When Sean Hannity isn’t fanning the flames of a uranium conspiracy, he likes to brag about “Let There Be Light,” a new movie he executive-produced, and in which he makes a sizable cameo. “I’d say 98 percent of people who watch it cry,” he told the Washington Times, as if the film’s mission is to harvest our tears. I tried to offer mine, but it wasn’t easy. Though Hannity’s studio is in New York, and though most of “Let There Be Light” is set here, the city is, to him, a liberal Babylon. Until today, when the film arrived at a single theatre in Flushing, it was nowhere in the five boroughs; New Yorkers who wanted to see the light had to go to New Jersey. I drove there one recent night, sat through the movie’s hundred and one minutes, and returned, dry-eyed, into the darkness.
“Let There Be Light” is a “faith-based film,” a euphemism that makes it sound as if the director worked under divine guidance, yelling “action” and “cut” as the spirit moved him. In this case, that director is Kevin Sorbo, of “Hercules” fame, and the film he’s made is a cynical, xenophobic morality tale, as bitter as it is saccharine. Sorbo stars, too, as Sol Harkens, “the world’s most famous atheist,” on his own legendary journey toward Christ. In the mold of Richard Dawkins—but so popular that even his doctor wants a selfie with him—Harkens preaches the gospel of the godless. We meet him before a packed auditorium, his blazer collar popped, inveighing against a meek clergyman and cheering “for sex, drugs, and rock and roll!” His religious credo is “party on”; at the swish launch party for his latest book, “Aborting God,” the specialty cocktail is the Harkens Hedonist.
Harkens has a Ph.D. in something or other, but his argument against God is more personal than philosophical: his eight-year-old son, Davey, died of cancer, and Sol can’t see how a benevolent creator would permit such suffering. His grief has made him a sad sack. He double-fists champagne and puns, wincingly, on “killing the pain.” After the party, driving his black Mercedes-Benz with a bottle of liquor in his lap, he receives a call from his agent, Norm—a foppish, bow-tied man who is, it’s made clear, unswervingly heterosexual, even if he loves to call everyone “darling.” Distracted by the call, Harkens’s car promptly collides with a wall.
He awakens in a twinkling vortex of wind chimes and soft light, aswirl in memories of Davey. Lo and behold, there the boy is, beatific and blindingly white. “Daddy, let there be light,” he says. Then he says it again. Then he says it a third time, because this is the title of the film. Harkens, it turns out, has been clinically dead for four minutes, a fact that’s somehow leaked to the press by the time he comes to in a hospital bed. Like most people in violent accidents, he’s discharged at once and walks off without so much as a limp, confronting the swarm of reporters who’ve breached hospital security. As seemingly closeted Christians, they’re less concerned with his body than his soul: “Did you see the tunnel of light?”
Alone in his apartment with a colorful Andy Warhol–style portrait of himself, Sol guzzles vodka, pops pills, and spends the day—the whole day—hurling paper balls at his trashcan. After a panic attack sends him back to the hospital, he confesses his vision to his ex-wife, Katy, a devout Christian who lives in the suburbs, as the devout must. She prevails on him to see a real professional: her pastor.
When we first lay eyes on Pastor Vinny, he’s painting a picket fence—you’ll never guess which color. A formerly “mobbed-up” “street guy,” Vinny approaches the mystery of Christ as a homicide detective might: Where’s the body? “I don’t buy into things too easy,” he tells a careworn Sol. “Jesus gets whacked, right? . . . They stick his body in a tomb, they seal it up tighter than a cement drum. What happens next? Bada-bing! The body disappears.” Harkens, a man of the world, knows a good thing when he sees it, so why putter around? After one talk with Vinny, he’s ready for baptism. Soon enough he’s making amends with Katy—played by Sorbo’s real-life wife, Sam, who wrote the screenplay—and their two sons, played by the couple’s children.
Life is all cookies and lemonade—really, they’re both in one scene—until, in a particularly gutless plot twist, Katy collapses in a seizure, causing the film’s third medical emergency. An oncologist, inexplicably portrayed by the country singer Travis Tritt, diagnoses her with stage-four brain cancer, a veritable death sentence. “God’s not going to let this happen again, will He?” one of the couple’s children asks. He will, but before He does, Katy wants to remarry Sol and unveil the Let There Be Light app, which will invite users to shine their flashlights up to Heaven on Christmas Eve, creating “a band of light” like “a selfie for God.” Problem is, no one wants to promote it—Sol is persona non grata among members of the Christian press, who fear that his conversion is a stunt.
Well, there is one guy who’s interested. Sol’s publicist receives a call during Sol and Katy’s wedding. “Change of honeymoon plans,” she tells them while they’re still standing at the altar. “You two are doing ‘Sean Hannity’ tomorrow! Fourteen million listeners. Three million viewers! That’s radio and television, baby . . . you can’t buy that kind of publicity.” Except that Hannity just did, for himself.
Soon enough, there he is, his American-flag lapel pin firmly in place, sitting in a conference room that touts Fox News’s “Fair and Balanced” motto, even though the network dropped it in June. “You’re literally going to try and convert kids to Christianity,” Hannity tells the Harkenses. “What about diversity? What right do you have to impose your religious values onto somebody else?”
“Well, what right does ISIS have to cut people’s heads off?” Harkens retorts.
“That’s a powerful point,” Hannity says.
It must be noted that “Let There Be Light” is full of such grim non sequiturs. The threat of radical Islam is the dark spectre behind Sorbo’s tale of soppy American evangelicalism, the only global problem of any magnitude in the film’s blinkered perspective. An opening montage lingers on the Twin Towers and the 9/11 memorial. Sol, in high atheist dudgeon, equates the God of Christianity to the God of ISIS, prompting Norm, his agent, to propose making T-shirts that say “ISIS = Church.” Later, Katy dreams of proselytizing life “with as much vigor as ISISproselytizes death.” Even Pastor Vinny frets that “people are getting whacked like it was the Middle Ages.” In the film’s final minutes, this ambient ISIS anxiety converges with the maudlin conversion storyline in a dénouement of bald Islamophobia. On Christmas Eve, as Katy, at home, is quietly dying in Harkens’s arms, Hannity’s show devotes a three-hour special to the Let There Be Light app, interviewing a young woman who helped develop it. Born in Pakistan, she says she was forced into marriage, beaten by her husband and her father, and threatened with death; Jesus saved her life. As Katy embraces the white light of death, iPhone flashlights ignite the sky, and the children sing “Silent Night.” Roll credits.
Hannity has called this a film for the “entire family,” and it’s true that the movie’s concept of good and evil is as narrow as that of a children’s tale. But its studious purity—“You look like heck,” Katy says to Sol at one point—can’t survive its aura of moral panic and fearful prejudice. That Hannity would underwrite a vehicle for the culture wars can hardly come as a surprise—but why this vehicle, and why now? “Let There Be Light” was in post-production by the end of 2016, and I wonder if, when they filmed it, Sorbo anticipated a Hillary Clinton victory. His movie encourages its white evangelical base to substitute piety for politics, as if their prayers will do more to halt ISIS than the government ever could—a point without currency for conservatives at a time when they control all of Washington. In 2017, the film’s veneer of Christian virtue can’t hide its Trumpian appeals to fear and to hate; nor can it disguise the kind of vanity that comes these days from the White House as much as from the multiplex. “People keep asking if I’ll be nominated to the Golden Globes or Academy Awards,” Hannity tweeted this week, adding that he would certainly grace the red carpet. “Their ratings will explode.”