About a month ago, I posted a widely-published AP photograph of Rick Santorum praying with a large group of pastors inside a Texas church and suggested that the picture probably owed its currency to the fact that it made its media distributors squirm in their chairs.
The elite media have a blind spot on religion so large that it might as well be a black hole. As a consequence, even the most familiar expressions of Christian faith end up reported in the mainstream press with the sort of breathless anthropological wonder that one would expect from a National Geographic correspondent. One need not be a believer of Senator Santorum's fervency (or at all, for that matter) to realize what a deep disservice to the public this represents -- and how badly it can skew coverage of religion in American life.
I was reminded of how deep that trend runs this weekend, while watching HBO's "Game Change," the film adaption of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's book on the 2008 presidential campaign. While the source material gave roughly equal attention to both parties' road to Election Day, the film is focused exclusively on the McCain campaign, and specifically on Sarah Palin (with whom it is monomaniacally obsessed -- the third act proceeds with a tone of dread that seeks to convey to the viewer that he is watching the political equivalent of Anakin Skywalker's transformation into Darth Vader).
Plenty has been written elsewhere about the various inaccuracies and errors in the film (most thoroughly at Big Hollywood), to which I have little to add other than to note that Ed Harris' portrayal of John McCain as an avuncular Mr. Magoo strains credulity to the breaking point. And, in fairness, there are scenes that acquit Governor Palin well, particularly those that portray her devotion to her family.
Underreported, however, is the film's typically tin-eared treatment of religion. In one early scene, Palin (as portrayed by Julianne Moore) is told that the possibility of her being a creationist is a source of concern within the McCain campaign. Her response:
"I'm the daughter of a science teacher. My dad showed me fossils growing up. I know about evolution, I accept evolution ... but I will never deny that I see the hand of God in this beautiful creation that is earth."
This, of course, is a rather sophisticated synthesis of science and metaphysics, yet through the reaction shot of a chagrined McCain staffer the audience is expected to infer that this is the kind of thought that inspired the invention of padded walls.
The exact same device is used later in the film when Palin, seated aboard the McCain campaign plane, explains to campaign manager Steve Schimdt that she's at peace with her role in the campaign because "it's God's plan." Cue a look on Schmidt's face as if Palin had just claimed to have perfected alchemy. Yet this is an expression that anyone who's ever spent time around a faith community recognizes. It is not, as the media so often attempts to imply, an egomaniacal belief that one has suddenly become an arrowhead of divine purpose. It is, instead, a kind of stoicism; a belief, as its secular incarnation would phrase it, that "all things happen for a reason."
"Game Change" plainly aspires to be a serious film about American politics. And it falls flat for a simple reason all too common in the industry: it fails to grasp a political reality any more complicated than the salon liberalism regnant in Hollywood and Manhattan. And it is unable to comprehend the fact that there are Americans who regard their religious beliefs as something more than a bloodless civic affiliation.
"Game Change" aimed to be a definitive portrayal of the 2008 election. Instead, it turned out to be a definitive portrayal of those who made the film.