Sad stories of preachers, politicians

Published May 1, 1998

ALTHOUGH IN THE visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministrations of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offenses; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.” (Article 26, from the Thirty Nine Articles.)

Whether or not a murderer can be an effective Christian minister is at the heart of Robert Duvall’s film, The Apostle. Duvall, who wrote, directed and produced this film also stars in it, playing Sonny Dewy, a Southern U.S. Pentecostal preacher.

He’s at the end of his marriage, as the film opens; his wife (Farrah Fawcett) has taken up with a younger minister at Sonny’s church, and has wrested control of the church from her husband. Sonny, in a fit of rage, gets into a scuffle with the younger preacher and hits him in the head with a baseball bat. Aware of his sin and the trouble he’s in, Sonny flees to another state, baptizes himself, takes on a new name and identity and, with the help of a retired local preacher (John Beasley), begins a new church in the countryside.

When the law finally catches up with him, he has built his congregation into a strong and enthusiastic group of believers. He delivers his last sermon and exits down the aisle to a waiting police van.

This is one of the few films that presents religion and faith without condescension or cliché. Robert Duvall, having studied Pentecostal preachers for decades, is clearly in awe of their power to communicate with eloquence and passion. In an early scene in the movie, Sonny joins three other preachers (played by real preachers) at a tent revival meeting and they outdo each other in their enthusiasm and zeal for the proclamation of the Gospel. Sonny’s final sermon runs for almost 20 minutes, and Duvall gives a sense of how contextual the preaching of the Pentecostals is; he prepares his congregation for his leaving and he gives them a greater faith in God and more hope for their lives than they had ever known.

Was he a fraud? Did Sonny return to preaching after his crime because it was the only thing he knew how to do? Or can God’s grace continue to work through someone whose life has been touched by evil?

In another key, the same kinds of questions surface in Mike Nichols’ adaptation of the novel Primary Colors (first published by “Anonymous”) that tells the story of Bill Clinton’s 1992 run for the presidency. In this film, John Travolta plays Jack Stanton, a Clinton-like character, a southern governor running in the presidential primaries.

What makes Stanton’s political life so difficult is his all-too-human tendency to exaggerate the truth, and his insatiable sexual appetite. Emma Thompson plays Susan, Jack’s wife and political partner. Together, Travolta and Thompson give you a glimpse of the Clintons’ marriage: their love and devotion to each other are unquestionable, yet their marriage survives countless infidelities and betrayals.

When Kathy Bates comes on the scene as the fixer, to stamp out the latest “bimbo eruption,” the film finds its most cutting edge: for here U.S. politics is revealed with all its moral ambiguities and impossible choices. Is one to trust a leader who is unquestionably competent, compassionate and intelligent, but with a tragic weakness for sexual gratification, or do you destroy that person and instead choose a less competent, but more morally acceptable leader? When some gossip about an opponent is revealed, the Kathy Bates character says, “This story has got everything. But none of it is clear-cut venality. It’s just kind of human and awful and sad.”

The Apostle

Written and directed by Robert Duvall

3 stars (out of five)

Primary Colours

Directed by Mark Nichols

Starring John Travolta, Emma Thompson

3 starts (out of five)

(Warning: Primary Colours uses very strong language)

Whether in politics or religion, leaders get a rough ride these days. In the 39 Articles, the issue is whether the wickedness of the minister hinders the effect of the sacrament: article 26 suggests that it does not. Yet the public expects clergy and political leaders to lead by example and to practise what they preach. How individual clergy or politicians live with their inconsistencies is known only to themselves and to their maker.

In The Apostle, Sonny, overcome by guilt, rails against God, much in the tradition of the Psalms, and addresses God with his anger, “I’ve always called you Jesus,” he hollers, “you’ve always called me Sonny. It’s Sonny talking tonight, and you don’t hear me.”

As the media continue to follow the scandals of the Clintons, and as bishops and clergy face lawsuits over misconduct of various types, these two films stand as powerful testimonies of the human and awful and sad stories of the private lives of preachers and politicians. Peter Elliott is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, and a member of the board of directors of the Vancouver Film Festival.


  • Peter Elliott

    The Very Rev. Peter Elliott is adjunct faculty at Vancouver School of Theology. From 1994 to 2019 he served as dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver.

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