During a recent trip to my hometown of Clear Lake, Iowa, a friend asked me “So are you just going to devote your life to trashing Evangelicals?” He had just finished reading a psychological horror novel I wrote about pentecostals, and was familiar with the string of essays and articles I’d written about right-wing Christians. His tone suggested I was on a vengeful quest, obsessed with retribution for my religious childhood like some literary Bruce Wayne.
At the time I considered my reporting to be fueled more by neurotic curiosity than retribution, but this is beside the point. It was the suggestion that my coverage of Evangelicals has been tainted by spin and spite that I took umbrage with, mostly because this has never been necessary. Fair and accurate reporting of these folks -- with direct quotes and no commentary -- is all it has ever taken to convey the danger of their ideas.
With some issues (like sex trafficking, for instance) there are a number of variables, perspectives and existential conundrums to consider when trying to paint a picture for the reader. Whereas I’ve never felt the need to explain to people that raising a child under the threat of Hell, vague ideas about sin and a myopic view of sexuality is a bad idea. I can simply report on what Evangelicals believe and practice and let the audience come to their own conclusions.
About a year ago I wrote a story for Vice about bakeries that were refusing to make cakes for gay weddings. This lead me to calling Theodore Shoebat, an anti-gay Christian activist who started the trend of calling bakeries, asking for them to design cakes with defamatory statements about gays, and if the baker refused, he would accuse them of religious discrimination. It soon became popular to file lawsuits against these bakeries, attempting to use civil rights tactics against LGBT progressivism.
After years of these kinds of interviews I’d learned to just sit back and let this dude do his thing. After all, who was going to take him seriously? We spoke for around 20 minutes, then I thanked him for his time and said goodbye.
Hours later I saw a post on his website titled “VIDEO: Major Homosexual Activist Confronts Christian Man, Christian Man Destroys Him In A Debate Every Christian Needs To See.” I didn’t know that Shoebat had been filming himself talking to me on speakerphone during our interview, and now he was using it in an attempt to humiliate me on his blog. The post contained photos pulled from my Facebook page -- one of myself in a cross-dressing photo-shoot, and another of Syd Barrett from 1968, which I guess he’d mistaken for me.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I asked over the phone the next day. It was uncharacteristic of me to get so worked up with these people; I’d been a blogger for years by then, and had absorbed all kinds of threats and personal attacks, but nothing like this. Calling me a “Major Homosexual Activist” and using my Facebook pics as evidence was weird, but framing our interview as a debate made my blood boil. I am someone who loves a good debate above almost anything, and claiming that was what we were doing and that he’d won penetrated my thick skin and rattled my ego.
“I knew you were just going to twist my words anyway, so I beat you to it,” Shoebat said after I called him out on the lie.
In all fairness, this guy was working in the tradition of Westboro Baptist Church, where you use outrageous insults and irrational logic to arouse so much anger in your opponent that their brain shuts down with redzone anger, so then you look like the emotionally stable one. He was very good at his job, and I shouldn’t have taken the bait.
He was wrong to think that I had any intention of twisting his words (I quoted him soberly and accurately in my piece), but I was also wrong to worry that anyone watching that video would think it was a debate. The thing received more than 10,000 views on Youtube before being taken down, and I was inundated with messages from people who knew what the score was.
With both the gay cake wars story and Shoebat’s weird blog post that followed it, I was never forced to explain very much to the audience. Shoebat destroyed himself with his own words, needing no help from me, and anyone who watched the video (other than Shoebat’s army of homophobic followers) knew I wasn’t an activist engaged in a debate.
Though sometimes I come across a particular instance of Evangelical malfeasance that is so odious it can’t be ignored, yet so subtle in its impropriety that I feel forced to set down my journalistic credibility and engage in the kind of reactionary vengeance my Iowa friend accused me of. This was the case a few weeks ago when I came across the trailer for the film “Caged No More” starring Kevin Sorbo.
For anyone under 25, Kevin Sorbo was the hunk-a-licious star behind “The Legendary Journeys of Hercules,” one of the most popular TV shows of the 1990s. After a string of mildly successful starring roles in action films and Gene Roddenberry's “Andromeda,” Sorbo’s career began to dry up. If you ask him, he’ll attribute this to his coming out as an Evangelical Christian (not his reputation as a narcissistic diva), which he believes will get you blacklisted in Hollywood, a place that is “pretty much run by the world of the Jewish population,” he once said on a Christian radio station.
Ironically, it was the Hercules TV show that planted the first seed of atheism in me as a young believer. As a sheltered 12-year-old, I’d never been exposed to ancient beliefs that had been downgraded to myths, or the idea that the supernatural realm of angels and demons could be considered make-believe. The world of Hercules was terribly similar to the bible stories I believed as literal truth, and at times the two even overlapped. When watching the episode A Star To Guide Them, which features the birth of Jesus, my Dad snorted “they’ve confused history with mythology.”
I couldn’t tell the difference.
This was most certainly not Kevin Sorbo’s intention. Since coming out as an Evangelical, Sorbo has made the atheist community his white whale, viciously attacking those without faith in both speeches and films. His role as an obnoxious, Richard Dawkins-esque college professor in the faith-based mega-hit film “God’s Not Dead,” did more to cement the view that atheists are narcissistic bullies in the eyes of millions of Christians around the globe than anything Bill Maher or Christopher Hitchens could hope to achieve.
With a budget of only $2 million, “God’s Not Dead” went on to earn $64 million in theaters and DVD sales, making it one of the most financially successful Christian movies of all time, despite being slammed by nearly every mainstream film critic in the business.
The producers of “God’s Not Dead” have followed up their anti-intellectual hit with a cautionary tale about the horrors of international sex-trafficking called “Caged No More.” Here Sorbo plays two roles as twin brothers, one a drug addicted secularist who sells his daughter into sex slavery to pay off the debts incurred by his lifestyle, the other an upstanding suburban Christian fighting to free his niece from being systematically raped in a Grecian brothel.
On the surface, this effort is nothing to shit on. After all, sex slavery is a legitimate problem that needs all the public attention it can get (unlike the supposed atheist agenda of American universities). According to the International Labour Organization “At least 20.9 million adults and children are bought and sold worldwide into commercial sexual servitude, forced labor and bonded labor.”
Though when watching the trailer for “Caged No More” (the film is not yet available outside of a few select theaters) there was one glaring issue that really put a bee in my bonnet: The young damsel sold into sex slavery is as white as Marsha Brady.
Now, this grievance is exactly the kind of P.C. point-of-order that would make Kevin Sorbo’s chiseled head explode. But this more than just a “why aren’t black people nominated for Academy Awards?” argument. If these filmmakers really wanted to shed light on the sexual torture of women, they wouldn’t have cast a Jessica Simpson doppleganger to represent them. According to The Office of Victims of Crimes, 40 percent of sex trafficking victims in the U.S. are African-American, a demographic that only makes up 13 percent of the country.
Whereas caucasian girls make up 25 percent of sex trafficked slaves in the U.S., despite white people making up 75 percent of the country.
Sorbo and the makers of the film could easily dismiss me as Gloria Steinem, air-head liberal by pointing to the fact that middle-class white-women do sometimes get abducted and sold into sex slavery. And as this argument would be literally factual, but truthfully incorrect.
Anyone with a cursory understanding of racism and xenophobia in U.S. history can clearly see the political optics at play when a virginal aryan girl is kidnapped by a godless drug addict and sold off to horny Greeks (which is where the brothel takes place) where they, to borrow a Hunter Thompson phrase, “then savagely penetrated every orifice in her little body with their throbbing, uncircumcised members.”
This theme of YOUR CHERRY PIE DAUGHTER COULD BE NEXT!! has been used to justify all kinds of racially charged, socially destructive laws throughout American history, and is a familiar premise in both films (“Birth Of A Nation,” “To Kill A Mockingbird”) and in high profile criminal cases (The Central Park Five; Charleston shooter: “You rape our women”).
Sorbo would also be factually correct to say that these circumstances of immigrants and minorities raping white women has happened on occasion, and yet there’s still room for suspicion about the casting decisions of “Caged No More.”
Yet that’s all I have: suspicion. Unlike Shoebat and other radical Christian’s I’ve written about, this isn’t a circumstance where I can just lay the facts on the table and let them speak for themselves. The filmmakers behind “Caged No More” say they are trying to bring attention to the horror of sexual slavery. Taken at face value, how could I not applaud that?
Because I know where all this leads. There is no doubt in my mind that while the filmmakers genuinely care about sexual slavery (despite their perhaps unintended racism), their antidote to these crimes is the same remedy they would prescribe to any social ailment in America: More Jesus.
And, at the risk of sounding exactly like the kind of Sam Harris atheist I’m trying to avoid, I think Christianity is not the answer to, but the cause of, these problems.
“The vast majority of trafficking victims are queer in some way,” says Rachel Carlisle of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP). Carlisle adds that it’s common for conservative families to “push LGBT persons out of their community, and I think that’s how a lot of LGBT people of color who are young get caught up in this so often, because they don’t have anywhere else to go.”
It would be shortsighted to say that bigots kicking their LGBT children out of the house is the only cause of sexual slavery. There is also the predatory lust of sexually repressed men looking for a discrete outlet for their pulsing biology -- a circumstance that also traces back to Christian puritanism. Yet this is also just a slice of an otherwise complex mosaic, because I personally don’t believe that anyone who engages in sex work -- whether patron or employee -- is a morally corrupt individual.
SWOP functions both as an organization advocating for the rights of sex workers, as well as fighting the enslavement of sex workers held against their will. It acknowledges that some people chose this line of work and feel great about it, while others are imprisoned in it -- and many exist somewhere in between.
“We want to move away from the idea that sex work is inherently harmful,” says Carlisle.
“We all have to make a living in a capitalistic society, and some people are faced with choices that maybe aren’t the most desirable, but also aren’t the least desirable. Sex work is work, like any other job. Sometimes it’s not glamorous. A lot of the time what people think of as a trafficking situation is more a circumstantial situation. It’s likely that a person chooses sex work on their own, then they run into the wrong person who exploits them in a way that is not financially beneficial to that person.”
Carlisle’s perspective on sex work mirrors the progressive approach to the drug war: Legalize it, and then set up a framework that protects the physical and economic rights of the sex workers and patrons, thereby eliminating the shadowy world where abuse occurs.
It’s not the dynamic of sex for money that she finds objectionable, it’s the lack of labor rights. Just as there is nothing inherently wrong with working in a factory, but if you’re being held against your will and/or being compensated with little or no money while others are making a killing on the sweat off your back, most of us would agree that someone should step in and say this isn’t right.
“Caged No More” operates solely within the premise that sex work is evil. Anyone who uses drugs is evil. And certainly anyone who patrons a sex worker is evil. This is the inevitable result of a nation that has forsaken their covenant with Jesus, Evangelicals would argue, and the only remedy is to get right with God.
In most instances, if I wanted to showcase the dangerous and misguided beliefs of Kevin Sorbo, I wouldn’t have to go any further than quoting him directly. Take, for instance, this Facebook rant of Sorbo’s in 2014: “Ferguson riots have very little to do with the shooting of the young man. It is an excuse to be the losers these animals truly are.”
Sorbo elaborated on this during a speech at the Omaha Christian Academy in 2015, saying that the rioters would have behaved themselves “if they had any sort of belief in God; if they had Christian principles taught to them in their schools.
“What these riots expose is the cradle to grave social policies held so dear by politicians in both parties, embraced and celebrated by unlimited government,” he continued. “Power corrupts. Government seeks more power by creating dependency and enslavement of the masses. To enslave people you must make them surrender their freedom. Well, freedom comes from God. So you want them to surrender their God, so that government can grow. America has evolved into a secular state through the destruction of our public education system. It’s the same policy that Lenin and Stalin implemented in Russia, and we all know what happened there.”
As a journalist, I can display these quotes, perfectly in context, and feel confident that the madness will be clearly understood by readers with no commentary from me. Anyone who sincerely believes that race relations would be pacified if the U.S. Department of Education mandated bible reading and Christian prayer in public schools (policies that were practiced up until 1963, an era isn’t often regarded as a golden age for African-Americans) are not likely reading articles in any secular publications. So it would be useless for me to couch Sorbo’s words inside an editorial that exposes his madness.
And it would be equally fruitless to explain their idiocy to anyone outside the Evangelical bubble. Most educated Americans understand that Christian ideology will not cure economic inequality and systemic racism with no help from me.
But when it comes to mainstream America’s perception of sex work, I will happily remove my cloak of objectivity and engage in some bombastic conjecture. While I typically strive for a detached neutrality in my reporting of Evangelicals -- delivering a piece that they themselves would find fair and accurate, while secularists would see a damning report -- the unsettling racial undertones and potentially harmful message of a film like “Caged No More” overrides my desire for naked facts and stokes the fire of subjective justice that secretly lingers behind all of my reporting on Evangelicals.