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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » With God on Our Side - George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right in America
With God on Our Side - George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right in America
First Run Features // Unrated // October 25, 2005
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted November 17, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

For a documentary with a provocative title and an intriguing subject, With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right ends up being surprisingly (and disappointingly) hollow. The documentary film looks at the last fifty years of US political history and tracks how the evangelical Christian movement has become active in politics, finishing up with a detailed mini-biography of George W. Bush, focusing on the development of his religious beliefs. The film is loaded with interviews and clips from the media, making it look like it's full of information, but what's strikingly absent is a sense of purpose. Why are we being shown this material? What are we supposed to get out of it? How does it relate to other elements of history, culture, and politics? We don't know.

Not only is there no critical commentary, but there's no sense of context whatsoever. The documentary parades before us a series of incidents from the political histories of the last few presidents, all related in some way to their relationship with the evangelical community, but otherwise unrelated. What does it all mean? It's left to the viewer to make sense of it. You might argue that this means that the film is balanced and neutral, but I don't think that's really the case. It's the same distinction as that between "disinterested" and "uninterested": a balanced documentary will, in a disinterested fashion, address conflicting points of view so that each is fairly presented, with all its strengths and weaknesses. In doing so, it provides enough contextual and critical information that the viewer can see why the information is important, and what the issues and the stakes are. In contrast, With God on Our Side is essentially an uninterested (and therefore uninteresting) documentary. It simply strings together a series of interviews and clips, loosely describing a series of events related to the evangelical community's involvement in presidential politics.

One of the problems of With God on Our Side is that, although I can't pin down the point of view of the filmmakers, all of the voices within the film are squarely within the evangelical camp, or at least are political figures strongly tied to the conservative religious cause. For instance, we get several well-known television evangelists talking about their experiences in shaping the political aims of their congregations. However, there's no counterbalancing voice of political scientists or historians who are outside the evangelical movement, providing a contrast or an alternative interpretation of anything. As a result, it's very difficult to engage with the material; it's just presented as fact after fact, with no ideas or interpretations to be discussed or critiqued.

The lack of contrasting views also means that the film loses what bite it might have had. I certainly found some of the interview subjects to be great examples of absurdity, such as when one of them quite seriously denounced equal rights for women as bad for the family. It's horrifying to me that in this day and in this country, someone could assert that women should not be considered equal to men, and not lose all credibility... but With God on Our Side doesn't highlight that at all, or point out the contradictions inherent in some of the interviewees' positions. Simply put, the film seems to avoid any cultural critique whatsoever.

Worse than that, though, is that assertions that are made by the interview subjects are left without questioning, even when they're blatantly misrepresenting things. For instance, the "banning of school prayer" is repeatedly mentioned by various interviewees (always in horrified tones), but no one voices the critical missing piece of information: that prayer is most certainly not banned in schools. What's banned is prayer organized by the school or by the teacher, as this would break down the line between church and state; individual silent prayer by any student is (and has always been) an option. If you repeat something false often enough, people start to think it's true; I think it's irresponsible for a documentary film to let things like that slide.

I suppose that I came out of watching With God on Our Side a bit more informed about the political history of the past few decades than I was beforehand, but it was certainly not the successful program that I'd hoped that it would be.

The DVD

Video

With God on Our Side looks fine for what it is: a documentary that makes extensive use of archival footage of television broadcasts. This footage naturally doesn't look particularly sharp or clean, but it's easy to overlook the flaws. The modern-day interview footage is cleaner and brighter, and looks fine. The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and is a mix of color and black-and-white footage.

Audio

The soundtrack is adequate for the purposes of the film, with the voiceover and the interviewees sounding clear and understandable.

Extras

A few special features are included, though nothing that adds a lot of value to the DVD.

"Politics: A Christian Viewpoint" is a 4-minute excerpt from a 1979 film designed to motivate evangelicals to become active in politics. Another short excerpt, "Early Evangelical History," comes from the 1996 documentary (by the filmmakers of With God on Our Side) called "The Rise of the Religious Right in America." There's also a short audio interview with the filmmakers, originally aired on NPR, in which they offer some relatively uninteresting commentary on a few points related to the subject matter of the film.

Some text information is also provided: information on the filmmakers, a list of organizations related in some way to the religious right, a graph breaking down how evangelicals vote, and information about the companion book. A trailer gallery for other politically themed FRF films is also included.

Final thoughts

I was hoping that With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right would be a critical, or at least an informative, program dealing with a fairly important issue in US culture and politics. To a certain extent, the film is informative, but in the end, it doesn't make the connections that it needs to; it remains a dry and indigestible mass of facts and incidents, without a meaningful connecting thread. I'll give it a "Rent it" recommendation for those who are really interested in the subject, but otherwise pass it by.

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