Marjoe Gortner "heals" a woman at a tent revival service.

Can God deliver a religion addict?

––Marjoe Gortner

When Marjoe Gortner was just four years old, his parents started him to preaching in churches throughout the American south. An ordained minister at four, Gortner wed couples, sermonized on television and became a celebrity on the Pentecostal circuit. He continued preaching––earning his parents millions in the process––up until he was fourteen, when he ran away.

In his early twenties, Marjoe fell in with the Southern California hippie movement. To earn a living, however, he returned to pentecostal evangelism as a “day job.” The cognitive dissonance of thinking left and earning right wore on him; in 1972, when he was 28 years old, he commissioned a film crew to document his last “tour” through the Pentecostal churhces, as well as his frank thoughts on the matter. Thus this film.

And what a film it is. Marjoe shows its eponymous protagonist delivering sermons to congregations in Texas, California and Michigan. The directors cut between his sermons, their raving crowds and footage of Gortner in private, speaking with some weariness of the “gimmick.” He describes inking a cross on his forehead in special ink that shows up with perspiration––leading the congregation to believe that he has a sign on his forehead. We see him counting the money backstage with the head preacher at one church, and talking with another about the latter’s property in the Amazon, which is being sold and redeveloped to “a company that makes corn flakes.”

A young Marjoe Gortner.

A young Marjoe Gortner.

It would be hard to create a more devastating, or disturbing, portrait of evangelism––yet this isn’t a smear piece. Despite the hypocrisy of his job, Marjoe comes across as thoughtful, insightful and well-meaning, if a bit lost. “I think I’m a bad person but not an evil one,” he says at one point in the film. He may be duping his congregations, but he doesn’t appear to view them with contempt. Despite his abusive upbringing, or perhaps because of it, he comes across as a grounded, well-rounded person. Gortner also makes plain much of the human condition through his own experience and observation. It’s a good thing, too––the scenes of people convulsing, shouting in tongues and dancing might be overwhelming and frightening without him to guide the viewer along.

The film begins, after an introduction, with Marjoe advising the director and camera crew what they can and cannot do in these circles. Even though his congregations are “all about love,” conformity is absolutely vital––one of the male crewmembers must “lose the long locks” and everyone must profess to being saved––”I’m washed in the same blood as you.” “It’s a very bloody religion,” Marjoe says off-handedly.

Though shot in the early 70s, the congregations’s fashions seem a decade behind, if not more: we see clubmasters and horn-rimmed glasses, polyester suits with straight pants, white-collared shirts with short sleeves, beehive updos and large curls. Even in his “conservative” outfits, Marjoe looks out of place, with his polka-dotted shirt, his all-white pants suit and his long curly hair. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Gortner said that he dressed that way for the audience:

A preacher is a man who has been blessed by God on Earth. If he doesn’t drive a Cadillac, they don’t think much of him; God must not favor him. He’s got to look good, feel good and smell good.

His congregations, Marjoe says, just want a peak experience like you and I find in a rock concert or on drugs. For them, this peak experience has to be laced through with warnings of hellfire and warnings against sexual sin; otherwise, for reasons not quite explained, they can’t “get loose” or “get turned on.” Funny, that, since the religious ectsasy we see has obvious similarities to orgasm. Again and again people tremble, scream, convulse, speak nonsense, fall and shake like epileptics. Even the beatific expressions on these people’s faces looks orgasmic.

Marjoe also clearly cares about the people who come to see him. This may be an egotistical concern, the same way a band member wants the audience to have a good time. Even if it is, he cares about them a sight more than the other preachers shown in the film. In one scene, people come up to talk to him and drop money in a bucket by his feet. He’s leaning over a fence of some sort, separating the stage from the congregation; he leans over, his eyes meeting theirs, a wide but sad smile rising and falling from his face as he listens to them. And he’s listening: he holds their hands, soothes them during manic episodes, he responds to their words with kindness and sincerity. He may need to do this for the money, but on some level, it’s clear, he likes putting on a show and he likes helping people. It’s everything else that’s hateful to him.

One of this film’s strengths is the stories it doesn’t tell, the lives it shows and hints at in scene after scene. The most extraordinary scenes unfold in close shots and brief glances, from an elderly man crying with an eyepatch over one eye, to a bored little boy sitting in a pew while adults rave around him, to the self-satisfied smirk of one woman churchleader as the donations roll in. It’s become fashionable, in the American left at least, to mock evangelicals and treat them as one large redneck stereotype. This movie shows their humanity and, perhaps in spite of itself, offers cause for anger. These aren’t bad people, and even if you disagree with their beliefs, where’s the honor in hornswoggling them? How much honor is there in never giving a sucker an even break?

Marjoe Gortner delivering a sermon.

Clearly, these services are just that, a service for their members; otherwise the pews wouldn’t be packed. At one mostly-black church, the music is so powerful that it seems more than worth a little “generous donation” just to hear and dance to it. Rock concerts and drugs ain’t free, either. But concertgoers and drug-takers know that their money is lining the pockets of scoundrels; these preachers hide their corruption behind “this façade of holiness.”

Towards the end of the film, we meet Marjoe’s girlfriend, a young, soft-spoken woman in Californian, 70s-chic outfits. “I don’t know all this Jesus business,” she sighs, “I just find it hard to believe that they [the audiences] believe it too.” Who knows? Who could possibly know? Just as young people who hate drugs do them to be “cool,” so too must people with unorthodox beliefs join a church out of fear of the neighbor, or give lip-service to certain beliefs to get the peak experience without the neighbors gossiping. If this is the case, one can’t help wondering who’s swindling whom.