[7 June 2007]
Separation of church and state, however embedded and cherished a principle it may be in the constitutional framework of the United States, has consistently failed to mature from an academic ideal to a practiced reality. As Mohandas Gandhi once famously said, “those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.” It would seem that in our current political environment, to deny the co-dependant relationship between religion and politics is to deny the very existence of reality.
Forgoing the bombast and excessive chattering that has plagued too many political documentaries of late, With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right in America is notable for the clear-headed restraint it takes in presenting such an explosive topic. Combining a sober examination of the growing influence of evangelical Christians in American politics with the personal religious history of George W. Bush, this documentary seeks to identify the root causes behind the success of both.
Relying heavily on archival footage and stand-alone interviews, With God on Our Side primarily chronicles the history and growing political ascendancy of the religious right in North America over the last half century. From Billy Graham’s early crusades against Communism to the seismic shift in national politics brought about by Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority in the ‘80s, this film is a well-studied and unbiased report on the powerful union of politics and conservative religion.
The collective rise in personal fear and national ire over Communism proved fertile ground for conservative Christians to take their tentative first steps onto the political stage. Further threats to “tradition” in the form of the Civil Rights Movement, bans on school prayer, and the rise of women in the workplace, only seemed to add fuel to the motivational fire of evangelicals. Moving from their traditional emphasis on religious conversion, prominent preachers, led by Reverend Graham, reached out to politicians who they hoped would sympathize with their concerns.
Unsurprisingly, it took little time for both politicians and religious leaders to see the mutual benefits of (well-choreographed and tightly scripted) alliances. Reverend Billy Graham’s friendship with Richard Nixon was the first of many friendships that developed between future presidents and evangelical leaders.
The Watergate scandal proved an early test to the faith and growing political strength of the national conservative constituency. After Nixon left office, evangelical organizations looked to regain ground and align themselves with candidates who had both political standing and religious bona fides. The stars seemed to align in 1976 when a Southern Baptist by the name of Jimmy Carter was elected president, but he soon lost favor with conservative Christians when he put forth and passed the Equal Rights Amendment and supported a woman’s right to an abortion.
It wasn’t until the 1980 presidential inauguration of Ronald Reagan – helped in large part by Falwell’s Moral Majority voter mobilization effort – that conservative Christians seemed to be rewarded for all of their effort and toil. The glow of Reagan’s halo soon dimmed, however, with his nomination (and the subsequent appointment) of a pro-choice Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court. Suddenly, the anointed one was no long the savior evangelical Christians had hoped him to be. Their long-term goal of affecting substantive change through the legislative branch of American politics would have to wait.
During the course of the next three presidential terms, the influence of conservative Christians on executive politics waned significantly. George H.W. Bush’s seeming indifference to (religiously) conservative politics and the reluctance he showed in aligning his presidency with evangelical movements was seen by many as a contributing factor in his inability to win a second term in 1992. Naturally, evangelicals found little room at the White House during the eight-year tenure of President Bill Clinton.
It wouldn’t be until 2000 with the return of a (real-life political) prodigal son that conservative Christians regained the national foothold they had worked so hard to establish. President Clinton’s well-documented transgressions proved to be a sturdy foundation and wonderful springboard for the religious right to find success with a relatively unchallenged politician named George W. Bush. Many evangelical Christians view the 2000 presidential election, and the bitter, divisive, and historic legal battles that preceded the inauguration of Mr. Bush as the 43rd President of the United States, as the direct work of God. While they may not call it divine intervention, there is a sense from those interviewed here that the power of prayer was instrumental in installing Mr. Bush into the White House.
Regardless of where one may fall on the political and theological spectrum, there seems to be a consensus that George W. Bush’s personal beliefs are indeed genuine. That his political career has been (significantly) aided by his religious conversion is also in general agreement. Where some may find a troubling symbiosis between President Bush’s political success and that of ultra-conservative religious organizations, others view the achievement of his presidency as redemption of a sinner by the hand of God. For many evangelical Christians, not only did the prodigal son return home—he went on to live in the White House and rule the land.
Originally commissioned for Britain’s Channel 4 TV, With God on Our Side is actually a follow-up to a six-hour documentary series originally aired on PBS nearly a decade ago. As a result, while no less informative and engaging in its subject matter, certain segments of the film feel distilled and unnecessarily recycled. The documentary is at its strongest when examining the history of evangelism in America, but loses some of its focus when, in the second half, the emphasis is turned to George W. Bush.
Fortunately, for those interested, the DVD comes well packaged with informative supplemental materials. Biographies, extended interviews, archival footage, and an NPR interview with the documentaries’ co-directors, Calvin Skaggs and David Van Taylor, provide a broader reference from which to further explore issues discussed in the main feature.
Considering this is an updated version of such an exhaustive documentary, the second half of With God on Our Side feels hastily tacked on and rushed. Overlapping interviews with personal friends and prominent church leaders lends too much time to the assertion that Mr. Bush’s faith is sincere and not politically motivated. The film would have been strengthened by focusing greater attention on the dynamic power play between Bush’s private beliefs, the political success he has found, and the political ambitions of conservative religious organizations.
As stated, this documentary is notable for its balanced and temperate tone, but one feels that the filmmakers approached certain segments with too great an apprehension or deference to their subjects. One of the most fascinating aspects in the evolution of the evangelical Christian movement in the United States has been the growing diversity of opinions within its community. The film, though, fails to register any of these more “liberal” voices among the evangelicals, and misses a unique opportunity to report from the current movement’s vanguard.
These are minor quibbles, however, and With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right in America is a serious and important documentary that deserves as wide an audience as possible.