Maybe it’s a coincidence. Probably not. Colorado Springs is home to the U.S. Air Force Academy, which has been, for years now, in the throes of its very own evangelical religious revival — and the academy has been the defendant in at least one lawsuit aimed at throwing off what appears to be an official stamp of approval on the proselytizing and accompanying denigration of anyone who doesn’t embrace Jesus Christ as his or her personal savior. And the city is also the home of Pastor Ted Haggard’s New Life megachurch, which draws upward of 10,000 rapturous worshippers every Sunday and could fairly be called the epicenter of the evangelical groundswell gripping the United States, which Haggard explicitly states here is a movement designed to counter liberalism.
It’s too bad, actually, that Haggard appears in this thoughtful documentary about Christianity’s legacy of violence, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism. For Haggard is, indeed, an appropriately terrifying spectre of the dangers posed by the rising power of rabid religionists in what is meant to be a secular culture, and a rising power with clout: he is proud to announce here that he is among those evangelicals who participate in a conference call with President George W. Bush every Monday morning, and his claim that it’s anti-American to stop evangelicals from dominating the Air Force Academy to the point of actively harrassing Jews is not at all a minority view. Yet Haggard’s recent disgracing as a sexual hypocrite turns him into more a joke than he deserves to be, for while he may be gone from the public stage, there are a dozen more just like him ready to take up his sword.
And, as former Roman Catholic priest turned journalist James Carroll — working with Oscar-nominated documentarian Oren Jacoby demonstrates — demonstrates, sword is not too strong a word to use. Military and cultural violence. A religion of peace transformed into a weapon of war. Irrational hatred and persecution of Jews. That’s the big ball of horror Constantine’s Sword tries to wrap up in a brief, 95-minute look at the history of the Catholic Church, and it was probably inevitable that such an audacious attempt would fail to succeed entirely. Which isn’t to say that this bold and fearless film isn’t worth a look. Based on Carroll’s 2001 chunky book of the same name, it is a concise, if truncated, analysis of how we got to a place where a screening of the film The Passion of the Christ can be an officially sanctioned event of the U.S. Air Force. It’s a fantastic introduction to the hidden history of Christianity that even most Christians won’t be aware of. But it feels as if it’s barely scratching the surface of a ridiculously complex issue. Which it is.
But that’s okay. Carroll leads us on a tour of the intertwined histories of the Roman Empire, Europe, and the Catholic Church, as well as his own history as a man and a Catholic himself, as the son of a FBI agent turned Air Force intelligence expert (a man complicit in the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam), who became a war-protesting priest and then a writer obsessed with unraveling the roots of anti-Semitism. From Emperor Constantine, the 4th-century Roman general whose conversion to Christianity may have been nothing more than a ploy to hold on to power, to the literally unholy alliance of the Catholic Church and the Nazis during World War II — when the Pope signed a treaty with Hitler agreeing not to intervene in any Nazi persecution of Jews — Carroll calmly and reasonably shows how religion and military power have gone hand in hand for the last 1,600 years… and how he came to understand that himself, and how he came to feel it was something worth pointing out to others, if not actively battling.
And yet this isn’t mere dry history lesson. The personal truly is political for Carroll as he worries that Christianity’s crusading against anyone not Christian has now moved back to focusing on Islam. If the “war on terror” is being waged by a U.S. military that is overtly evangelical… how can we believe our leaders when they say that this is not a religious war?
Carroll has no answers, and Constantine’s Sword wonders out loud whether we have learned any lessons whatsoever from the distant past or the near past alike. The inescapable conclusion is that we have not. This film may be nothing more than a cry in the dark that cannot help but fall on ears deliberately deaf to its message. But at least it is crying out anyway.