- God Hates Cowboys (Kind Of)
In spite of its best intentions, Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain was last year's Christmas gift for conservative Christians. Just read the following diary/blog entry from a description of Fred Phelps's "God Hates Fags" church:
One of their ["Brokeback beast babies"], we called them [sic] cowboy, was particularly vexed by our signs. He was also VERY proud of his imagined intelligence. In his drug induced state, he ran the gamut of emotions. . . . next he was crying, next he was pitifully protesting his manhood—ugh—showing us his wedding ring, in short, he was an emotional [End Page 102] wreck! One could not help but wonder what was wrong with cowboy that his conscience was giving him such fits. I'm thinking there's potential in Brokeback Mountain! The docudrama that IS America today!1
Phelps's church is famous for its virulent hatred of homosexuality, as well as a hatred of an America it sees as increasingly tolerant of homosexuality. And although Westboro Baptist Church is certainly the exception when it comes to articulating ferociously antipatriotic sentiments, Westboro does share many evangelical groups' unlikely "appreciation" for Brokeback Mountain—an appreciation that is even more surprising, given the film's critique of Pentecostal Christianity.
What seems to delight evangelical pundits is that the film can quickly be construed as a docudrama that helps many evangelicals characterize American political and cultural life as a life in need of the message of hope and salvation they offer. Brokeback gives shape to the crises of a too tolerant contemporary America. With Ang's snapshot of why we need to be more tolerant, we actually learn that the gay cowboy lifestyle, with all its secular and modern abandon, is a depressing, damaged lifestyle. What's a lonely cowboy to do? And, more important, what's a sad country that seems to appreciate the lonely cowboy story to do? The short answer to both questions: pray.
But a number of evangelicals proceed with caution, not wanting to spark another controversy like the one that set off the success of The Last Temptation of Christ.2 So instead of public condemnations, we're treated to backhanded praise. Reviewers go out of their way to emphasize the film's strengths: Lauren Baker, of the Family Research Council, confesses, "I was surprised by how deeply moved I was by the characters' emotional struggle and the impact it had on their families and ultimately, their lives."3 An evangelical media Web site explains: "Lee is a skillful moviemaker and storyteller. And his film is crammed with emotionally compelling scenes and three-dimensional characters. His cast members, especially Michelle Williams in her supporting role as an exiled wife, give it their all. And, to be trivial for a moment, the scenery is sensational."4
It is precisely this kind of praise for the craft of a well-executed film that enables many of those who oppose the film's portrayal of homosexuality to get to the "heart" of the matter, but in a stealthy way. Baker recalls the film's most famous moment:
Probably the most powerful line in the entire film was when Jack hopelessly screams to Ennis, "I wish I knew how to quit you!" This statement is so compelling because it exemplifies the internal battle with a powerful addiction. The notion of quitting a person seems to indicate that the relationship [End Page 103] was damaging, as one tends to quit a habit perceived as harmful. As with any addiction, quitting seems hopeless and virtually impossible through individual efforts alone.5
The pain we witness in the powerful performances and breathtaking scenery cannot, should not, be ignored. Something is very wrong here, and it's not society's condemnation of homosexuality that is at fault. Evangelical critics don't see social restrictions and condemnations of homosexuality as reasons for the hurt the film's characters repetitively endure. Quite predictably, they characterize homosexual behaviors as being as bad for you as other negative, addictive behaviors. Homosexuality itself has blood on its hands. Alan Chambers, head of Exodus International—"the largest network of former homosexuals," succinctly concurs; he "says...