"Thumbs" down

Culture | Series' subtlety makes it a powerful piece of propaganda

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

While working for one of the big three networks, I asked one of their lawyers about a docudrama script that omitted some pertinent information about a tangled legal case. I was told, "Our rule of thumb is that whatever we broadcast must be true-but it doesn't have to be the whole truth." I suspect producer-director Calvin Skaggs was "all thumbs" while collecting interviews, editing, and polishing his documentary series, With God On Our Side, a six-hour roast of the religious right. While the programs are interesting, the filmmakers never catch the philosophical and theological distinctives that separate the Christian's view of the world and government from that of the secularists. Instead, the programs tend to focus on select personalities and make conservatives look bad on favorite liberal causes such as censorship, abortion, and gay rights. Despite his press release claiming that "we literally wanted to tell this story from the point of view of Christian conservatives, and ...we were going to bend over backwards to be empathetic and to look at the world the way they look at it," the final product seems to suggest otherwise. Using old film clips and present-day commentary, the series paints a bleak picture of those who embrace Christianity and practice their rights of citizenship. True, Mr. Skaggs generously allowed major Christian players (such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and even Francis Schaeffer) to have their say. These were balanced by more "moderate" voices (such as Mark Hatfield and Os Guinness) and, most devastating, by ex-culture warriors who have seen the error of their ways (such as James Robison, Ed Dobson, and Mel White). Missing from this examination of the conservative Christian movement of the last 45 years is a sense of world, church, and American history. The unspoken presumption of the series is that Christians only recently picked up the political gauntlet and are too ignorant, naive, and stubborn to make constructive contributions. (One of several jibes by narrator Cliff Robertson notes that Christians who opposed the theory of evolution during the Scopes trial became the "laughingstock of the nation." Other bridging dialogue suggests that Christians were "unaware" and "too narrowly focused.") Also missing from the coverage are Christians at work in ministries that substantively reply to the questions of a plagued nation. Mr. Skaggs is so busy showing clips of political protesters that he forgets to "bend over backwards" and include a scene or two from a crisis pregnancy center, a drug rehabilitation program, Prison Fellowship, or one of the many non-governmental solutions supported by conservative Christians. One of those cited throughout the series is Mel White. In the first episode, he happily describes the routine of Youth For Christ of the 1950s, commenting, "It was fun in those days. ...No sense of craziness or fanaticism back then." In a later episode, he attributes the support of pro-life causes by conservative Christians to their tendency to see everything in "black and white." In the fifth episode, Mr. White adds his two cents to the chorus of commentators castigating Christians as insensitive to the AIDS problem, noting that among Christian media personalities it was only Tammy Faye Bakker who showed any compassion for the suffering. Finally, in the last episode, his underlying agenda is made clear, as he tells about "coming out" as a homosexual. Subtle non-verbal cues match the filmmakers' suggestions of a misguided movement. The editing, for example, makes its own statement when Chuck Colson's thoughtful observations are followed up by an absolutely silly shot of a very square Pat Boone doing his early '70s imitation of rock 'n' roll. Tim LaHaye is shown in a clip from an early John Birch Society film. Pat Robertson is shown fervently praying away the hurricane from the United States coastline. A Republican delegate who supported Mr. Robertson in

1988 delivers her composed comments, whereupon she is then shown vigorously speaking in tongues. And yet, many of the Christian activists-such as pro-family activist Connie Marshner-acquit themselves well. Mr. Robertson, Mr. Falwell, and the rest of the crew are perfectly transparent about their shortcomings. To their credit, they are quick to confess and express regret for mistakes of the past. And to God's glory, they consistently pray for those in our government-including President Clinton. Regrettably, such subtly tilted coverage gives the secular media moguls reason to exclude Christian ideas from the cameras. PBS can now claim to be ideologically balanced, while depicting conservative Christians as outsiders to be dismissed from future discussions.

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