Sitting on the right side Preview: PBS is evenhanded in its examination of the religious right.

September 27, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Just the image of the Rev. Billy Graham, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew shown in profile praying together at the podium of the 1968 Republican National Convention would be enough to recommend "With God On Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America."

Depending on where you take up residence along the political spectrum, you could feel either a sense of sadness for what might have been with such a mighty marriage of politics and prayer or, instead, the overwhelming desire to write a sarcastic caption under the picture saying, "Which of these ever-so-pious-looking Christians is not about to be exposed as a crook?"

In the end, the best thing about the six-hour PBS series that starts tonight at 10 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) is it offers the most balanced treatment the religious right has ever received on national television. That is not to say the six-week series lives up to the PBS claim of being "non-ideological." It has an ideology -- as well as a bias -- as does all television. But it is the most objective history of the movement on television to date.

The weakest of the episodes is the one that airs tonight, titled "The Early Crusades, 1950-1968." The job of the first hour of this six-week effort is to catch the viewer's attention, then announce the road that the piece is going to travel while putting it in some historical and cultural context that's compelling enough to engage the viewer.

These large demands have resulted in a big problem when it comes to history in a television culture. Very few producers dare go back too far beyond 1950. The reason: There was virtually no TV.

While you might find some decent film images back to the 1920s, many have been lost. But there are local TV stations across the country who signed on in the late 1940s and early '50s that kept extensive libraries of film and videotape images of news events. This is the visual stuff of great documentaries.

Calvin Skaggs, the executive producer of this series, says, "You cannot understand American politics without considering American religion. 'With God On Our Side' reminds us of what we've forgotten."

Not really. To understand the relationship between American politics and religion, you have to go back at least to the 17th century and spend some time with the founding folks and the "shining city on a hill," for example.

"With God On Our Side" spends a total of two minutes and 25 seconds out of its 360 minutes on the entire American religious experience that came before 1950. This is not the kind of context that leads to understanding or remembering "what we've forgotten." This is television history driven by the availability of pictures.

That said, the images and words we get starting with the post-World-War-II period do help us recall those days: the young and devastatingly handsome Billy Graham taking his first tentative steps as a great speaker; the sweaty Billy Joe Hargis with his anti-Communist cant; Pat Boone telling young Americans, "If protest is your bag, you need to find Jesus."

The balancing comes in the present-day interviews with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Robinson. Instead of showing them only in the pulpit or otherwise speaking in public -- as the mainstream media almost always do -- Skaggs & company frame them in calm interview settings surrounded by books, desks and other imagery that says in the rhetoric of TV, "These are thoughtful people worth listening to."

That might seem like a small step toward fairness -- using the language of the medium to make religious leaders from the right seem reasonable instead of extreme -- but it's a giant leap for network television and PBS when it comes to covering religion and trying to get it right.

"With God On Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America" airs at 10 p.m. Fridays on

MPT (Channels 22 and 67) starting tonight.

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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