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Why 'Kingdom Come' Won't Be Done On Pbs

HOWARD ROSENBERG

May 13, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

In an ornate gingerbread house at the PTL ministry's Heritage USA resort complex in Fort Mill, S.C., lives 18-year-old Kevin Whittum, 28 inches tall and weighing 20 pounds, a victim of osteogenesis, or brittle-bones disease.

His motorized wheelchair whirs softly as he leads a TV camera on a tour of this supposed facility for disabled children that has been financed from $1,000 contributions.

Kevin's House, as it is named, has been open 10 months, and for nearly all of that time, Whittum has been its principal fund-raiser and sole resident with his adoptive parents.

"This is our dining room, where we seat 10 for dinner," he says in a tiny voice. "We're on the way to the living room right now."

The eerie, almost surreal scene is from Part 1 of "Thy Kingdom Come . . . Thy Will Be Done," a two-segment "Frontline" documentary on Christian fundamentalists that is biting, revealing, timely and utterly fascinating.

One problem: It's also unavailable.

"This is a very strange decision," Antony Thomas, the documentary's British producer and director, said about its ouster from the PBS schedule. He's in Los Angeles this week.

"It's not a political decision," said David Fanning, executive producer of the traditionally hard-hitting "Frontline," who said he was the one who decided that the documentary was unsuitable for airing on PBS at this time.

Whatever else it may be, the decision is difficult to understand.

Initially scheduled to air on consecutive Tuesdays starting this week, "Thy Kingdom Come . . . Thy Will Be Done" was deleted from the schedule after last month's downfall of Jim Bakker as head of PTL amid charges of adultery, homosexuality and mismanagement.

A significant portion of the first segment is devoted to the pre-scandal PTL: Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye, and the fairyland environment of PTL's 350-acre Heritage USA, with its 500-room luxury hotel and Mainstreet USA Christian shopping mall (Heavenly Fudge Shop, Bakker's Bakery and Deli, etc.) that is "hermetically sealed and artificially lit from a blue concrete sky."

In an April memo to PBS stations, Fanning said the documentary was withdrawn so that the producers could re-edit it to reflect recent PTL developments.

However, Thomas said that after being told last month that his documentary would have to be updated--a decision with which he concurred--he was later informed that it was to be shelved until "the dust has settled" on the status of all of TV evangelism in light of the PTL scandal.

And Fanning now says that "Thy Kingdom Come . . . Thy Will Be Done" will not air before next season.

If it airs at all.

"My clear view is that it's now or never," said Thomas, who also collaborated with Fanning on "Death of a Princess," a 1980 documentary that caused a furor in the United States and almost disrupted British-Saudi relations.

"Either you time these films with the events or not," Thomas said about his latest documentary. "In September, it (the Bakker matter) will be all forgotten."

He's right. Yanking this documentary--a WGBH/British Central TV co-production that has already aired in Britain--was a bad error. It \o7 is\f7 now or never.

In fact, rather than being diminished by recent events, Thomas' documentary is made all the more compelling by the Bakker scandal. At the very least, its profile of Heritage USA would give Americans a chance to glimpse behind the headlines and understand why the Bakkers were criticized in some circles for turning religion into a carnival.

Thomas' documentary extends far beyond the Bakkers, however.

At times sympathetic in tone, at other times critical, it monitors the growing links between America's religious right and political right. It profiles the new ZIP-coded, area-coded, computerized, electronic evangelicals. It closely examines the economic polarization of church-going Christians in Dallas ("the most Christian place on this Earth," Thomas asserts) while eliciting some astonishing statements from lavish-living W. A. Criswell, pastor of the 26,000-member First Baptist Church there. And in an especially moving sequence, Thomas also allows born-again Christians to recall their moment of rebirth ("For the first time in my life, I felt clean," one says).

It's very special TV that demands exposure in the United States.

"The timing seemed absolutely uncanny," Thomas said about the Bakker scandal breaking in March while his documentary was still in the final polishing stages. To others, apparently, the timing was lethal.

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