Daydream Believers

For they know not what they do: Dubya and his disciples in 'With God on Our Side'
Sundance Channel

With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right in America pretty much confirms everything my mom started ranting about in the Reagan-Bush era: The "goddamn fundamentalists" have indeed hijacked American politics as planned.

That's not exactly news anymore. What's unique about this British-sponsored documentary (airing twice in December on the Sundance Channel) is that its makers use candid interviews with the architects of the religious right, enabling the likes of Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed to tell the whole freaky story themselves--and taking full advantage of their subjects' hubris. At the same time, With God on Our Side is so even-tempered--so BBC, really--that it's difficult to imagine any Christian fundamentalist viewer (or evangelical viewer, to be PC) taking umbrage with the film, even at its most chilling.

In fact, the movie's original incarnation--a six-hour doc (also called With God on Our Side) that aired on PBS in 1996--was well received on both sides of the divide; and the new 100-minute version elicited positive e-mails from pro-Bush viewers when the Sundance Channel aired it before the election. I guess people (including me) see what they want to see.

Political types probably won't learn much from the film's lengthy background on evangelical Christianity and its relationship to the White House. But those only somewhat familiar with the movement may be surprised by what's revealed. For one thing, contrary to a common liberal perception, right-wing Christians and the Republican party have had a historically bumpy relationship: Billy Graham grew to regret his public support of Nixon, and both Reagan and the elder Bush were disappointments to fundamentalist leaders (who found them...too liberal!). As Pat Robertson and others explain it, groups such as the Christian Coalition and Moral Majority learned the hard way that they'd have to offer a big tent to conservatives, work relentlessly at the grassroots level, and get one of their own into office if they wanted to influence American politics on a profound level.

This section of the film is probably its most fascinating, as old footage and new interviews depict people's miraculous transformations--including that of Reed, who went from nutty outsider to dedicated deal-maker. (Reed's patience paid off: He became one of Dubya's critical campaign aides.) It's painful when someone references the famous Gandhi quip that those who think religion has nothing to do with politics understand neither. In this context, the quote underlines the disastrous naïveté of those who once underestimated evangelicals' organizing savvy. (Adding insult to injury is the fact that evangelical doctrine would apparently abolish Gandhi's particular religion.)

Eventually the doc gets down to business and rather dryly tells the story of Dubya's coming to God. (It's kind of sad, really: Life couldn't have been too much fun for the drunken, failed offspring of George H.W. Bush.) In any case, the prodigal son goes on the campaign trail for his father and, according to the film, wins the election for Dad through his connection to the skeptical evangelicals.

Dubya's fire-and-brimstone take on world politics and terrorism--which concludes the film--is nothing new, either. At a certain point, the intentionally myopic point of view of directors Calvin Skaggs and David Van Taylor gets a bit claustrophobic: There's no attention given to the ways the Christian Invasion alienated some Republicans--and contributed to the independent and third-party movements. There's no in-depth analysis of how religious doctrine dictates Dubya's foreign policy. And, in an apparent attempt to be fair (or "fair"), the filmmakers shy away from portraying the paranoia and fear-mongering of evangelical leaders (with the exception of Falwell's vintage statement that lesbians were to blame for 9/11).

But maybe that's okay. Like a lot of people, I'm tired of divisiveness--tired of hating hateful lunatics, even. Perhaps Van Taylor and Skaggs are tired, too. By giving the Bible-thumpers a fair shake, the directors actually come off as the best Christians in the film.

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