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A Christian Awakening?

A new Netflix film dramatizes a schism that has become all the more relevant in the Trump era.

Tina Rowden/Netflix

Last week at Wheaton College, an evangelical school in Illinois, evangelicals met to discuss the events of our time and the future of the church. The only thing American Protestants love more than holding summits is fighting at summits, and the Wheaton event did not deviate from the traditions of the faith. The Christian Broadcasting Network reported that a few brothers and sisters in Christ dared to criticize President Donald Trump—and some Trump-backing evangelicals filed out the door. “It’s a meeting that will have very little impact on evangelicalism as a whole,” Pastor Robert Jeffress, a Trump supporter, told CBN. “Many of them are sincere but they are having a hard time understanding that they have little impact on evangelicalism.”

American Christians occupy a moral quandary. White evangelical support for Trump is the highest it’s ever been, and they aren’t the only Protestant tradition to put its weight behind the Trump presidency. As The Washington Post reported in February, 61 percent of Pentecostal preachers polled in 2016 said they would vote for Trump, despite his numerous marriages and infidelities, his antipathy toward minorities, and his general disdain for the poor and the weak—all of which have combined to taint the religious right, perhaps irredeemably. Pentecostals are well-represented within Trump’s inner circle, too: Paula White, who claims to have led the president to Christ, is a Pentecostal minister.

These developments form the backdrop of a new Netflix film that examines the demons of Pentecostalism’s own making. Based on real events in the late 1990s, Come Sunday dramatizes a schism: Bishop Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a high-profile Pentecostal minister with a congregation numbering about 5,000, decides that he no longer believes in hell. Pearson’s doctrine isn’t new—it’s called universal reconciliation, and many universalist congregations consider it a tenet of their faith. Adherents typically believe that Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice eventually reconciles all souls to God the Father. But in the Pentecostal tradition, as in the evangelical tradition, universal reconciliation is heresy.

As the film portrays, Pearson’s path is directly influenced by his experiences as a black man in America. Pearson refuses to write a letter on the behalf of his incarcerated uncle Quincy, after Quincy refuses to pray for his salvation. Quincy then commits suicide. At his funeral, Pearson delivers a sermon that mixes praise for the man with the declaration that he never found God, which means he is doomed to hell. Pearson is soon in the throes of a crisis of faith, which is only resolved by his doctrinal change of heart. It comes to him from the still small voice of God—or the devil, depending on whom he asks.

It turns out that the line separating prophet from false prophet is thin for black ministers. Pearson’s church is located in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where race riots killed around 300 people in 1921. His white loyalists desert him first. “You know, we built this church. We did! And you’ll remember that,” yells one white man. The man leaves with his wife and a number of other white Christians. By the time this exodus is complete, the Pentecostal congregation at the heart of Come Sunday is mostly black and Pearson’s dream of an interracial church seems dead.

Pearson can’t even keep his mentor, Oral Roberts, in his corner. Roberts, the popular white Charismatic evangelist who founded Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, considered Pearson his protege. “You’re like my son. That’s what I tell folks,” says Roberts (played by Martin Sheen), not long after Quincy dies. “You’re my black son.” But the gulf between them is wide. “It’s not just Uncle Quincy. It’s half the people I grew up with,” Pearson tells Roberts, alluding to other incarcerated blacks seemingly destined for hell. Roberts insists that he knows just how Pearson feels, and Pearson responds with a sad smirk. Roberts’s only comparable experience is the death of his gay son, whom he rejected. When Pearson refuses to step back into line, Roberts rejects his black son, too.

When a prominent man of God like Roberts rejects a minister, congregations divide along factional lines. A hunt begins for signs of God’s will. The decline or growth of a church is evidence of God’s approval or rejection, and a minister who turns to heresy is a minister whose very salvation is in doubt.

Come Sunday juxtaposes the sins of this world with those that pertain to the afterlife. Hell is an intangible horror; viewed against racism and homophobia, the film’s most prominent sins, it becomes invisible. Years after Pearson’s heretical vision, how does the American church reckon with those tangible evils? That is the question that Come Sunday asks, and that the Trump era brings into focus.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. Yet the American church, both Pentecostals and evangelicals, is not reconciled to its most marginalized members. Pearson has since left the Pentecostal movement, whose congregations still suffer racial divisions. Others promote the co-called prosperity gospel, which pins piety to material success. And most still prohibit same-sex relationships, a fact that provides an extra dimension to the plot of Come Sunday.

The film mostly glides past the death of Roberts’s gay son, Ronnie. But the story of Ronnie’s death, as recounted by his nephew Randy Potts, points to a deep rot in the American church.

Ronnie was found dead of a gunshot to the heart, and investigators concluded at the time that he had committed suicide. But some facts remain unclear. Potts wrote in 2016 that the police report of his uncle’s death is missing, and that two men once called him only to say they were too frightened to talk to him, even off the record. “It’s easy to imagine this is nothing but rural precinct incompetence and southern reticence to speak openly about controversial topics: when we talk about sex and death here in Tulsa, we use nouns such as ‘fornication’ and ‘procreation,’ phrases such as ‘to pass on,’ ‘to go home,’” Potts wrote in The Guardian. “But it’s also easy to imagine that Oklahoma’s most infamous evangelist didn’t want the homosexual history of his oldest son in the news.”

According to Potts, Roberts didn’t just reject his gay son. He erased him. And while this is Roberts’s specific sin, it is common enough in the American church, whether the father and son are Pentecostal or evangelical or belong to some offshoot sect more difficult to categorize. The church’s history with queer people demands a reckoning, much like its history with people of color.

Come Sunday gestures at this narrative, giving Pearson a fraught friendship with his church’s gay choir director. The choir director’s end is not a happy one; it is implied that he is dying of AIDS, after separating from Pearson over the latter’s insistence that homosexuality is a sin. At the end of the film, Pearson speaks to a gay-affirming church in apparent repentance for his intolerance. In real life, he campaigned for George W. Bush in 2000.

Maybe it’s possible to atone for all these sins. Maybe, come Sunday, we’ll be free. But until the Christian church can tell the truth about itself, freedom will remain but a prayer.