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Various states of grace

Alexandra Pelosi, child of Nancy, surveys the sad and the admirable in her film on evangelicals.

January 24, 2007|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi wanted to humanize evangelical Christians with her new HBO road trip documentary, "Friends of God," and she spent months befriending the movement's leader, Rev. Ted Haggard, roasting marshmallows in his backyard, shooting rifles with him and watching his son's football game. He became the star of the film, the telegenic face she chose to help dispel notions of evangelical Christians as "broken hypocrites."

A few days after she submitted the movie to HBO, Haggard was disgraced over his illicit relationship with a male prostitute and alleged drug use. Pelosi kept the film intact, adding two disclaimers about the scandal. Now Haggard's scenes come off as unsettling, and even a bit comic. Whether he's joking amiably with a group of attractive young men or quizzing two male parishioners about their wives' orgasms, Haggard is either a campy caricature or vaguely sinister. He's last seen musing on how "heartbreaking" it is when a pastor "falls into corruption or becomes dishonest or greedy."

"Even secular people want godly people to be authentically godly," he says.

Despite all the time Pelosi and her husband, Dutch journalist Michiel Vos, spent with Haggard and his family, they both say they never suspected such hypocrisy from him. Pelosi still refers to him as "Pastor Ted," though his congregation at New Life Church in Colorado dismissed him when the scandal broke.

"They acted like people who were so comfortable and happy," she said over coffee in her hotel room at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena this month. "When I'd say 'You're so happy,' they'd say, 'Well, we've settled all the core issues in life. We have the Bible.' Now, of course, we realize Pastor Ted had other things to hide. But at the time, they seemed like they were the happiest people!"

In many interviews about the film, Pelosi defends evangelical Christians. She wants, on the one hand, to explain how they're average folks, not unlike the liberals in New York and L.A., though generally more neighborly, family-oriented and nicer. They even inspired her to go back to church: She and her husband and son joined a Roman Catholic parish in their Greenwich Village neighborhood.

And perhaps that's her way of preempting any cries of liberal bias. She is, after all, the youngest daughter of the nation's most powerful Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and a San Francisco native and longtime Manhattanite to boot.

"I do admire them," she said. "I was really inspired by how organized they were. And don't forget -- as the comedian says in the movie -- that's what a democracy is. If you can get the most people on your team, you win. In 2004, they won."

On the other hand, though, Pelosi wants to underscore her trip through 16 states with the sort of gee-whiz wonder that might fit neatly into a John Waters film. There was the drive-through church in Richmond, Va., the biblical miniature golf course in Lexington, Ky., the Christian Wrestling Federation match in Texas and the truck-stop church in Atlanta.

"They have their own world," she said. "They have their own radio stations, their own television stations. They have their own magazines. They have their own celebrities. They have their own world."

There are, it turns out, myriad ways to spread the Gospel, but is the movie most compelling because of Haggard's fall? Even Pelosi's close friends -- all liberal New Yorkers -- were suddenly more interested in her project after the scandal. Pelosi is disappointed her film might reinforce stereotypes, but she chalks it up to human nature.

"We like the stories about the fallen because it makes us feel better about ourselves or something."

Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films and executive producer of "Friends of God: A Road Trip With Alexandra Pelosi," described Pelosi as a "perceptive jack-in-the-box," and after watching Pelosi in her hotel room, that seemed fitting. She couldn't sit still, checking her voicemail, pantomiming a scene, speed-talking. It was an impressive show of energy, considering Pelosi had given birth just seven weeks before and had spent the previous week celebrating her mother's new office. She was giddy over the possibility that Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert might crash her book party in New York and film a segment there.

"You know he's going to try to do something," she told her publicist. "He's asking can he bring a camera. So we need to talk about that. Anyway, it's just funny. You know he wants to come and make fun of them. And the thing is, I think it'd be perfect!"

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