For anyone even remotely interested in the outcome of the 2004 presidential election – and there are a few million of those folks out there, of all political persuasions – “With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right in America” (3:30 p.m. EST Sunday, Sundance Channel) is required viewing.

Combine all the superficial cable-TV punditry of the last two years and you won’t come up with even a tenth of the insight offered by this serious, in-depth and even-handed documentary about the intersection of evangelical Christianity and politics.

For those who think that voters who care about “moral values” appeared out of thin air Nov. 2, this documentary offers a compelling history of the evangelical movement’s agenda and growing political strength over the last 40 years.

Much of the first half of the two-hour film excerpts extensive interviews with the guiding lights of conservative Christianity’s political wing: Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and a host of other religious and political leaders speak frankly about how they worked for years to turn evangelicals from “the largest tract of virgin timber on the political landscape,” in the words of one operative, into an extremely potent political force.

The second half of the film focuses more on Bush’s conversion to evangelical Christianity and its impact on his political career. Regardless of what one thinks of Bush as a leader, it’s impossible to come away from this exhaustive documentary thinking that his evangelicalism was or is a convenient or insincere political tool. But “With God on His Side” amply demonstrates how Bush’s deep connection to the evangelical world – a bond his father didn’t seem to share, despite his best efforts to woo that community – makes W. a formidable political contender.

Typical of this subtle and thorough film, “With God on His Side” neatly but unshowily demonstrates how the evangelical movement gained steam despite, or perhaps because of, the befuddlement of the media that attempted to cover it.

Among the documentary’s extensive vintage film clips, which go back as far as the anti-Communist evangelical campaigns of the ’50s, there’s a brief moment from the late ’70s in which a TV journalist asks Jimmy Carter about “that “born-again’ business – what is it?”

If you’re not sure what it is either, or want to know how it has affected the course of politics in the 20th century, this documentary is an outstanding place to start. “With God on His Side” will be rebroadcast at 9 p.m. Dec. 15 on the Sundance Channel.



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