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Liberal discovers friends in a fundamentalist church

Houston Chronicle/September 24, 2004
By Elizabeth Bennet

James M. Ault Jr. is a self-described '60s radical who embraced the anti-war movement, feminism and other left-leaning enthusiasms of the day. He has also taught sociology at Harvard University and Smith College and produced an award-winning documentary called Born Again: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church, broadcast on PBS and abroad.

This extraordinary book is about Ault's experiences before, during and after making that 1987 film. And while Spirit and Flesh too often reads like a sociological study, it's an insightful look at some of America's most conservative Christians and helps explain why the new Christian right has moved into the mainstream of American politics.

What surprised Ault -- and changed his life -- was the warmth and acceptance he found among the politically conservative members of Shawmut River Baptist Church in Massachusetts, where he spent three years researching the film. Even though he was a liberal intellectual and a nonbeliever, Ault plunged into the day-to-day life of the small church, joining a weekly Bible-study group meeting in the home of a newly "saved" couple, practicing with the Christian Academy's basketball team and attending pastor Frank Valenti's services.

Ault's film followed the lives of several church members, including Valenti, who was also vice president of the Massachusetts chapter of the Moral Majority, the new-right organization founded by Jerry Falwell. Valenti, a former Catholic and Vietnam War veteran with a hot temper, founded Shawmut River Baptist Church after he and his wife were "saved."

"I was intrigued by the story of change in the Valentis' marriage," Ault writes. "Being `saved' seemed to have been the crucial ingredient in turning their conflict-ridden marriage with little communication into a solid partnership."

Ault spent many months building the trust of church members and was given total freedom for his film. One of the most readable chapters in the book is about a strong-willed woman who left her husband and children to live with another man and about her husband's and pastor Valenti's efforts to bring her back into the fold. Ault interviewed the husband, wife and pastor on film, all of which is dramatically retold here.

Ault became aware of what he calls "the caring power of the congregation" when both his grant money for the film and his savings ran out and he had to stand in line for unemployment benefits. During this period the Valentis and others insisted that lunch or dinner was their treat, one church member tried to find a job in his insulation company for Ault, and yet another member left work one day with tools to fix Ault's car.

What helps make Spirit and Flesh important is Ault's overview of the political impact of the Christian-right movement. He writes about how the rise of fundamentalism, beginning in the Reagan years in the early 1980s and broadening with Pat Robertson's campaign for the presidency in 1988, mobilized conservative Christians into electoral politics and -- in the election of 1994 -- brought the first Republican majority to the House of Representatives in 45 years.

The book also delves into the history of fundamentalism, from its origins at the end of the 19th century in cities like New York and Los Angeles to its spread to the South.

But the author's personal involvement in this story is what kept me turning the pages, even though I have little patience with hard-core fundamentalists and their moral absolutes and the book is not easy reading. Ault comes across as a remarkable man who bent over backward to understand a culture so alien to his own. And to his great surprise he found himself "turning more and more toward God" as a result of his years at Shawmut River Baptist Church. While he didn't become a born-again fundamentalist, he did start going to church and became a Christian.

"Their influence as a moral community penetrated even to my most habitual actions and influenced me permanently for the better," he writes. "I have been enriched immeasurably by my time with them."

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