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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Divining God's Agenda

PBS' 'With God on Our Side' offers a worthwhile look at the rise of politically involved Christian conservatism in the United States. But a bit more context would certainly be helpful.

September 27, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Onward, born-again soldiers.

They're forcefully on the march in "With God on Our Side," a highly reverent but highly worthy PBS documentary series tracing the rise of conservative, Scripture-driven Christians as an influential cultural and political movement in the United States. Its title alone suggests the divine anointment presumed by evangelical Christians pushing their fundamentalist version of God's agenda on Capitol Hill and in statehouses across the land.

These six hours from executive producer Calvin Skaggs are nowhere near as adversarial as the religious right they depict. If anything, they emerge at times as a too-worshipful Eyes on the Preacher cousin of those admirable "Eyes on the Prize" histories of the African American civil rights movement.

Nonetheless, the roots, rites and intergalactic rivalries chronicled here are often fascinating, well worth anyone's time and important to examine given the brawn of today's Christian Coalition and its ideological mentor, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

So accustomed are we to linkage of religion and politics in the United States that imagining it otherwise is difficult. Yet here tonight is footage of an early incarnation of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, echoing his own teachers in preaching separation of religion and politics, while also doubting the sincerity of African American clergy involved in incubating the black civil rights struggle.

What a difference a couple of decades make. His refrain-from-politics gospel was "wrong," a more recent Falwell acknowledges, beginning a section of the documentary about his White House advisor's role and the Moral Majority's prominence in the crusade against abortion rights during the Ronald Reagan years.

Falwell's own consummate loyalty not withstanding, however, even the God-evoking Reagan fell short of the religious right's expectations. In fact, betrayal--the movement's disillusionment with presidents whom it initially championed--is a prevailing theme here. It is depicted as triggering Robertson's own campaign for the GOP nomination in 1988 against then-Vice President George Bush, someone evangelicals distrusted, and the subsequent formation of the Christian Coalition as a way to end their historic "kowtowing" to presidents.

We see, for example, that Richard Nixon's Watergate revelations were a major jolt, especially to his friend and close ally, the Rev. Billy Graham; that religious conservatives were dismayed by fellow born-again Christian Jimmy Carter's policies, especially his support of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment; that many evangelical leaders faulted Reagan for the failure of a proposed constitutional amendment allowing voluntary prayer in public schools, and felt that he sold them out in naming Sandra Day O'Connor, someone who turned out to be an abortion rights backer, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Michael Deaver, Reagan's former deputy chief of staff, tells an interviewer here that he found lobbyists for Christian conservative causes a "pain" while trying to keep the president focused entirely on the economy. "Unless we got a handle on that, it didn't make any difference about abortion or prayer in schools or gun control or all the rest of it; it wasn't going to happen," he says.

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If one person symbolized the evangelicals' frustration with federal government in the 1980s, we learn later in the documentary, it was Reagan's bearish surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, a formerly outspoken Christian fundamentalist whose appointment was initially savaged in the secular community, but whose enlightened views on AIDS and refusal to use his bully pulpit to oppose abortion would earn him the animosity of Christian conservatives who had thought of him as an ally.

"It's one thing to come to Washington and have firmly held convictions," he says here, "but it's another thing to take an oath to uphold the Constitution."

At one point in this section, we see film of Falwell describing AIDS and all sexually transmitted diseases as "God's judgment" on sex outside marriage. In fact, so-called sexual promiscuity and homosexuality as perversion are also themes that resurface throughout this documentary.

An early catalyst for Christian political involvement, noted in Part 1, was a bitter war in the late 1960s over a sex education curriculum in Anaheim classrooms that the Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S. saw as fostering sexual health and that many locals saw as promoting sex, both heterosexual and gay. Declares one of those critics tonight: "There was more homosexuals made in that sex education classroom than woulda ever been here today if they hadn't told 'em, 'If ya haven't tried it, don't knock it.' "

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