“With God On Our Side” is a stale and poorly researched documentary with the lofty goal of tracing the rise of the so-called religious right in American politics, culminating in the ascension of George W. Bush to the White House. But the film doesn’t get all of its facts in place.
The film begins its journey in the rabid 1950s anti-Communism sermons of evangelical preachers, most notably Billy Graham. Initially, the evangelicals were primarily concerned with the threat of Communism on American liberty. But the 1960 presidential campaign of Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy drove the focus into domestic politics, with the desire of ensuring a federal landscape which mirrored the politics of the preachers and their devoted followers.
Strangely, the religious right’s continued embrace of Republican leaders were inevitably met with betrayal: Richard Nixon’s cynical embrace of Billy Graham to maintain his leadership, Ronald Reagan’s nomination of pro-choice Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, and George H.W. Bush’s invitation of gay rights leaders to the White House. Ironically, the only genuine evangelical elected to the White House was Jimmy Carter, yet his the born again brigades abandoned him in 1980 to embrace the non-churchgoing Reagan (who happily kept the Bible-thumpers at arm’s length when their votes were not required). To its credit, the film captures each of these episodes with depth.
Yet “With God On Our Sides” glides over the uglier aspects of the rise of the religious right: its opposition of the 1960s civil rights movement, its relentless homophobia, and its horrendous distortion of the basic tenets of Christian faith as a means of growing its own corporate wealth and political influence. The film barely acknowledges the 1990s, when the election of Bill Clinton signaled a mass rejection of the evangelical political machine by the American people.
The second half of the film becomes an unquestioning and, frankly, nauseating tribute to George W. Bush. This part of the film includes an endless repetition of the well-worn tale of how the hard-drinking Bush (reports of his narcotic usage are strangely omitted here) turned his life around through a belated embrace of faith. There are endless photo opportunities with Bush crunching his eyebrows and bowing his head to signal a communication with the Almighty. But genuine hard questions on Bush and faith, such as the very un-Christians act of declaring a war based on phony information and using torture on illegally confined prisoners, go unasked.
As for the political might of the religious right, the film forgets that George W. Bush won the White House in 2000 thanks to a skewered Supreme Court and won re-election in 2004 with only 51% of the popular vote. As power bases go, the religious right is not exactly behemothic. Perhaps the filmmakers will do better to return to the subject when the religious right gets an electoral landslide and a president who genuinely embraces the core values of Christianity.