First-time documaker Dan Merchant calls for a culture-war ceasefire.

First-time documaker Dan Merchant calls for a culture-war ceasefire in “Lord Save Us From Your Followers,” an admirably bold if carefully calculated attempt to bridge the great divide separating believers from nonbelievers. Merchant himself being a man of faith, it’s no surprise that his apologies on behalf of Christian wrongdoing come wrapped in a message that seeks to present the gospel in the best possible light. Yet his levelheaded approach to a hotly debated issue makes this a valid, valuable exercise in social outreach that deserves wider exposure than it’s likely to find theatrically. DVD biz should be more fruitful.

Pic opens with a quote by Christian author Philip Yancey, “No one ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument” — a fitting maxim for a documentary that suggests harsh words have generally outnumbered good deeds among American churchgoers.

Traveling across the U.S. in a jumpsuit covered with Christian bumper stickers, Merchant comes across as a leaner, more humble, Jesus-loving version of Michael Moore, though his tone is that of a peacemaker rather than a provocateur. Merchant’s mission here is to divine why a gospel of faith, hope and love has become so terribly divisive, and to take the pulse of a nation that largely identifies as Christian yet also seethes with hostility toward members of the faith.

Man-on-the-street interviews advance the generally uncharitable secular view of Christians as intolerant hypocrites, leavened by more in-depth conversations with nonbelievers as varied as Al Franken and drag activist Sister Mary Timothy, who offer wonderfully personal insights into their clashes with Christians. These are interwoven with a wide range of theologically minded talking heads (from progressive Christian professor Tony Campolo and conservative Sen. Rick Santorum to Ron Luce, founder of the controversial, youth-mobilizing Battle Cry movement) who acknowledge the church’s failures and parse the many challenges facing contempo evangelicals.

Along the way, Merchant touches on common topics of debate between the secular and the faithful — homosexuality, abortion, evolution vs. creation, “merry Christmas” vs. “happy holidays,” etc. — yet in too quick and cursory a manner to really mount a compelling argument one way or another; viewers of either persuasion may be dissatisfied with the lack of intellectual heft here. And while the point is duly made that Christianity has been co-opted too often by right-wing politics, liberal critics may fault the pic for mentioning the likes of George W. Bush and Ann Coulter yet not coming down hard enough.

On the other hand, Merchant clearly recognizes that there’s an excess of debate and a dearth of humility in modern discourse, and his film is mature enough to grasp the importance of making amends before making arguments. In the most affecting passage, Merchant attends a gay-pride event and sets up a confession booth, inviting others to hear his repentance on the church’s behalf; it would take a hard heart indeed not to be moved by these one-on-one exchanges.

Some may dismiss the film’s final 20 minutes, with their focus on Christian humane-relief efforts (Bono is invoked), as mere self-congratulation. Others may feel that, in light of his acknowledgment of personal and collective Christian guilt, and his willingness to engage with people whose beliefs differ from his own, Merchant has earned it.

Pro lensing and editing by James Standridge lead a polished tech package that relies rather too heavily on visual aids.

Lord Save Us From Your Followers

Production

A Thunderstruck Films release presented with Zacchaeus Film Group in association with Different Drummer and Gener8xion Entertainment of a Lightning Strikes Entertainment production. Produced by Jon Manning, Dan Merchant. Executive producer, Jeff Martin. Co-executive producers, Tim Abare, Norman A. Miles. Directed, written by Dan Merchant.

Crew

Camera (color), James Standridge; editor, Standridge; music, Steven Phillips, Tim P.; set designer, Jose Solis; sound, Jon Harell; line producer, Aaron Cohen; associate producer, Matt Miadich; assistant director, Brian Huston. Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, Sept. 22, 2009. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Dan Merchant, Tony Campolo, Rick Santorum, John Perkins, Matthew Crouch, Bono, Ron Luce, Joe Garofali, Sister Mary Timothy, Naomi Burt, Rick Warren, Paul Louis Metzger, Michael Reagan, Penny Nixon, Al Franken, Tom Krattenmaker, Dean Merrill, Maegen Morgan, Jason Hoppin.

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