Reviews > Television

TV: With PBS on our side: A double-coded series

Television | Series stays true to its agenda while trying to please everyone

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

Some Christians are praising the PBS documentary With God on Our Side as a fair, sympathetic chronicle of the rise of the religious right. Others see it as another example of liberal media bias. Two WORLD writers submitted completely divergent reviews of the documentary, and both are printed here. That the series can be taken in two different ways is evident in its very origins. The executive producer of the series, Calvin Skaggs, describes himself as a liberal who grew up a Southern Baptist and is in the process of rediscovering his religious roots. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting footed 20 percent of the bill, but the rest came from grantors ranging from the liberal Rockefeller Foundation to the neoconservative Bradley Foundation. The Andy Warhol Foundation, committed to fighting arts censorship, chipped in some funding, as did the pro-abortion Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. Obviously, these two organizations would like to see the Christian right discredited. The Independent Television Service, committed to financing projects that feature "under-served audiences," considered Christian conservatives sufficiently marginalized to deserve a program. At the same time, conservative-leaning foundations such as the William H. Donner and Smith Richardson Foundation also weighed in with major contributions. What kind of broth will be made by so many philosophically different cooks? Could so many masters for the filmmakers to please result in the kind of media event so often called for but seldom realized-one that is actually objective, balanced, and accurate? The answer, regrettably, is no. But the filmmakers managed to please both sides by aiming at two different audiences. Media analyst Larry Jarvik of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture put it this way: "If you're a Christian, you will probably like it, but if you're a non-Christian, you'll be scared to death." He said that it represents a "double-coded message," such as diplomats use when they word a communique so that it has a different impression on a foreign and a domestic audience. Christian conservatives can only appreciate the rare chance to make their case on TV. Some major players on the Christian political scene and some grassroots activists are given a hearing. Christian viewers will be deeply moved by the clips of parents trying to take back their schools and abortion protesters being manhandled by the police for defending unborn children.

But television works by conveying images, not ideas. To non-Christians, demonstrations about textbooks scream, "Censorship!" Abortion protests connote fanatical assaults on liberty. The footage of Christian women in rhinestone glasses, preachers in powder-blue polyester suits, and apoplectic evangelists screaming into the camera undercuts any valid arguments they might be making by portraying Christians as out-of-touch, faintly comical figures. Though they might elicit a measure of sympathy, it is mixed with condescension, such as one might feel for the other primitive tribes profiled on PBS documentaries. The footage of conservative Christians waking up to politics is punctuated by clips of space capsules, the birth control pill, and the '60s, creating the impression of down-home folks futilely resisting the tide of progress. The anti-communist passion of the '50s would not seem so quaint if the editors had intercut shots of Soviet tanks attacking Hungarians, or Fidel Castro's firing squads. The negative spin intensifies as the series progresses, culminating in the fifth episode. Heart-wrenching interviews with AIDS children, pastors who lost family members to the disease, and HIV-positive evangelicals make the Christians teaching against homosexuality look very, very bad. Then we see Pat Robertson's run for the presidency, complete with his voices from God, his fending off the hurricane, and his tongues-speaking supporters. The implication is that all the Christian right is like this, nevermind the theological diversity of the movement-which includes anti-charismatic Reformed folk, as well as Catholics-and that many, including Jerry Falwell, supported George Bush over Robertson.

All narratives, no matter how factually they present themselves, have a plot. This series begins with mass rallies of fundamentalists who think that religion and politics don't mix. Gradually, they start to mix them, making some quixotic stands against modernity. They then find themselves used and ultimately betrayed by a succession of Republican presidents. They lapse into extremism. But there is a resolution. In the finale, Bill McCartney turns away from crusading against gay rights to form Promise Keepers. The final image is Christians proclaiming love and reconciliation, in a mass rally-as in Episode One. The series has come full circle. The old fundamentalists were right. Religion and politics don't mix after all. Both the right and the left can feel they have gotten their money's worth from this series. Conservatives are allowed their say. Evangelicals are affirmed in their identity as a subculture. Liberals, in turn, succeed in marginalizing them, turning ordinary citizens standing up for traditional American values into a quaint but scary sect. As an election-year bonus, the Republican party is made the real villain, cynically manipulating the naive souls who put them in office (nevermind the GOP's genuine contributions to the pro-family cause). For keeping so many people happy, while advancing his own agenda, Calvin Skaggs deserves an Emmy.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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