No flaying below the belt: That’s the guiding principle behind the kinder, gentler version of Mel Gibson’s biblical blood fest, which has hit the cineplex in time for the Easter season. Aptly called The Passion Recut, it is six minutes shorter due to a trimming of gore that, Gibson hopes, will make it easier to take “your grandmother or some of your older kids.” There’s still plenty of scourging for these gentle souls to gasp at, and the blood libel remains intact. The Jewish priest Caiphas is a hook-nosed villain, while Pontius Pilate is a confused but decent man (hardly the despot who was recalled from his command because he was so vicious). But anti-Semitism is not the reason this film has grossed more than $600 million, and that issue has deflected attention from its real impact.
Perhaps because they are reluctant to seem like the liberals they are, most mainstream critics have ignored The Passion‘s political agenda. But the film is a very effective social tract. It sanctifies all the hallmarks of what George Lakoff calls the “strict father” model of politics–the punitive, self-righteous, martial style of Republican machismo. There are few Kumbaya moments in this film; the message of universal love is all but suppressed by a Manichean worldview that perfectly suits the Bush doctrine of US power, and the climactic image of Christ striding forth from his tomb to the sound of drums is a prototype of shock and awe. Bible films in more liberal eras focus on the struggle of Jesus rather than the suffering, but in Gibson’s gospel the theme of persecution and retribution is front and center, as it is for the religious right. We can see how the GOP has harnessed this consciousness. Indeed, The Passion of the Christ served as a template for the Bush campaign.
The original version was released in February 2004, just as the public was beginning to focus on the presidential election. The ingenious idea of mobilizing churches to support the film coincided with Karl Rove’s evangelical organizing strategy. The secular media’s objections became a rallying cry for Christian soldiers, who marched to the box office and onward to the polls, where they voted in record numbers. Perhaps the most decisive development was the alliance between Catholic and Protestant social conservatives that worked so well for Bush, especially among Latinos. The Passion was a building block of that popular front. By combining elements of Catholic Marianism and strict-father Protestantism, Gibson created an icon for this communion at the ballot box. Given his success, I would call The Passion the most important work of political art of our time. No movie has been so effective at glorifying a hateful ideology since The Birth of a Nation.
This is not to say that Gibson’s film is remotely as dangerous as D.W. Griffith’s racist epic was. When that film, with its odious imagery of venal Negroes and heroic Klansmen, opened in 1915, Woodrow Wilson raved that it was “history written with lightning,” and in the years that followed, the Klan grew exponentially. Nothing that extreme is happening today, and the President hasn’t made a peep about The Passion. It’s too soon to say how the film will influence the course of American politics, but one thing is already clear: By showing the dollar sign of the cross, Gibson has made a mark on entertainment.
You’d think fundamentalist doxy would be too parochial for network TV. But beginning April 13, NBC will broadcast Revelations, a six-part miniseries based on the book of the same name. It’s the latest attempt to capture the market for those Left Behind novels without their exclusionary sting. Call it Apocalypse-lite. If this trend takes hold, it could help normalize the values of the Christian right by making them cool. Imagine a high-tech hero with an intense feeling of persecution, an authoritarian view of God and country, a revulsion toward secular humanism and an end-of-days obsession. This born-again Mad Max could be coming to a theater near you.
In fact, if Gibson has his way, he might be a Jew. For Mel the Evangelist’s next sermon, he’s contemplating a film about the Maccabees (based on a book by Howard Fast, no less). This is not the Hanukkah story most of us know, but a tale of fundamentalist Israelites fighting the relativism and sensuality of a Hellenistic conqueror who happens to be based in Syria. And the Maccabees have another target: Hellenized Hebrews, whom they regard as an enemy within. Imagine this film appearing in a nation beset by economic crisis and terrorist attacks. If that grim world comes to pass, we could see the full realization of Gibson’s vision. The time may come when we look upon him as a father of faith-based fascism.