saving Teens from Obama: When Bible Study Goes Wrong

I just returned from watching 2016: Obama’s America, arch-conservative Dinesh D’Souza’s election-year documentary (based on his book The Roots of Obamas Rage) with my 19-year-old daughter, Chassé. As someone who is now a secular progressive single mom of seven kids, five of whom live at home, I wouldn’t normally choose to spend our family’s perpetually-insufficient income to see this Obama-bashing movie, let alone take along one of my kids.

But we went because I wanted to see the movie that our former church, a central Nebraska Salvation Army congregation, thought was an appropriate selection for its bi-monthly “Teen Night” one Friday evening earlier this September.  

Here’s what D’Souza wants us to know about President Obama:

That while he may have to concede that Barack Obama is an American by birth, at heart the president is still an anti-American Communist, socialist, Marxist, and Muslim sympathizer who supports abortion and his anti-colonialist father’s dream of stripping rich nations of their wealth. In D’Souza’s nightmare vision, if we elect Obama to another four-year term, by 2016 we will have the United States of Islam.

D’Souza, an Indian immigrant, spends a considerable amount of time at the beginning of the movie showing that racism is no longer a big problem in America (before jamming into a whiplash-inducing reverse when he concludes that Obama only won by working Americans’ racism to his advantage). The premise of the film is that we can’t perceive the president’s values without understanding those of his Kenyan father.

As Chassé and I sat in the theater after the film ended, I wondered again why the local Salvation Army pastors, known as “officers,” felt it was appropriate to take my daughter and seven other youth group members—mostly disadvantaged, mostly Hispanic kids between the ages of 10 and 19—to see such a partisan film as part of their Bible study discussion on “justice.”

When Chassé had first seen it, she had returned home from Teen Night with a barrage of accusations against President Obama, the candidate she had been planning to vote for this November. “Is it true that Obama’s trying to get rid of all of America’s nuclear weapons so that we are defenseless against Islamic terrorists?” she asked me, repeating questions that had arisen in the movie and subsequent Bible study. “Why waste American money to buy their expensive oil when we could have our own cheap oil?” “Why is he trying to make rich people poor?” “How is it right to punish rich people for working hard and realizing the American Dream?”

It was late on a Friday night and I was tired, so I half-heartedly responded by explaining that there are other factors to consider in every charged question she’d been armed with. But I wondered, “Why the hell was the Salvation Army youth group watching a political movie anyway?”

Losing My Religion

I was a Christian for over twenty-five years—not a “buffet-style,” live-and-let-live Christ follower, but a hardcore fundamentalist true believer. I was “radically pro-life” to the point of shunning all forms of birth control. I desired to raise “a quiver full of arrows” for God’s army: mighty warriors who would valiantly battle the forces of darkness, battering against the Gates of Hell and ultimately ushering in Christ’s Kingdom on Earth. I homeschooled my seven children to ensure their education was built on the firm foundation of biblical truth and to protect them from the ungodly influences of secular humanist teachings on evolution, comprehensive sex-ed, tolerance, and multiculturalism; I called public schools “Satan’s indoctrination centers.”

I was also the editor and publisher of a local “pro-family” conservative newspaper which encouraged Christian citizens to actively work to restore America to its historically Christian roots, “redeeming the time because the days are evil.” And my family attended a fundamentalist Quiverfull home church, having rejected all the local evangelical and even fundamentalist congregations as “too wishy-washy.”

About five years ago, an email correspondence with my long-lost atheist uncle encouraged me to question my “biblical worldview.” In time, the questioning led me to reject my literalist reading of the Bible, and eventually, my Christian faith. I divorced my patriarchal husband, enrolled my kids in public school and sold the newspaper. I eventually founded a website, No Longer Quivering, for women escaping and healing from spiritual abuse.

But I didn’t quit going to church right away. Even after admitting that I had become an atheist, I began attending the local Salvation Army church to give my kids some continuity amidst the many changes in our lives. We had friends at the church and I liked having Thursday morning coffee with Lieutenant Heather, the enthusiastic pastor whose response to all my questions was, always and only, “Jesus.”

But when Heather and her husband moved away, and a new couple was assigned as pastors to our corps, I took it as an opportunity to step further away from church attendance.

My kids are still in the process of sorting out their beliefs. A couple say they are atheists, a couple call themselves Christians—and sometimes they still go to church, which is how Chassé happened to be in attendance on Friday evening when the new pastors, Captains RC and Miranda, took the teens to watch 2016: Obama’s America.

During the discussion after the film, Chassé told the youth group that she had been planning to vote for Obama; Miranda responded, “Oh really?” When Chassé pushed back, asking questions about the movie’s anti-Obama claims, her opinions were dismissed. “Every time I said something, she would just go back to her point and ignore mine,” Chassé told me. Later on, after we’d spoken, Chassé felt manipulated, like they’d tried to indoctrinate her. 

Captains RC and Miranda are a young, personable couple with the unenviable job of administering an impressive array of community outreach and social service activities, from Sunday school to a thrift store, soup kitchen, and rent and utility assistance programs. In the midst of their busy schedules, the pastors met with me the first Monday after the weekend to discuss my concern that paying for the teens to watch this movie crossed the line from teaching good Christian behavior to political advocacy.

Both were friendly, and our meeting wasn’t confrontational, but several times during our conversation, I felt like I was flashing back to another lifetime, when I shared the same fundamentalist worldview as the Captains, perceiving “the World, the flesh, and the devil” as tangible enemies intent on deceiving believers into forsaking eternal life. (For all the Salvation Army’s good works, they are still an extremely conservative church, where a rogue Australian officer recently suggested that gays and lesbians should be put to death.)

To explain where I was coming from, I asked at first whether they would have a problem with a public school teacher using class time to show a Michael Moore film, thinking this would be a relevant counter-example. Miranda wasn’t familiar with Moore, and insisted that she saw the D’Souza documentary as neutral—a way to get the kids talking about the president’s policies and the upcoming election. Both pastors assured me that they in no way endorsed one candidate over another (RC suggested that Christians might sidestep the entire issue of the presidential election, and Romney’s Mormonism, by writing in “Jesus” or “the Bible” as a protest vote at the polls). 

“We just wanted to get the kids thinking,” they told me.

When I wondered if purchasing tickets for the kids using Salvation Army funds could be a violation of the church’s tax-exempt status, Miranda argued that she didn’t see a problem. Since the Bible is applicable to every facet of private and public life, she reasoned, how it would be possible to talk to the kids about anything government-related without jeopardizing their tax-exemption? “Our hands would be tied!” she complained. 

That would be the point, at least when it comes to political candidates. When a church applies for tax exemption, the institution agrees to abide by certain rules, which are intended to enforce the separation of church and state. Officially, the IRS prohibits “voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates.” Unofficially, however, enforcement of this policy is so toothless that only one church has ever lost its tax-exempt status, and pulpit politicking is the norm across the country.

But that disagreement was just one of many. As we kept talking, it became clear that we didn’t see eye-to-eye on much of anything. While I saw the showing of this film as indoctrination, tying political propaganda to a Bible study lesson, Miranda argued it was appropriate, since “America is one nation under God.” While Miranda suspected that all news media was biased, portraying believers as ignorant and out of touch, I recognized a persecution complex I used to share. When I explained that I saw my old way of thinking as “the box that my brain was trapped inside,” Miranda instead saw conservative news sources and bible-based thinking as “a hedge of protection” safeguarding the minds of believers against secular lies—indoctrination, as they saw it, of another kind.

We were speaking two different languages.

While I saw the Salvation Army’s support for Republican politics as wildly out of sync with the realities of the disadvantaged kids and families they serve—the very people who would benefit from health care reform and other progressive social policies—Miranda believed that the kids would be better served learning to trust that God, not the government, would provide for their physical needs.

It was at this point that Miranda decided to display her own trust in God by submitting the movie ticket receipt for reimbursement from the Salvation Army, taking a daring stand for truth, 501c3 be damned. She later told me the Salvation Army headquarters had supported her decision, but in the future, they’ll have permission forms for parents to sign, “So if anyone is afraid of a certain movie,” there won’t be a problem. 

But the larger point I took away from the discussion was more about my perspective as a former card-carrying member of the Christian Right, and how our different worldviews shaped our ability to see the teen movie trip as a problem. From inside the “hedge of protection”—a Christian ghetto undisturbed by competing viewpoints—the pastors could not fathom 2016: Obama’s America as blatant propaganda.

But after Miranda asked whether I had myself seen the movie I was complaining about, I decided to go, and I took my daughter with me. Chassé and I both fell in love with President Obama’s half-brother, George, a humanitarian activist featured in the film who chooses to live among the poor in Nairobi, Kenya. When D’Souza tried to goad him into disavowing Barack, by asking why the U.S. president is not taking care of his own brother, George responded with sincere respect and admiration, “He is taking care of the world. I am a part of the world.”

After watching the movie for a second time, Chassé came away with more questions than she had originally—only this time, her questions were more nuanced. She wants to read Barack Obama’s book, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, which is frequently referenced in the movie. She really wants to read George Obama’s book, Homeland: An Extraordinary Story of Hope and Survival. She’d like to understand more about race relations, colonialism, corporate welfare policies, the American political system, and how all of these impact our environment.

Salvation Army officers, RC and Miranda, took their youth group to watch a polarizing right-wing documentary in the hopes of getting the kids interested in politics; at our house, at least, they’ve succeeded. Chassé cannot wait to cast an informed vote in the upcoming presidential election.