With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America

Thoughtful and thought-provoking, "With God on Our Side" examines the way America's religious right turned itself from a nation of sheep into a powerful political flock that exacts its influence as it demands to be heard. Ultimately, "God's" strength lies not in how it judges its subject, but in how it lets its subject present and, thereby, judge itself.

Thoughtful and thought-provoking, “With God on Our Side” examines the way America’s religious right turned itself from a nation of sheep into a powerful political flock that exacts its influence as it demands to be heard. Ultimately, “God’s” strength lies not in how it judges its subject, but in how it lets its subject present and, thereby, judge itself.

While the left in the late ’60s was protesting in the streets, the revolution that would eventually sweep the political scene was stirring in the last place anyone would have suspected: the barely visible religious right. “With God on Our Side” is a marvelously thorough and often inspired exploration of how this sleeping giant woke to form a “Moral Majority” that would radically shake the electorate and stir the national debate.

Evangelical Christians completely divorced themselves from public life following their humiliation as a group in the wake of the Scopes monkey trial. With their beliefs loudly ridiculed and their image lampooned, they turned inward to church and bible for salve and salvation, opting to shun the worldly arena as much as it seemed to shun them. But as the ’60s dawned, the evangelicals began to lift their heads from chapter and verse to see an unfamiliar horizon. America was changing around them, and their meekness was forfeiting the earth. There was a Catholic president and school prayer was suddenly taboo. By the end of the decade, there was sex and the pill. Suddenly, prayer was out, sin was in, and a grassroots movement began to swell.

The first of “God’s” six hours traces that movement from the fringes to its first big public roar, ending with a detailed look at the wild and woolly fracas over a sex education test program in the Anaheim school district, and their adopting as their own the presidency of Richard Nixon. It’s a story terrifically told through captivating images and the voices of the participants, voices that remain as passionate in retrospect as they were in the moment.

Future episodes look at Jerry Falwell and the formation of the Moral Majority; Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed and the rise of the Christian Coalition; the embracing as one of their own and then the shunning of Jimmy Carter (and its corollary story: how the “born-agains” caught the media by surprise); the capturing of the Republican party; local fights over textbook content; the remarkable and surprising public persona of former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop; the volatility surrounding the abortion issue; the explosion on the scene of “family values” as a political platform; and, following the defeat of George Bush, how the Christian agenda has tried to widen beyond just social issues.

These are six hours of television that captivate, exasperate and anger. The filmmakers wisely let their subjects dominate the offered forum. There is little narration; the whole thing is so seamlessly edited and compiled (though certain examinations, like the conference on families held during the Carter administration, go on too long) that narration is superfluous. Indeed, narration is unnecessary to bridge the time gap from evangelist Billy James Hargis in the ’50s, talking about the need to put fear into his true believers to rouse them, to evangelical theologian Michael Horton’s observation in the ’90s that after the evil empire of communism finally fell, a new enemy would be needed to keep the right excited and united, and that enemy would be “other Americans” whose “lifestyles” and “values” weren’t in lock-step with their own. The story simply reveals itself.

Ultimately, it’s a story that Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, an early witness and continuing cautionary voice, finally pares down to a single sentence: “The more politically involved the church has become, the less spiritually involved the church is.” Its very simplicity coming as it does in the final moments of this riveting ride shines a clear light on the Founding Fathers’ wisdom in trying to keep church and state apart from each other, and the dangers that lurk when that wisdom is shunned.

With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America

Fri. (27), 10-11 p.m., PBS

Production: Executive producer, Calvin Skaggs; series producer, David Van Taylor. Narrator: Cliff Robertson.

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