PBS Punts: Ombudsman Admits Church-State Program Is Biased, But Downplays Problem

June 19th, 2007
By Barry W. Lynn
Christian Reconstructionists, Religious Right Research

Recently I wrote about PBS’s decision to carry a Religious Right pseudo-documentary attacking the concept of church-state separation.

PBS’s ombudsman, Michael Getler, devoted a column to the controversy on June 15.

There is good news and bad news. Getler admits that the show, “The Wall of Separation,” is clearly slanted toward opponents of the church-state wall.

The bad news is he defends its airing anyway.

Getler writes, “The interviews in the film, in terms of time on screen and numbers, seemed to me to tilt clearly in favor of those who see a danger in the “wall of separation” metaphor used by Jefferson….” He points out that the narrator “time and again, conveys the theme of this film – that God is the necessary foundation of society’s law and government.” Getler even calls the treatment a “heavy-handed hammering away by the narrator.”

Getler goes off the rails when he tries to defend the program. “My sense,” he writes, “is that people can take from this film whatever they wish. It can be a useful reminder of the context of our founding documents and a way of looking at that context – and at the intent of the framers of the First Amendment as assessed in the dominant view of this film – that challenges the more common view….Or it can be viewed as sophisticated propaganda, as some critics already have….”

Although I have not seen the program yet – PBS declined to share a copy with us — the reviews I have read, and Getler’s own perspective, only confirms my view that PBS was hoodwinked into airing Religious Right propaganda. The broadcast outlet is now desperately trying to cover its tracks by pretending that airing something this misleading is somehow part of its mandate to cover all points of view.

What Getler fails to grasp is that the perspective offered in this film has been debunked. Getler notes that during the film, the narrator says, “The United States is a society based on the rule of law. And our Founding Fathers believed that if they did not base their laws on a higher authority, then whoever was in power would determine what the law said. They called this ‘tyranny.’ Their higher authority was the Law of God – the Ten Commandments.”

Legal historians have researched this issue time and again. They found no references to the Ten Commandments during the debate over the Constitution. Furthermore, there is no reference to “higher authority” or “the Law of God” in the Constitution, a wholly secular document.

Getler mentions the film’s director and writer, Brian Godawa, merely in passing. As I made clear in two letters to PBS, Godawa is a militant theocrat with close ties to Christian Reconstructionism, the most extreme faction of the Religious Right. He and his allies believe that Christians of his stripe should take control, not only of the government, but of all aspects of society – including the entertainment industry.

Earlier this year, Godawa took part in the “Issachar Project,” a gathering of activists in Orange County, Calif., that, according to one organizer, is intended to bring about “a Christianization of the movie industry.” Godawa’s previous credits include a stint as movie reviewer for the Chalcedon Foundation, a Christian Reconstructionist outfit that advocates the death penalty for homosexuals, adulterers, fornicators, witches, incorrigible juvenile delinquents and those who spread false religions.

Godawa’s PBS film – I will not dignify it with the term “documentary” – is part of the Religious Right’s ongoing strategy to rewrite American history and portray church-state separation, a principle that is one of our nation’s greatest contributions to governance and liberty, as somehow unhistorical and dangerous.

Godawa is free to make whatever films he likes. But it is a shame that PBS, which has a reputation for broadcasting many fine programs, has allowed itself to be used as a channel for the distribution of material designed not to educate but misinform. This program fell way short of the high standards normally adhered to by PBS. What’s next – giving the creationists equal time on “Nova”?

At a bare minimum, PBS should label Godawa’s program as viewpoint and let stations and viewers know the radical religious-political perspective he’s pushing.

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