Any American foolish enough to argue for a connection between church and state, for a faith role in politics, for a belief that our nation's founders intended for us to blend the two in any way, need only attend a showing of Spotlight.
The story is somewhat well-known by now--in early 2002, reporters from The Boston Globe exposed not only the extent of child abuse among Catholic priests in that city, but also the Church's complicity in hiding or minimizing that abuse. That the story is known by many people now is something of a miracle in itself.
Just imagine for a moment the sheer temerity of Catholic reporters at a largely Catholic newspaper in a Catholic city uncovering a scandal of Catholic priests, going against Catholic lawyers, Catholic judges, Catholic school alums, low-level Catholic bureaucrats, their own Catholic families and friends in order to pursue evidence that must come from Catholics themselves.
Many of those Catholics see their priests as intermediaries between them and God. For a poor boy from a broken home or without a father for some other reason to receive attention from one of these godly men is dazzling. Never mind that the priests have specifically targeted boys with this profile as potential recipients of sexual abuse.
But "Catholic" is only the specific here, just as it would be easy to tag the Jewish background of the new eiditor at the Globe who pushes the story. The general issue is the intermingling of religion and public institutions and how that leads to traditional ways of handling things, smoothing over things, making decisions outside the legal system about what serves the greater good. Similarly, the new editor from Miami is most significant because he is an outsider. By nature, from that perspective, he challenges the self-selective ways that the Globe pursues their journalistic obligations.
In other words, a newspaper can tell itself that it covered something, when it did, but it also buried that story deep in the paper or in a different section. When no one wants to offend the church, it is easy for the Fifth Estate to do its job without really doing it.
But the most telling impact of the entangled church web is on the individuals. Near the end of the film, there is a moment when it becomes clear that the leader of the Spotlight unit (played by Michael Keaton) is actually the one who has slowed or underplayed the priest investigation for years.
And when the "spotlight" shines on him for an explanation of why he dragged his feet, he cannot come up with an answer. One does not get the sense that he is obfuscating or stalling; instead, it becomes the moment for him, however inarticulate, when he realizes, along with the viewer, just how strong the church-controlled dynamic of Boston has been on him. He has convinced himself that he needed to steer his crackerjack investigative team away from the story of their careers.
Spotlight shows us that when church and state come together, there can be no freedom of thought or action. We censor ourselves to protect the powerful. We allow things to happen for the good of the institution that holds our souls in the balance. And even if we want to speak, our mothers, our elders, our leaders will try to silence us for the good of the city. And the church.
And like that theocracy close by in Salem some 400 years earlier, it is far too easy for specious ends to justify the unsavory means.
Great movie. See it.