NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – In real-life, actor Fred Thompson has been a U.S. senator from Tennessee, an attorney, lobbyist, columnist and a radio host.
In his new role on the big screen, the jack-of-all-trades plays a man of God in a political thriller.
WND's Gina Loudon interviewed Thompson recently at CPAC, the annual gathering of conservatives just outside of Washington, D.C., about his new film, "Persecuted."
"I play a priest who is the father of the hero, and I am very happy to be a part of it," Thompson told WND.
He described how the film combines the weighty issues of First Amendment freedoms, separation of church and state and the coercive powers of the government into a dramatic thriller.
"The lead in the movie is a Christian minister who receives a lot of pressure for not going along with the governmental program, and he gets persecuted," hence the tile of the film, the former senator explained.
Director Daniel Lusko told Loudon that "Persecuted" is relevant to anyone who cares about First Amendment rights.
"It's about a nationally acclaimed evangelist who stands against (fictional) religious reform, and is ultimately framed for murder," he explained. "It's a man hunted for what he believes in."
Lusko told WND he recently viewed the film with a prominent religious figure, and after seeing the film he said, "I hope I'm that man who'd be willing to stand up for what he believes."
WND's Alana Cooke attended a screening of "Persecuted" in Washington, D.C., and interviewed the cast and director in February.
Lusko revealed how he got the kind of rave review money just can't buy.
As he was leaving a theater after a screening of "Persecuted" in his hometown of Albuquerque, N.M, a "big, gruff, burly man" wearing a cowboy hat stopped and put his large hand on the filmmaker's heart and looked deep into his eyes "like he was looking straight through me."
"With tears in his eyes, he said, 'I fought for over seven years overseas for this country and watched my friends die, fighting for freedom. After watching that movie, I believe that you understand why my friends fought and died for this country and why this nation needs to turn back to God. This message needs to be brought to this country. You need to go and do that.'"
And that's what Lusko is doing. The writer, director and producer was in Washington at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center in February for a special VIP showing of "Persecuted" and a discussion about religious freedom.
Also attending were some of the film's stars, including Thompson, Gretchen Carlson of Fox News, attorney Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice and actor Brad Stine. The film also stars Academy Award winner Bruce Davidson and Academy Award nominee Dean Stockwell.
Lusko teamed-up with producer Gray Frederickson, the Oscar-winning producer of "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now," to make a political-thriller about an evangelist framed for murder who becomes a fugitive to prove the truth.
Choosing not to compromise his beliefs for politics, the film's hero loses life's comforts and securities. Lusko told WND he believes that's a choice every American will face, eventually, in one form or another.
"There’s a great price to pay for freedom, and I believe our culture needs to be aware of that cost," Lusko said. "You have to serve somebody. Everyone has to serve somebody. Is it 'In God we Trust,' or is it 'In Government we Trust,' because I think that’s the question that I would ask. If the pressure came to you to stand for your beliefs or to bow and lose the securities that you have, would you be silent?" asked Lusko.
"Persecuted" tells the story of evangelist John Luther’s life-and-death battle to preach the gospel without compromising its message to a political agenda motivated by greed.
"It’s about power and not letting one small group control everyone else. Nobody can control your conscience. It’s yours given by God," actor Brad Stine told WND. He plays Ryan Wilson, a man who suddenly finds himself leading a ministry while Luther is missing.
Lusko said the whole storyline came to him one day back in 2008, and although it is about religious freedom, it could be about the threat to any kind of freedom of speech. But, he cautioned, if the current generation puts faith in government over God, it's courting disaster.
"Once you have put all that trust into an institution that cannot replace God, then it becomes a trap. That’s why this story is so essential, because he could have been a believer in any kind of faith," Lusko said.
Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., founder and co-chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, agrees. "If we can engrave 'In God We Trust' in this building, we can engrave it in people’s hearts across the nation again," Forbes said at an advanced showing of the movie at the Capitol last week.
"Persecuted" intertwines themes of liberty and freedom with redemption and grace, depicted through the raw humanness of an unflinching, embattled Luther. The film has more of a gritty edge than one might associate with a faith-based film. The characters are complex, show a vast array of difficult emotions and evolve with the rapid pace of the film.
"Liberty doesn’t mean anything until you don’t have it," Stine said. "We need to do whatever it takes. You will need to be willing to lose your job, your income, your family – and Jesus even says – your life. Easy to say, not easy to do," Stine said.
"Persecuted" opens with journalist Diana Lucas, played by Carlson, interviewing Luther.
"This interview really lays out who John Luther is," Carlson told WND. "It’s a very tough interview where he speaks about mistakes he made in his past life and how he was a bitter man who experienced a lot of pain." Carlson says that pain "allows him to relate to the rest of the world."
When Luther is framed for murder, he becomes a fugitive and sets out to prove the truth. Vulnerable and desperate, he cries out to God for direction. Luther’s father, a Catholic priest played by Thompson, reaches out to his son, but knows that forces greater than the two of them are at work. The father knows the son's only choice is to have faith in the truth.
When asked if these events could reflect those in the current political and religious climate, Thompson says, "As long as you have human nature and power, there’s a threat. It’s more insidious than [just] coming down on an individual."
Carlson said many Americans believe an overt effort to silence them "would not happen here."
"Quite frankly, in any religion people should feel the right to practice what they believe in," he said. "That’s why I think this movie is central to anyone who has ever felt that freedom of speech or religion is under attack in any shape or form."
Stine said the film gets to the heart of "what we are seeing in this culture," which, according to him, is "not just a Christian problem."
"Any tyrannical regime has to tell you who to worship." Stine said. "They couldn’t manipulate (Jesus) or use him to get what they wanted. It’s about power and not letting one small group control everyone else. Nobody can control your conscience. It’s yours given by God," Stine said.
Although "Persecuted" is fiction, it addresses what Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, or ACLJ, sees as a very real, but under-reported problem.
"In the U.S., most people believe in freedom of speech. But it’s a shifting issue because there are some who want to make of that part of the crime," Sekulow said. "We do a lot of work with Christian persecution."
Sekulow has been at the forefront of the fight for religious liberty and free speech. He said the minorities who truly need protection now are those "on the edge of influence" – those who are very much like Luther.
"The IRS targeting scandal is one of those examples," Sekulow said. ACLJ represents 41 out of the hundreds of groups that, according to Sekulow, have been targeted by the IRS because of their viewpoints. "Many would not have been targeted if the IRS thought they were totally inconsequential," he said.
Sekulow said the government accomplished its goal with many of the groups, which was to get people to say, "Never mind, I would rather not mess with the IRS on this."
He cited the case of the owner of a small Texas manufacturing firm, Catherine Engelbrecht, who, after organizing a tea-party group, found a series of government agencies come knocking on her door, including the IRS, ATF, OSHA and the FBI.
"There is no other remarkable event, no other reason, to explain away how for decades I went unnoticed, but now find myself on the receiving end of interagency coordination into and against all facets of my life, both public and private," Engelbrecht said recently in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government and Reform.
"The movie shows a part about the law that sound mundane but can be used to silence one group, and it also takes the next step of showing retribution. The law at hand is not outside the realm of what could be introduced in the U.S. and what’s happening in Europe," Sekulow said.
Stine echoes this sentiment, the same sentiment made by the veteran at Lusko’s Albuquerque screening. "Freedom doesn’t mean a lot until you don’t have it. Then you stand up and say what happened? What happened was, we were undiligent. What happened was. we didn’t stand up and say, 'No, we refuse.'"
Persecuted is slated for release in 600 theaters nationally on May 9.