In the month of August, we are kicking off a new series on the portrayal of clergy in popular media. We are interested in how faith leaders are represented in culture (movies, TV, books, plays, etc.) and how that reflects our current era and understanding of religion. Check back every Thursday in August for a new essay in this series. The following essay by Bearings Online poetry editor Susan Sink launches the series with a look at a false clergyman in the Netflix series Godless, which won three Emmys in 2018.
(Are you interested in writing for this series? There is certainly no lack of clergy in media. What is their role, and what do the depictions reveal about attitudes toward Christianity and clergy in particular? Send a pitch to skcook@CollegevilleInstitute.org.)
In the early 1990s, I found myself watching a clichéd television mystery set in the Old West in which it turned out that the Christian reverend was the killer. My Evangelical mother was appalled. A murdering reverend? As someone who regularly taught about American identity and the West, I thought this was a good twist. And this incident made me pay more attention to the role of clergy members and the church in general in Westerns. This fascination continued right up to 2017’s Godless: the wonderful, powerful, and too-violent-for-my-mother Netflix series.
In the series, Jeff Daniels shows up as the lead wearing a pastor’s collar. His character, Frank Griffin, is unambiguously evil, his violence sweeping away entire towns full of innocents as he seeks revenge on Roy Goode, a member of his gang he treated like a son, who betrayed him and stole from him. His ruthlessness, the revenge plot, and his gang make him a classic outlaw. So what is he doing in a cleric’s collar?
Jeff Daniels plays a classic outlaw. So what is he doing in a cleric’s collar?
This story directly counters the original trope of clergy in Westerns. Clergy fall into two categories in early Westerns: the padre and the preacher. The Catholic priests or “padres,” are described by R. Philip Loy in his book Westerns and American Culture: 1930-1955, as “gentle men who, forsaking personal needs, think foremost of their charges. Padres promote justice, reconciliation and understanding between all persons, and are mindful of those who are less able to protect themselves, particularly Indians and children.” Cowboys like the Cisco Kid and Roy Rogers, traveling along the Mexican border, get advice from and assist padres in finding outlaws and preserving peace. This is still a virtue in our society, but where are the films with modern-day padres?
Meanwhile, Protestant churches, much more prevalent in Westerns, also serve as places where peace and reconciliation occurs, often mediated by the local reverend or preacher. In early Westerns, preachers are completely positive figures, brave and upright, forces for peace and civilization on the frontier. Even in films where preachers are not as visible, the church steeple rises above most Western towns as a clear sign of peace and domestication. Women, also forces for peace and order, are often seen going to church, reading Bibles, and singing hymns.
Godless is obviously not this kind of Western. It also breaks from the revisionist Westerns of the 1960s-1990s. As Americans lost faith in a broad spectrum of institutions, the Western preacher started showing up as a corrupt outlaw, a charlatan who used his power to bring chaos and disorder to wilderness towns. In the 1968 film 5 Card Stud, Robert Mitchum is a corrupt clergyman with a gun hidden in his Bible. By 1972, Mitchum, impersonating a priest, has upgraded to a machine gun in The Wrath of God. As these revisionist Westerns upped the violence, they also tried to show the West “as it really was.” The story of Indians got more complex, Buffalo soldiers joined the John Wayne characters as conflicted heroes returning from the Civil War and seeking a place in society.
As Americans lost faith in a broad spectrum of institutions, the Western preacher started showing up as a corrupt outlaw.
But the revisionist Westerns contain no characters so villainous or psychologically driven as Godless’ Frank Griffin. We are told Griffin’s twisted relationship to religion comes from a traumatic experience he had as a child (based on the actual Mountain Meadows Massacre) where a wagon train’s inhabitants were murdered by a Mormon militia and the children under eight years old, the only survivors, raised in Mormon families.
Griffin, we are told, was one of those children. He wears a collar as a sort of minister of death, not life. His fearlessness is fueled by his belief in a vision he had of his own death. He doesn’t believe, when confronted, that anyone can kill him, repeating “I’ve seen my death; this ain’t it.” But he is mortal, and his knowledge is far from complete. Like so many characters in Westerns, he has come from trauma, albeit a very 21st century trauma, not the Civil War that impacted traditional Western characters. The Mormon militia was not a force for good (especially in a pluralistic vision of America), and the experience formed Frank Griffin.
Godless belongs to a third phase of Westerns which, I suggest, aim to express “how it really is” rather than “how it really was,” using Western tropes to explore our national character as it relates to violence, gender, race, capitalism, the role of government, and Christianity. This genre has a lot of possibilities and already some excellent films, such as Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, in which women have to upend the male hierarchy to get a lost wagon train to safety. This genre knows what to do with women’s empowerment and other issues related to marginalization, but it seems to have no idea what to do with Christianity. There is little or no role for faith, and when it does show up it is often wrong-headed, ineffective, or misrepresented.
Godless belongs to a third phase Westerns that aim to express “how it really is” rather than “how it really was.”
In the center of the town featured in Godless, a town of women where the men died in a single mining accident, is the skeleton of a church. Their pastor, we are told, is on the way, but still several states away (and traveling slowly). The unfinished church is no shelter from the violence of the West, no protection or civilizing force.
The women, traditionally keepers of the faith in the West, are at the mercy of the mining company, without husbands or a pastor for their church. The two women taking charge are connected to the (uncivilized) wilderness more than the home: Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery) lives on the edge of town with her half-Paiute son and Paiute mother-in-law, while the mayor’s widow, Mary Agnes (played by Merritt Wever), has taken to wearing her husband’s clothes, complete with holster and gun, is an excellent shot, and is in a same sex relationship with Callie Dunne (Tess Frazer), a former prostitute become respectable school teacher.
As a 21st century Western, Godless celebrates the same-sex relationship and the empowerment of women. African Americans are also given agency. There is a town of separatist Buffalo Soldiers and their families near the town, who can take care of themselves until Frank Griffin comes their way. Yet violence is at the center, a violence bred of a religion that is particular to the American West. Whether Frank Griffin is an imposter clergyman or has set himself up as the high priest of godlessness, carrying out the religion of hate and revenge, is unclear. The only question in the series is whether anyone will be able to stop him. He is beyond redemption.
There is little or no role for faith and when it does show up it is often wrong-headed, ineffective or misrepresented.
In the end, as in the Western genre as a whole, the question is what this story and these characters tell us about America. Is it truly “godless”? Is this America? And is this freedom? The ruthlessness of our gun violence against innocents, the relaxing of gender norms, and aspiration to empower women in a variety of ways all speak to our times. The portrayal of Native Americans and African Americans as agents of healing shows a continuing desire to include others in history and expand our understanding of their treatment in American society.
Godless also reflects how, in recent decades, Christianity has failed many people. Its ministers have often failed to protect innocent children. Its hierarchies have often not embraced or loved or led the way in recognizing and empowering the marginalized in society. And this reality is reflected in Godless. The skeleton church shows the aspiration for faith is still there, but it is ineffective or marked by extreme corruption. The Bible verses used by Frank Griffin are twisted, and the King James poetics of Western speech are echoes of something that brings destruction instead of redemption or even protection. It is not that the moral order is no longer clear, but that it is almost inexpressible, it is seemingly absent. And this is, I think, where we are generally in terms of the portrayal of clergy and religion in pop culture (particularly film and television).
It is not that the moral order is no longer clear, but that it is almost inexpressible, it is seemingly absent.
The people writing, directing, and acting in these roles overwhelmingly get organized religion wrong and show general confusion about what Christian characters could offer in our contemporary world. What does it mean if anyone can put on a collar, even the most heinous, murdering outlaw? And who, in a lawless world marked by senseless violence and widespread corruption, is going to build a space for reconciliation and offer moral guidance and hope?