In Christian vs. Atheist Documentary, a Bizarre Advocate for Christianity

In a new documentary pitting atheism against faith, contrarian critic Christopher Hitchens debates evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson on the merits of Christianity. "Collision," released today, has already generated buzz: Hitchens and Wilson have appeared on National Public Radio’s "All Things Considered," CNN’s "The Joy Behar Show" and Fox News Channel’s "Fox and Friends," among other programs. Newsweek Religion Editor Lisa Miller devoted a column to the 90-minute film, which she thoroughly panned: “So uncinemetic is this picture — two middle-aged white men talking — that my attention insistently wandered toward anything humanizing and finally dwelled, for too long perhaps, on a fleck of something on Hitchens’s eyelash.” Hitchens responded in a column for this week’s Slate, writing that “the subject of religion is back where it always ought to be — at the very center of any argument about the clash of world views.”

What’s missing from the media hubbub are a few salient details about Wilson. The 56-year-old pastor from Idaho seems an odd booster for Christianity, considering that some of his views sound downright un-Christian. Wilson co-wrote a booklet called Southern Slavery, As it Was, which describes the institution in almost reverent terms. “Slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the [Civil] War or since,” Wilson wrote with co-author Stephen Wilkins, a founding member of the racist League of the South. “Slave life was to [slaves] a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care.”

The booklet ignited a controversy six years ago that roiled the community around Moscow, Idaho, where Wilson had established a religious empire that included a private Christian academy, an accrediting agency for Christian schools, an evangelical college, and a church with over 1,000 members. Hundreds of University of Idaho students demonstrated against Wilson, two local university presidents issued anti-racist statements, and two academic historians wrote a damning essay disputing the booklet’s portrayal of slavery.

In 2004, a retired philosophy professor at the University of Idaho uncovered another problem with Wilson’s book: At least 22 passages had been plagiarized from a discredited 1974 academic treatise. Canon Press issued an updated version of the book that corrected what Wilson termed a “citation problem” but continued to promote myths about slavery.

Wilson’s extreme views extend beyond race. He asserted that if a woman is raped, the rapist should pay the father a bride price and then, if the father approves, marry his victim. He told Christianity Today that exile (as opposed to death) might be an appropriate punishment for certain homosexuals. However, he’d support execution for cursing one’s parents and, in some cases, for adultery. He wrote in one of his books that the children of parents who don’t believe in Jesus Christ are “foul” and “unclean.”

Wilson doesn’t always practice what he preaches. Although he wrote in his 1999 book Fidelity that the penalty for child abuse should be death, he urged a sentencing judge to be lenient on a college student who had molested young children. The Moscow-Pullman Daily News reported in 2006 that people were upset because Wilson had failed to promptly notify families in his church about the student, who had spent time in their homes.

Wilson increasingly has found favor in mainstream Christian circles. The senior pastor of a 6,000-member Baptist church in Minneapolis recently invited Wilson to speak at a national conference marking the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. In June, the prominent Christian right leader and Watergate ex-convict Charles Colson was on the program of a conference hosted by Wilson.

"Collision" had its genesis in a written debate between Hitchens and Wilson that was published on the website of Christianity Today. The exchange grew into a book called Is Christianity Good for the World?, which they promoted in several East Coast cities last fall. Filmmaker Darren Doane tagged along to shoot the footage for "Collision," which premiers tomorrow and Thursday in New York and Los Angeles.