Steven Lipscomb -- interview

Date: October 8, 1996
Place: Hotel Vancouver, Vancouver International Film Festival

Peter T. Chattaway: You seem to have a great sense of humour, and there is precious little of it in the film. Would you say the film [Battle for the Minds] is characteristic of you in some way?

Steven Lipscomb: It's really funny that you say that, because I think there's actually humour all the way through this film. It's very subtle, because of the nature of the material we're dealing with. A guy who saw it, he's one of the stars of Second City, called me and said that's what he keyed on. He found that there was lots of this sardonic wit, because inside everything that's frightening there is comedy. So I think there are lots of moments in there [like that]. I've never seen this with an audience; this is the first time that we will have a substantial audience to see the film. I think it does have comedic breaks. But there's not much to laugh about in what's going on within the religious right in America. What this tells is the story I believe moderates -- and I think most people are moderates, most of us fall in the centre -- and we all believe that these guys can't win, and I think what this film does is tell the story of where they did win, and they did it in a democratic setting. In the last 16 years, they have completely taken over the Southern Baptist Convention, which is over 15,000,000 people, 40,000 churches, and now they're using all of their power and wielding it to make us believe the way they believe.

PTC: But that is internal, isn't it? Do you think that has implications beyond the Southern Baptist Convention?

SL: I think the greatest danger is to think that those are isolated incidents. I tell you this: those folks you see in the film believe that they can win, and they don't believe only that they can win in the Southern Baptist world, they believe they can take over the Republican Party -- keep your eyes open, they've pretty much done it -- and they believe by that means they can take over the United States or as far as they want to go. And the reason for that is it's a lot easier to rally people around the cries of fanaticism or radical notions than moderate acceptance. In the early days of the Baptist movement, moderates had exactly the attitude that I believe people want to have, that this is something that will go away, this is something that will just burn itself out. And these guys were just dogged in their efforts to mobilize and organize, and they're mighty good at it.

PTC: Your film mentions that there are many prominent politicians in the Baptist denomination, but when you put Jesse Helms and Bill Clinton in the same package, how much influence can the denomination have over its members?

SL: Well, if you think in terms of a spectrum of beliefs, they certainly are somewhat varied. On the other hand, what I believe that speaks to -- really, the only point that the film's trying to make by pointing that out -- is that the voting bloc is extraordinarily important. The South, and the Baptist vote, swings massive elections. Now, I'm not saying that everyone votes in locked step with the Baptist leadership, but that's what they want. That's why they're going to every seminary and kicking anyone who disagrees with their beliefs in any way out. So, just the way that any radical group wants to solidify any kind of power base, go with education! Go to where it is people learn, and if everyone who goes out to teach everyone else only has one point of view, at some point, they hope that they will be able to, from their pulpits, determine elections. And I think that what the film points out is that it already does have an impact. The question is, How much will that be controllable?

PTC: [Southern Seminary Board of Trustees Vice Chair] David Miller said if you're employing someone to teach at your school, of course you'll want them to teach your beliefs, or teach whatever it is that you hired them to teach.

SL: Again, I think when you state it, it really answers itself. When you have a teacher, in other words someone who is supposed to in any academic environment allow the student to explore and learn, the process of learning is, in my estimation, not a process of dictating. Perhaps we do sit and take too many notes in class, but the idea of education is to teach you how to think. And particularly people who are being trained to go out and not deal with just a Bible, not just a book, but are really being trained to go out in communities and deal with the hard problems of life, if basically what they're given is an indoctrination and they're prepared to go out and indoctrinate other folks, to me, as Molly Marshall says in the film, it's an evisceration of theological education. You listen to those guys and you listen to the doublespeak, and what they say is, "No, no, we'll teach 'em, and we tell 'em what is right!" Now, as you saw in the film, that is not an historical Baptist notion. To me, the story that the film tells, and the reason to do the film, is encapsulated in an experience I had when we screened it for the press in New Orleans [during the SBC this year]. The press asked that I invite a few random folks from the Convention, so I invited five folks, having no idea what they thought about the subject matter, to come and see it. At that screening, when the regular folks were there, the responses and the dialogue afterward were the reason I created this whole thing. There was a man there who was convinced that what I had done was the work of Satan, and I don't think that's overstating it. There was another man that engaged in a conversation that lasted, until it almost erupted, for about 20 minutes with another guy who's a regular guy, came from some backwater town somewhere in the United States, and was seeing all of the pomp and circumstance, no one really complaining, and after seeing this film, he almost could not speak, he was so emotional. And his response to this guy was, "The next group we're going to have to apologize to is women." In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for slavery, one might think a little bit late. At the same time they are doing that, they are biblically using very shallow reasoning to really engender gender-based discrimination at the same time they're doing this. Well, slavery is all over the Bible -- it teaches it in the Old Testament, it teaches it in the New Testament, it teaches you how to sell your daughter into slavery, there's no ambiguity about it -- and the hypocrisy of, on the one point, apologizing for slavery while, at the same time, actively practising gender discrimination on a few verses you pick and choose out of the Bible, is what it's all about. The reason to make the film is so that folks there get a chance to explore that as well as -- There are so many people who, after seeing the rough cut of the film, said they think it's not really a film about Baptists at all. It's a film about power. It's a film about the struggle that's going on all over the country, and perhaps even the world, by groups that want to impose their point of view. Afghanistan, boom, there it is. It's a different place, there are different fundamentals that are being used, but it's exactly the same thing, it's a swinging pendulum that's going way, way far.

PTC: You mentioned the shallow reasoning. I noticed a lot of the Baptists-on-the-street were relying, somewhat pedantically, on the English translation -- and what was interesting was the number of women that said, "It says 'husband', and women can't be husbands, so women can't be pastors" -- and you had these older male professors who said, "No, if you go back to the Greek, that's not what it means." Are those professors Baptists themselves?

SL: They are teachers down there in Southern Seminary. What we happened to do -- the story of making the film -- was my mother is one of those faces you saw ...

PTC: Which one?

SL: She's the one standing up at the end in the black robe, and she says it really takes a lot of energy to keep people down. She was actually the one in tears at the end. But she's the third generation in my family to go and be a Southern Baptist pastor, and here she is in the seminary being told she can't be a pastor. These guys have picked up the Bible and God has spoken to them and told them what those words mean, and therefore they're not going to let women be pastors. And I was on the phone with her, again, hearing a story where she had been excluded from a meeting, where she was not allowed to speak because she was a woman, where women were not allowed to speak in the chapel, and I thought, "This is not 1895, it's 1995!" And on the phone that night, I just said, "I want to bring a camera crew down there to see what we get," and after some dialogue she said that was okay. And we just happened to fall into the last organization in the whole Southern Baptist world to fall to the fundamentalists. So that's why you see what's going on in there in those protests, when the trustee majority came in and immediately slapped a gag order on the faculty.

PTC: So the process of evicting Molly Marshall had not begun yet when you started the film?

SL: What they told her in the fall, before the trustee meeting that we were there for, was that if she didn't resign, they were going to have the votes then to kick her out. In other words, it didn't go through a process of her answering any charges -- not any kind of process, let alone due process. She was just told that they were going to get rid of her. And there are so many side stories that we can't get into the film because we only have so much time. What they told her was, "If you make a stink about this, which you can, we're going to pull you away immediately from your Ph.D. students," which means these students would have to start their dissertation process over again, and they used her students as a form of extortion to keep her from making any waves as she left. And they're not going to be happy when they know this thing is out there. We're going down to the Louisville Festival in November, where we're going to be the centrepiece of the whole festival -- they're going to open and close the festival with the film -- and we've got the jury prize for best feature down there. So it will be playing in the back yard of these folks that never thought any of this would be heard. That's why you do this. That's why I took a year and a half of my life to really, essentially, lose any security that I had, because this is a story that I thought needed to be told. It's going to be told where it needs to be heard.

PTC: What are your distribution plans like once the film has done the festival circuit?

SL: We hope someone will pick it up and distribute it. Documentaries are really tough. You only see a few, so we all know that it's tough to find them. But it's tough to get distribution theatrically. I think there are areas where we might be able to, depending on what happens when we go to Louisville. I hope that someone will want to theatrically release it. We'll certainly go to PBS, perhaps Lifetime, some cable type television so we can have a larger audience see it. And I've never done this before, so part of my answer is I hope great things will happen with it, and I'm doing everything in my energy to make it be seen by a lot of people. That's the whole idea.

PTC: Are you yourself a Baptist?

SL: I haven't called myself a Baptist for about fifteen years. I was reared in it -- steeped in it. As I told you, my grandfather and great-grandfather were both Baptist ministers, and I think what that's allowed me to do is to bring two things to the table: one is an intimate knowledge of the religion, of its history and things of that sort, and also it allows me not to have a real stake. I don't really have a stake in whether the conservatives or the moderates in the Baptist religion prevail. That, to me, is not the story. It's a story of repression through religious dogma, which we've seen historically again and again and again. And every time it rears its ugly head, we want to think that it can't possibly really have an enormous impact. I was discouraged this year when I sat and watched the Republican nomination process for President in the United States. Any candidate that was going to have any chance had to line up and swear allegiance to the religious right, specifically on the issue of abortion. That, to me, is frightening, and I have no idea how you respond to the various faces that you saw in this documentary, but I find their insistence and their dogged pursuit of prevailing in the political arena to be something that everybody should be very aware of, because whether or not they prevail, they think they can.

PTC: Are you religious in any sense?

SL: I would, at some very basic level, say I am a heathen. I think I'm a pretty good guy, but on a very basic level, I think I'm a heathen. Boy, opening that can, we could talk for days, because to me, religion and organized religion are such different things, and in a religious context historically, I can't help but look at organized religion and, basically, develop the principle that when you organize it you kill it. That which most religions start being based around, they become organized, and they're no longer about that. They're about perpetuating the agendas of those who run it. And I know of no exception.

PTC: But even in a disorganized sense, would you still say that basically you're a heathen?

SL: Well, I think someone would pass judgment on me perhaps that way. I find myself to be a very moral person. Most principles that most religions are based on are very simple things, like "Love other people", "Be a good being on the planet", and if you just stay to those basic principles -- I mean, the Christian religion, in the words of Jesus, if you will, what it's all about is loving God, as you interpret that line (and people interpret it in very different ways), and loving your neighbour. That's it. Everything else, all the laws, I think it's First Corinthians who wrote it --

PTC: Matthew, actually.

SL: Is it? Well, there you go, thank you.

PTC: I'm a religious studies major.

SL: So then you know very well: that to me is the core of where it all comes from, and if you stay there, that works. And I have a group that gets together every week in my house, and we have a kind of meditation, let's reflect on life, kind of deal. But would I call that religious? Maybe I just don't like the stigma attached to one being religious. You're a religion major, how does that -- I mean, you get comparative religion all the time -- how do you read Joseph Campbell and have some sense of being able to call yourself "religious" given what the general connotation of that word is? Was Joseph Campbell religious?

PTC: Well, I actually haven't read much of him. My focus was primarily on ancient Israelite history, and all those courses were in the religious studies department.

SL: Gotcha. It's still the same way, though, if you're back there and you're really taking an objective look at the Judeo religion and how it formed, that's history, it's social. How much of that is really religion or spiritual, well, it's all mixed together, right? Every time they were assaulted and wiped out by a new country, they would basically adopt their religion or their practices, and it kinda becomes this morphing thing, in a way. It's a morphing thing. It's a religious morphing thing.

PTC: And the fundamentalists are the anti-morphs?

SL: Yeah, they're the anti-morphs! So what did you think? I'm curious. What did you think of the film?

PTC: Well, the reason I asked about your own personal religion is partly because the film had sort of an insider quality to it. It did not feel like the Baptist denomination was being assailed from the outside, which I have to say was the impression I got when I looked at the press release before I saw the film; they had a rather hostile element to them, but when I saw the film itself, everybody you talked to was inside the denomination, and the issue was kept very much -- For example, I don't think you ever questioned the status of the Bible, because had you done that, you would have lost the argument right away. Instead, you focused on interpretations of the Bible.

SL: That's a very interesting comment, because the reason that choice was made -- and it was a choice -- to stay within that, and not to have a narrator, which doesn't take an outside point of view and impose it and allows these two sides from within to explore what's happened to their world, I think -- I know -- the reason I made that choice was to allow the participants to have it out, to have a dialogue, to spark dialogue. On the other hand, the way it transposes itself, so that someone on the outside watching -- and I take this primarily from other folks who have seen it, who are not Baptist -- there's a family of good friends, a Jewish family, that had been wanting to see it, so I gave them the tape, and they were just tremendously emotional impacted by it, and they called back and said, "This is about every religious group. It's every struggle, and you do get to see it in its own context." I hope it's not feeling like it's being assailed from the outside, because I don't think it needs to be. This is a story, this is what happened. It's chilling to me.

PTC: As the saying goes, "The more specific, the more universal."

SL: Yeah, there you go. Oh, I'll use that in an interview!

PTC: I grew up in a Mennonite denomination --

SL: Ooo.

PTC: Yeah, though with a name like Chattaway, you'd never know. Anyway, I grew up in the M.B. denomination, which is the more conservative group that split off from the General Conference, and there the attitude is that women cannot be pastors or elders, but they can be deacons. So it's okay to have them speaking in the capacity of being a deacon, but what do you make of that? Cuz I get the impression that they want to appear open, but at the same time they're sticking to this --

SL: It's not universal, you know, yet the language, the double-speak, that you hear leaves it very ambiguous. Like the president of this convention says, "We have women in every capacity," and you hear him trying to find some politically correct way to say, "They can't go this far. They can't lead a denomination." Yet what they really do, the practice -- what you don't see in the film and what happens now -- it's remarkable to me. What these guys are doing, if a Southern church calls a woman to be a pastor, they target the church -- that's what it's called, they "target" it -- the local association kicks them out --

PTC: Who calls it that?

SL: They do, they target the church, the local association kicks it out of the Southern Baptist league or county or whatever it is, they kick it out of that association and they get kicked out of the state organization. They actually send people in to call and talk to the elders and the deacons and all these folks, trying to dissuade them from calling this person, or split the church up. A woman in Arkansas who I've talked to, that's exactly what happened. A church called her; they got such flak that it tore the church in half. The folks that supported her wound up leaving the church and starting a new church.

[ flipping the tape over ]

And this is the denomination that brought us the separation of church and state! This is the denomination that made sure we had religious freedom in the Constitution, because they were the repressed! Well, now that they're powerful, they no longer have this priesthood of the believer, this idea that your connection to your God is your own. "I'm not going to try to stand in, I'm not a Pope," or any other of the more hierarchical denominations. This is a denomination that was accepting of each other, and though they had fervent disagreements at times they were able to sit next to each other in a pew, as opposed to saying, "Well, if you don't believe that women can be pastors, or if you believe that women can be pastors, then I can't sit next to you and you have to leave." That is particularly just kind of, historically, very upsetting.

PTC: I thought it was interesting that you had Billy Graham's daughter [Anne Graham-Lotz] there in that one brief clip --

SL: Oh, that's one of those things, I wish we had more time to get into her story, but yeah, that story of the men standing up and turning their chairs around? This is the daughter of Billy Graham, this is not just a woman standing up, and from her description, a couple hundred men?

PTC: On the one hand, we could admire their integrity for not giving up their beliefs simply because, "Well, this is Billy Graham's daughter," but on the other hand, the fact that somebody of that stature --

SL: The fact that they would do that to anyone. The fact that you would turn your chair around to someone who's come to speak to your organization, y'know? That kind of audacity and lack of regard for others, and the pain that you see -- Molly Marshall's story is one of those things that you see, off-camera and in the whole process that led up to the things that happened to her -- the pain of those days is just remarkable.

PTC: Actually, one criticism I might have of your film is that, while it did seem like an insider's account, it felt almost too inside. Well, not too inside, but there's one sequence where you have all these people talking about Al Mohler, and then finally there's Al Mohler himself, but the thing leading up to him, with all these people talking about him behind his back, I got the impression maybe some of that should have stayed in the family.

SL: The greatest problem -- and I totally absorb what you say, I really do, cuz we spent a lot of time figuring out how to address the Al Mohler section -- one of the things that has empowered these folks is their ability to make people believe it should be kept in the family. Because what they did at Southern Seminary, what they've done really in all of these organizations, as they have with somewhat wild abandon, gone through with a machete and gotten rid of anybody who was in their way. They have then said to other people, as they would go and approach the media, or as they would speak out, that they were being "unChristian" to do so. I find it to be bold, what those people said and did on film, about Al Mohler, who is becoming one of the folks of power in the Southern Baptist Convention, because as they were watching him go through the whole process of not just change, but change that, as it took place, in their words "to further his own objectives", so to have them up there saying, "Look what this man has done," I think it's a very important thing for him and for others to hear. So I hear what you're saying, but I stand by it very strongly. Cuz this is a guy who -- and I wish I had this on film -- stood up in front of an audience after we shot this film and compared himself to -- Who's the conquistador who burned the ships? Cortez. He's burned the ships, and there's no going back. This is a man whose pompous attitude, regardless of what he's done to other folks, has absolutely no regard for that. So I believe it's honest, I believe it tells the story, and he had a chance to respond to it. I sat in a room with him, and I said, "You say whatever you want to say. This is what people have told us. What do you think?" And his whole response is in there -- his whole response is in there, not edited.

PTC: How did you get them all to take part in the film?

SL: We went down to the seminary, which is where my mother was --

PTC: Did they know about your connection with your mother?

SL: Absolutely. Yeah, everyone we talked to at the seminary knew that I was my mother's son, and that I was coming down to shoot a documentary about her experience there. We started out shooting a film called Generations, which was going to be about the third generation in my family to go and be a Southern Baptist pastor, and like I said, we literally stumbled onto the last organization [to fall]. We were there with the cameras and this protest happened, and all that kind of stuff. It was one of those fortuitous, remarkable events that allowed us to capture something, and it really changed the course of the film. It became about something much larger. But as we spoke down to folks at the seminary, they certainly knew my connection, and my mother had been very active in favour of women pastors and women's rights within the Southern Baptist world. Then when we shot down at the Convention, the focus had changed, so everyone that I approached, I said, "I'm doing a documentary on the issue of women in the ministry, we'd love to talk to you," and they all sat down and talked.

[ idle banter about other films at this year's festival ]

That must be fascinating with a religious studies background to delve into these things. If I could spend, like, just do theology, just go out and delve into that stuff, I think it's fascinating. It's government, it's religion, it's psychology, it's all that stuff.

[ idle banter about Christian newspapers ]

I think people should be as radical as they want to be in their beliefs, but when they won't allow other people to have different beliefs than them, to me that's the time that they've stepped over a line.

PTC: How about your background. What else do you do?

SL: I'm a recovering attorney. [laughter] I moved to L.A. and worked with a large law firm there in corporate litigation. Did not want to do that with my life. I had a business where I was referring other attorneys to be temp attorneys. A year and a half ago, I sold that out and went and made this documentary. How's that for this story? I've done writing and other things, but this is really my first foray into the world of entertainment.

PTC: This is the first thing? You haven't produced any shorts or anything else before this?

SL: Well, I did produce a television pilot for the USA Network, it was a little wacky thing and that was in 1994, called Shut Up and Drive, starring Mojo Nixon -- I don't know if you know who Mojo Nixon is --

PTC: Uh, 'Elvis Is Everywhere -- '

SL: 'Elvis Is Everywhere'! There you go! 'Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant with My Two-Headed Love Child'! But yeah, I did that and --

PTC: He was the guy who said he couldn't stand wine coolers, all you had to do was buy a beer and piss in it.

SL: Yeah, he's alright, he was so fun on the shoot. He was completely out there, the whole time we were shooting. And I have written some things that are in the course of, we hope, having things happen. But you know, development in Los Angeles can be a full-time occupation, which I really would rather not engage in.

PTC: So are you looking at getting into fiction too, then?

SL: Oh yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I've already shot the next documentary, which is a film about -- I found a real-life Bob Roberts running for Congress in Southern California, and it will be an extraordinary project.

PTC: With singing and the whole bit?

SL: No, but close. Very close. I mean, the characters that are surrounding him are just, y'know, it's about what real Congressional-like politics are about. It's small, usually, Congressional elections are. So I will edit that one, and the next thing after that will probably be a narrative piece, I hope, this next year. Yee-ha!

© 1996-2002 Peter T. Chattaway
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