Louis Theroux, Religion and Free Speech in America

In America religion and politics are inextricably linked, despite what the US Constitution might say. Using The Most Hated Family in America (2007) by Louis Theroux and its sequel, America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis (2011), Factual America explores the history of religion in US politics.

Not only does religion polarise American society, but it also played a big role in determining the winner of the 2016 US presidential election. Will the same be true in 2020?

Emma Long, Senior Lecturer in American Studies at the University of East Anglia, joins the podcast to discuss the ways religion looms large in US politics. To help illustrate her points, Emma utilises Theroux’s films, which focus on the controversial Westboro Baptist Church.

While nothing short of shocking, Theroux’s documentaries shine a bright light on belief in America and quintessentially American views of free speech. The films show firsthand Westboro’s protests at the funerals of American military service personnel.

Are there limits to what can be considered offensive? Or is anything fair game when it comes to free speech and 1st Amendment rights?

Explaining how religion continues to affect American politics to this day, Emma enlightens us with her research and expertise…

“The US apparently has a separation of church and state, and yet every time you look at American politics religion is there.” – Emma Long

Time Stamps:

00:59 – The topic we will be talking about today.
01:14 – Our guest Emma Long and the focus of her research.
02:04 – The role of religion in American politics.
02:52 – Today’s documentary: Louis Theroux’s films about Westboro Baptist Church.
03:27 – Why Emma chose this film.
05:30 – What The Most Hated Family In America is really about.
07:10 – Our first clip from the film: the Phelps family.
10:17 – The lack of unbiased documentaries that focus on mainstream religion.
12:58 – The debate over what the founding fathers wrote, and how it relates to religion.
16:40 – The links between conservative religious groups and the Republican Party.
19:26 – Why the Democrats are seen as a secular party.
21:33 – The need to be open about religion if you want to win in US politics.
23:45 – Westboro Baptist Church’s protests carried out at funerals of military personnel.
25:41 – A clip from the second film in the series: Westboro goes to the Supreme Court.
28:27 – The large number of Westboro members who are lawyers.
29:56 – The agreement of the Supreme Court that the protests were indeed legal.
31:00 – What role religion played in the 2016 election race.
33:03 – Why Trump was so successful with white Evangelicals.
34:56 – The separation of church and state, and its effects on elections.
37:05 – The polarisation of liberal and conservative politics.
39:32 – How religion is playing a role in the 2020 elections.
44:51 – How Americans’ relationship with religion is shifting.
48:24 – Emma’s time in Wisconsin and her impressions of religion in American. 

Resources: 

The Most Hated Family In America
America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis
Hail Satan?
Alamo Pictures

Connect with Emma Long:
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