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Culture | PBS series helpful background for politically active Christians

Issue: "Church inside the state," Oct. 12, 1996

To what extent should Christians involve themselves in politics? That's the theme of this impressive documentary of historical footage and interviews. There's minimal narration and very little in the way of outside analysis. For the most part it is evangelicals telling their own story, for good or ill. Episode One charts the rise of Billy Graham and Youth for Christ just after World War II. Before the war evangelicals had retreated from politics, embarrassed by the Scopes trial, and frustrated by the rise of the "social gospel" among liberal theologians. When the civil-rights movement came along, evangelicals didn't know what to do with it. Carl F.H. Henry, WORLD's religion correspondent, explains how evangelicals were leery of Martin Luther King, suspecting him of preaching the liberal social gospel. As it turns out, says Mr. Henry, "We were 'Johnny-come-later' on the race issue." "On race," Jerry Falwell confesses, "what I preached was incorrect." Billy Graham shows up often throughout the series: preaching at a Youth For Christ rally in the '40s; preaching against communism in the '50s; and many more times up through the invocation at Bill Clinton's inauguration. Mr. Graham's public friendship and courtship of Richard Nixon was betrayed by the release of the Watergate transcripts, which he found "profoundly disturbing and disappointing." But Mr. Graham manages, for the most part, to stay above the fray during turbulent times. And then there was Jimmy Carter. Embraced by many evangelicals early on for his forthright pronouncements of faith and later abandoned by the same for his political views, Mr. Carter baffled the media. In one funny scene John Chancellor proclaims, "We have checked on the religious meaning of Carter's profound experience [being born again]. It is described by the Baptists as a common experience, not something out of the ordinary." But many evangelicals were put off by such things as Mr. Carter's support for the Equal Rights Amendment and the liberal slant of the White House Conference on the Family in 1980. Meanwhile, Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop galvanized evangelicals against a new common foe, abortion, with their film Whatever Happened to the Human Race? released three years after Roe vs. Wade. In 1979 Jerry Falwell's formation of the Moral Majority paved the way for the election of Ronald Reagan. Embraced by the Christian right, Mr. Reagan acknowledged-but did not push hard-Christian right priorities like school prayer or the Human Life Amendment. Reagan chief of staff Michael Deaver admits his dismissal of the Christian agenda: "I was pretty brutal-nothing but the economy." One chilling episode had to do with the political maneuverings of the Bush campaign in the 1988 primaries and the growing antagonism between the Christian right and the Republican establishment. When Pat Robertson ran for president and met with initial success in the primaries, the establishment panicked. "Robertson did beat us," confesses Bush campaign advisor Doug Wead. "When we announced we had won it was, of course, a lie. And the media bought it. They didn't like Robertson. They liked us." The Bush Administration antagonized the Christian right by inviting homosexual groups to the White House for the signing of the hate crimes bill. "The days of kowtowing to Republican presidents was coming to an end," says Ralph Reed, head of the Christian Coalition, formed after Robertson's defeat in the primaries. Soon the coalition came of age as a political force. Another stream of thought was represented by pro-life activist Randall Terry, who said he got many of th

e tactics for Operation Rescue from reading about Martin Luther King Jr. "The Christian Coalition says, 'All we want is a place at the table,'" says Mr. Terry. "I don't want a place at the table because the table is corrupt." Some of the early activists in the Christian right have since modified their views. One of the more vitriolic spokesmen of the early days, evangelist James Robison, now sounds a warning note: "While winning at the polls we can be losing in the long run by alienating the heart, hardening the hearts of people we're actually called to help, making them an enemy-not loving our enemy like Jesus said but despising them and seeing to it they actually despise us." One could object to some of the editing decisions (for example, juxtaposing Francis Schaeffer with pornographer Larry Flynt) and the inordinate amount of time devoted to protests against textbooks and sex education, but in general the series is well-balanced. In fact, for Christians trying to sort out their political responsibilities, it's must viewing.

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