The setting of God’s Club is the insular world of Echo Grove, Vermont. And today we will take a stroll through that world because by doing so we can see a lot of what is wrong in fundagelicalism: their perception of themselves and their situation is completely at odds with reality.
Where In the World is Echo Grove?
The movie God’s Club hammers constantly at the idea that the fictional town of Echo Grove, Vermont is some bastion of godlessness. But where is it? And is this idea of godlessness equating to immorality correct?
There is apparently an Echo Grove campsite a bit north of Detroit, Michigan that is operated by the Salvation Army, but there’s not a town called anything like Echo Grove in Vermont. We are told repeatedly that this fictional town has not one single church in it–and not even one minister, nor one single Christian organization, nor even any other Christians.
The choice of setting here is not accidental. Vermont itself is not terribly religious. One site estimates that only about a third of its residents say they’re affiliated at all with any religion, with most of those being Catholic (which might as well be Satanism, as far as fundagelicals would usually say!). CNN says Vermont is the least religious state in the country. Only a vanishingly small percentage of its residents sound like the sort of Christians who would like God’s Club. One hardly needs to add that Vermont is also the home state of beloved liberal firebrand Bernie Sanders, a United States Senator who is twisting up the shorts of many a right-wing Christian nowadays.
But CNN’s writer says that even in the least religious state in the country, he sees lots of folks around himself who are very spiritual and who care about the bigger questions of what it means to be human and how we can best spend our limited lifetimes on this good dark earth. I’m not surprised to hear his assessment, no, but as far as fundagelicals care, the people of Vermont might as well be complete savages untouched by the light of Christianity, because the conversations they’re having and the questions they’re asking aren’t being had and asked in the correct settings–or leading to the correct conclusions.
Though the sometimes-stunning churches in Vermont are struggling to keep their lights on, it’s a very small town in that state indeed that simply lacks a single church. Let’s go down a brief list chosen at random:
Alburg, Vermont: 494 people, 3 churches.
Bloomfield: 221 people, 0 churches.
Elmore: 855 people, 1 church.
Greensboro: 762 people, 1 church.
Wardsboro: 900 people, 0 church.
And though some of these towns might lack a formal church, there are still plenty of religious influences around. Taking just that last town as an example, Wardsboro does have a divinity school of some kind. There’s even a Christian boarding school there so worried fundagelical parents in that area can have their troubled teens reprogrammed (note: I don’t know that this is what’s happening at this school; I just hugely distrust these places).
The likelihood that Echo Grove totally lacks churches or any formal Christian groups is slim to nonexistent. Christians are everywhere, even in largely-secular Vermont. They’ve ensured that there is not a single corner of the country where their influence cannot be felt.
But in Echo Grove, Christians aren’t part of this town’s universe at all–even though this is the kind of horrible den of debauchery where a pizza delivery guy feels free to tell a customer, out of totally nowhere, to “keep the faith.”
Maybe he means the Satanic faith. Or the Wiccan faith. We’ll never know. After that awkward-as-balls exchange, I don’t think we ever see this young man again. Certainly no other faith has any kind of presence in Echo Grove; there is either fundagelicalism or atheism. Those are your options.
Echo Grove: the Modern Sodom.
Just as we are meant to see Echo Grove as a sort of modern-day Sodom, we are meant to see the hero as a modern-day Lot who is the sole God-fearing resident of a town full of heathens.
Squinty and his family have managed to be the only Christians in this entire town. They are it. They are the sum total of Christianity and thus the only islands of sanity, love, kindness, and rationality in the entire place (though as we’ll discuss later, the Christian characters’ self-perception in this movie has little basis in reality). And at the beginning of the movie, the hero isn’t actually all that fervent, nor is the daughter, so the mother is really the only one in the family who really cares at all about any of this religion stuff.
Oh, but she cares a lot. She’s totally convinced that only Christianity can possibly save her daughter from a fate of hedonism, substance abuse, premarital sex, and teen pregnancy, even though there’s no indication that any of the kids in this movie are that bad (with a couple of notable exceptions, because otherwise the movie’s creators have no idea how to have conflict). Her fears look worse than unwarranted, however, when one learns that the teen pregnancy rate in Vermont is actually about half what the national average is–and that the percentage of teens who have had sex is also considerably lower than the national average. Vermont has an absolutely enviable scorecard in every single direction, and not one single bit of that success can reasonably be attributed to nattering busybodies indoctrinating other parents’ kids.
Compare and contrast that success with the situation we see in fundagelical-heavy states like Mississippi, which has one of the largest concentrations of fundagelicals in the country. Their teen pregnancy rate is astronomical–almost double the national average. The percentage of kids who’ve had sex is likewise considerably higher as well, as is the percentage of kids who’ve been physically abused by a romantic partner.
If I were a parent, I’d feel a lot more fearful about my progeny’s chances of health, safety, and happiness if I lived in Mississippi than in godless Vermont, that’s for sure. There simply is no reason to think that being Christian-dominated makes a town better for kids or leads to kids turning out better, though right-wing Christians consider both claims a foregone conclusion. To the contrary, fundagelical-dominated states look like rotted, festering hellholes compared to their more secular counterparts.
However, you’d never know any of this by watching God’s Club, which takes for granted that its target audiences’ form of Christianity civilizes people and makes them better in every conceivable way.
The Echo Grove of Their Hearts.
It can feel downright weird to see what fundagelicals think of a town that doesn’t bend knee to their demands. Aside from the two bullies and the occasional jerky parent yelling jerky things at school board meetings (a prime illustration of Straw Atheism if there ever was one), Echo Grove looks innocuous and inviting. But the creators of God’s Club ask us to believe that this town is terrible because it lacks believers–and that if more people believed in their form of religion, then the town would be considerably improved. Its creators take for granted that this is so, and you can rest assured their target audience agrees.
By placing Echo Grove in Vermont, the creators of God’s Club are making more of a statement about how they feel about being fundagelical in America than an assertion about reality. They feel like they are the only people who “get it” in a sea of naysayers, dissenters, and critics. They feel like they’re alone. They feel like they’ve been left behind by a culture that has largely rejected them and their ideas.
The setting of this movie is nothing less than a stand-in–a symbol–for American culture.
For us, there is no Spring: just the wind that smells fresh before the storm. (Consider this your eyebleach.)
Echo Grove might be written as being in Vermont, but in actuality, it’s in the heart of almost every single right-wing Christian. There, we find a symbolic Christianity that lays the emphasis on feelings rather than facts, and one that tells believers that they’re justified in feeling abandoned and maligned by all the non-believers around themselves.
In the Echo Grove of fundagelicals’ hearts, Christianity wins, prayer works, miracles happen, and Christians are welcome saviors bearing a civilizing and ennobling faith to huddled, miserable masses who eagerly await their tender ministry. If you’ve ever walked out of a movie theater in the summer and felt that first withering blast of heat after two hours of blessed air-conditioning, then you know what it must feel like for them to see the credits start to roll after a movie like this one ends and the audience must rejoin a harsh and unwelcoming reality. Little wonder that some of them decide they don’t ever want to leave their happy place.
We’ll be talking about that disparity between self-perception and reality next, and I hope you’ll join me!
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