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HOWARD ROSENBERG

TV at the Summit : 'God and Politics' Documentary and Superpower Coverage a Study in Contrasts

December 09, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

"The world," Bill Moyers says tonight, "looks different from the ground up than from the pulpit down." And from the summit down.

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.

In a very pertinent way, the link is strong between this week's potentially epic Reagan/Gorbachev summit and the profoundly insightful, 90-minute premiere of Moyers' three-part "God and Politics" (8 p.m. tonight on Channel 50, 9 p.m. on Channels 28, 15 and 24).

The link is survival--but on distinctly different levels.

The surface contrasts--spectacle and grandeur compared with poverty and suffering--are obvious and dramatic. The setting for one event is an arena of frequent bluster and pretension: the nation's Capitol. The other is set in an arena of frequent rot and misery: Central America.

The meeting in Washington between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev centers on nothing less than nuclear arms control--saving us from ourselves. It began on TV Tuesday morning with all the magnificent pomp and trappings befitting talks between the two superpowers.

Gorbachev and his fur-coated wife, Raisa ("a force to be reckoned with," someone on TV observed, whatever that meant), emerged from their black limo to be greeted by the President and fur-coated First Lady. The two superleaders stood on a red-carpeted platform on the south lawn of the White House for formal opening ceremonies that included the anthems of both countries.

The symbolism and irony--Reagan the former Soviet basher beside Gorbachev, solemnly listening to the Soviet anthem with a Soviet flag waving in the background--was striking and surely no comfort to the President's conservative critics.

"General Secretary and Mrs. Gorbachev. . . ," he began later.

Then it was off to the Oval Office for Gorbachev and the President--and on to analysis and speculation by ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN and their teams of experts (the roster included former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick on CBS and former White House chief of staff Don Regan on NBC).

"As you can see," Dan Rather noted about TV pictures of the blaze in the Oval Office fireplace behind Reagan and Gorbachev, "the fire is under way there." As you could see.

There are different fires--of Christianity, turmoil and ordeal--in Moyers' splendid first program (the remaining episodes air on subsequent Wednesdays), which explores the faces of Christianity in ravaged and impoverished areas of Central America.

Contrast the loftiness and pageantry of the summit with Moyers' opening scenes of urban poor joining pigs and birds in scavenging through hills of junk and garbage. Contrast these superpower leaders negotiating possible world survival with simple folk engaged in the routine of daily survival.

Moyers, the program's reporter, co-writer and executive editor, defines Central America's surging evangelical movement as derived essentially from two clashing philosophies. On the one hand, there are the U.S. Christians of "liberation theology" working in Nicaragua who identify with the goals of the poor and advocate achieving justice in this world, not waiting for the next. On the opposite pole are U.S. evangelicals operating in Honduras, attracting the poor by telling them that their sufferings will be rewarded in heaven.

The liberation theologians in the Moyers program are attracted to Nicaragua's Marxist Sandinistas, while the more conservative evangelicals preach the gospel as a tool to oppose communism and, in effect, support the status quo.

One side preaches "now." The other preaches "tomorrow" and is part of a broader movement holding to a biblical view of prophecy that says nuclear war--a battle of Armageddon that would return Christ to Earth--is inevitable. So arms negotiations--like those of the Reagan/Gorbachev summit--are deemed useless.

And conventional war is useful, says Florida missionary Phil Derstine, who is able to preach to the anti-Sandinista Contras through a contact made for him by Lt. Col. Oliver North.

"I believe God uses war," Derstine tells Moyers in Honduras. "That's why I can't be against them. God uses war to bring people to Him."

In another sequence, a poor Honduran preacher and his family nod in delight before a TV set in their squalid house, watching a satellite telecast of teary American evangelist Jimmy Swaggart commanding the devil to leave.

Pictures such as these, and evangelicals such as the smiling, boyish Derstine, are a counterpoint to such missionaries in Nicaragua as Paul Jeffrey and Lyda Pierce, a husband and wife team whose approach is far different.

"That's what liberation theology is--the people, through the Scriptures, working for liberation," Pierce says. "And liberation really means the same thing as salvation."

The couple believes that the Sandinista revolution has religious underpinnings and that more people in Nicaragua have read the Bible than Marx. "That's what changed Nicaragua," Jeffrey says.

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