The producers of a documentary series on fundamentalism that begins on PBS tonight couldn't have asked for a better mood setter than Vice President Dan Quayle's lustily applauded remarks at the recent convention of predominantly fundamentalist Southern Baptists.
Quayle last week accused "the elite culture" in newsrooms, sitcom studios and faculty lounges of mocking basic moral values. As for the media elite, he said, "I wear their scorn as a badge of honor."
The right-wing Christian tendency to revel in ridicule is caught by the first of three one-hour installments of "The Glory and the Power: Fundamentalisms Observed," to be shown on successive Mondays at 9 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15 and at 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24.
The name-calling only confirms their righteous path, says more than one fundamentalist believer interviewed in the Christian segment. Bob Jones Jr., chancellor of Bob Jones University in South Carolina, calmly claims that "they can't ridicule a Catholic priest, but they sure can ridicule a fundamentalist and they have a good time doing it."
The series, which follows with programs on ultraconservative movements in Jewish Israel and Muslim Egypt, provides insight into the worldwide phenomenon by letting selected fundamentalists of three religions speak for themselves. It shows that not all ardent believers are disagreeable, ranting characters, as some stereotypes would suggest.
Through critics, the narration and spokespersons for the Christian right, Israel's Gush Emunim ("bloc of the faithful") and the activist Muslim Brotherhood, it is clear that fundamentalist movements are appealing in troubled times in part because they offer religious certainty and the proclaimed opportunity to be on God's side.
Fundamentalism has its divisions, as the programs illustrate. Bob Jones University abhors the militant, arrest-courting activities of the anti-abortionist Operation Rescue. The Muslim Brotherhood, which uses modern communications methods to promote the pan-Islamic ideal of government guided by Koranic principles, distances itself from the terrorist Jihad group in Egypt that claimed responsibility for the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1982.
It is nevertheless disappointing that the programs lack stronger critical analysis, inasmuch as the project was based partly on a five-year study of fundamentalism led by eminent religion scholar Martin E. Marty, a consultant to the series. The series was produced by William Benton Broadcast Project at the University of Chicago.
In the opening program, produced by Bill Jersey and titled "Fighting Back," Dennis MacDonald, now a mainstream New Testament scholar, offers some criticism of Bob Jones University, where he spent his undergraduate years. And biology instructor John Peloza's complaint against Capistrano Valley High School prohibiting him from teaching creationism is balanced by opposing arguments from a journalism adviser at the Orange County school.
Still, the series seems weak on compelling counter-arguments to fundamentalist views.
Most disturbing is the frequent lack of distinctions that would separate fundamentalists from conventional believers. As such, the series has the potential of unfairly branding many believers as religious extremists.
For instance, many of the beliefs expressed by fundamentalists on the screen are held, or considered possible interpretations, by huge numbers in the three faiths. But many believers are willing to live with the ambiguities of faith and the diversity of culture, and do not endorse fundamentalism's unrelenting stances, curried resentment and extreme measures.
Fundamentalist Jerry Falwell says, "A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is mad." More than that, fundamentalists tend to agree with the avenging, bumper-sticker slogan, "Don't get mad, get even." That outlook, to the producers' credit, is captured in this series.