When I heard about The Righteous Gemstones from my brother, I knew I had to add the show to my list immediately. An unflattering, yet accurate portrait of the American evangelical church and the corrupt leaders who take advantage of their flock? I know more about that than some might think.
I spent the first twenty-five years of my life in evangelical Christian culture, mostly in the Southern United States. I attended church services on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evenings. I remember going to choir practice, potlucks and church picnics, prayer nights, and special holiday services. While I know that some people find comfort and strength in their religion of choice, I was suffocated and nearly snuffed out.
As a queer pagan now, I look back at what I was forced to endure as a child and I am so grateful that I decided to leave religion behind. There was no acceptance, no peace, no truth – rather, I encountered abusive leaders, cruel theology, and lies. I have spent years in therapy unlearning the beliefs that had been forced upon me as a child.
Watching The Righteous Gemstones has been an incredibly cathartic experience. I don’t use the term ‘exvangelical’ for myself because I don’t want to be at all identified by my past, especially a past that I did not consent to experiencing, but it is a term that has been used by many people my age and younger who have decided to leave the church because of its unethical practices, hidden abuse, and greed for money and power.
The group of Righteous Gemstones includes John Goodman’s Dr. Eli Gemstone, the head of the Gemstone family and leader of the Gemstone Salvation Center; Danny McBride’s Jesse Gemstone, the oldest son; Judy Gemstone, the middle and often overlooked child; and Adam Devine’s Kelvin Gemstone, the youngest Gemstone, all of whom are eagerly attempting to grab whatever they can get their hands on while pretending all the while to be spiritual leaders in their denomination and congregation.
During the first season, we see a family putting on a united front while falling apart behind the scenes. Jesse has discovered that someone has compromising information on him, and in his quest to eradicate it, he entangles his entire family in the situation, only to have it blow up in their faces over the season as they turn from their narrow path onto a much broader one paved with blackmail, violence, power grabs, money, lust, greed, and megachurch expansions.
Danny McBride’s experiences in Charleston, South Carolina (a mere two hour drive from where I lived for the majority of my life) were partially to blame for his creation of The Righteous Gemstones. Televangelism and evangelical power structures have long had a hold on the Bible Belt, and the religious culture has created a dark stain on the lives of many people I know.
The dark humor of the show dovetails well with the absurdity and sheer narcissism of the church. Leaders from the South and around the world have used God’s name in vain to repress, punish, and silence those of us who question their authority. I have been in churches where sexual abuse has been covered up; I’ve attended services where people have spewed hate from the pulpit; and I have unfortunately been present in places where power hungry leaders ran rampant to the detriment of their congregations.
While I can’t speak on other religions, Christianity, in my opinion and unfortunate experience, is toxic, destructive, and twisted. People who have no business being in leadership positions are running rampant through a religious structure built as the perfect hiding place for abusers. People have been coming forward with stories for decades, but the church is so insidious that a lot of it has been swept under the rug because they don’t want to be “bad witnesses” for Christ. Instead of, you know, actually taking action to end the abuse and corruption.
I believe humor and the position of court jester is put to good use in these situations because, as Oscar Wilde said, “when you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh. Otherwise, they’ll kill you.” The Righteous Gemstones does an excellent job of pointing out the foibles and follies of corporate religious organizations, and provides those of us who have escaped with a much needed moment of catharsis.
Watch The Righteous Gemstones seasons one and two on HBO Max.