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The Religious Right's Rise, on Film

A new documentary from filmmakers Calvin Skaggs and David Van Taylor describes the emergence of evangelical Christianity as a powerful political force. With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right is being broadcast on the Sundance Channel. Van Taylor and Skaggs run the documentary company Lumiere Productions.


Other segments from the episode on December 2, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 2, 2004: Interview with Cal Skaggs and David Van Taylor; Robert McCrum's new book, "Wodehouse: A Life."


DATE December 2, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Cal Skaggs and David Van Taylor discuss their new film,
"With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the
Religious Right"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the
Religious Right")

Reverend JERRY FALWELL (Moral Majority): We have a threefold primary
responsibility: number one, get people saved; number two, get them baptized;
number three, get them registered to vote.

GROSS: That's Jerry Falwell from one of the many archival clips in the new
documentary "With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the
Religious Right." It focuses on the leaders who mobilized evangelical
Christians into a powerful political force from the 1950s to the presidency of
George W. Bush. The film also covers Bush's evangelical journey.

My guests are filmmakers David Van Taylor and Cal Skaggs. "With God on Our
Side" draws on and updates their six-part documentary about the religious
right that was broadcast on public television in 1996. The new film will be
shown on the Sundance Channel December 5th and 15th. It begins with a look at
how some evangelical leaders became staunch anti-Communists in the '50s.
Here's Billy Graham.

(Soundbite of "With God on Our Side")

Reverend BILLY GRAHAM: Now the Communist teaches that the individual is not
important. The Communist teaches that man as an individual is not important
at all; that even private property is not important; that all of it belongs to
the state; that we should live for the state. Jesus taught the opposite. He
taught the value of private property, and he taught the value of the dignity
of the individual and the importance of every individual soul.

GROSS: I asked Cal Skaggs about the issues that politically activated
evangelicals in the '50s and '60s.

Mr. CAL SKAGGS ("With God on Our Side"): It's very interesting you ask that
because this weekend Billy James Hargis died, and his obit is in all the
newspapers this week. And Billy James Hargis was a young, untutored,
loudmouthed, powerful, strident fellow from Oklahoma. And he latched on to
communism. And it's pretty incredible now to watch some of his shows not on
some religious broadcast network because there wasn't--those didn't exist, but
on NBC. On Sunday mornings, he would go on NBC, and he had a 30-minute
program in which he would, you know, exhort the audience to stop the spread of
communism and how it was going to destroy religion and how it was going to
destroy Christianity. And so he and a number of others, including Billy
Graham in the early '50s, preached sermons against communism. And this threat
was regarded by them as a religious threat, and it became one of their big

But then they didn't have to look to a foreign economic or political system.
When the Supreme Court declared against prayer in the schools during the
Kennedy administration, they went pretty crazy. For them, it was the first
step here in our own country in which they were being barred, in effect, their
vision was being stifled, in the public square, in public schools. And it was
extremely upsetting. And they made a great deal of use of it.

GROSS: You know, you were talking about the banning of prayer in the schools.
It's still a very important issue on the religious right, and I think the
leaders of the religious right would like to overturn that ban.

Mr. DAVID VAN TAYLOR ("With God on Our Side"): Absolutely. It's been a
constant throughout the history. And in the 1980s--or the late '70s, early
'80s, it was one of their key issues that engendered the founding of the Moral
Majority, which, in turn, was critical to the election of Ronald Reagan in
1980. One of the things that we show in our history is that Reagan was a
prime example of a president that they really helped elect, who then did not
pursue their agenda. I mean, there's a perception that the religious right is
this unstoppable, unilaterally effective force. But if you look at the
history, in fact, much of it is a history of frustration, which is a history
of tutoring in the political process.

Reagan, once he was elected, really pursued the agenda of economic
conservatives, not of social conservatives. And this has been a schism within
the Republican Party for a long time and has been a frustration for the
religious right for socially oriented evangelicals. And what they've come to
learn over time is that they have to accrue real political power from the
grassroots if they're going to be effective on the national level.

GROSS: In your film, you talk a little bit about the connection between Billy
Graham and Richard Nixon during Richard Nixon's presidential campaign. Would
you just describe what that connection was?

Mr. SKAGGS: Well, Billy Graham has always wanted to be close to power;
there's no doubt about it. And he started with Eisenhower, and he didn't do
terribly well with Eisenhower because he spoke to the press after a meeting.
But with Nixon, from Nixon's vice presidency on, he became, really, like one
of Nixon's primary advisers and one of Nixon's primary promulgators; I don't
think there's any other way to put it. And even in the throes of the
Watergate hearings, when it was very, very clear that Nixon was in deep
trouble, and just before the hearings began, Billy Graham interrupted a
vacation and flew up to stand by his side and, again, appear in public with
him and have press conferences with him and everything else to shore him up.
And so probably one of the people who was most disillusioned by what happened
to Nixon was Billy Graham. And one of the things that's interesting is it was
the tapes; it was the tapes that turned off Nixon's religious right following,
when they discovered how he really talked and how he really thought. And...

GROSS: Oh, the epithets. It was the epithets that did it.

Mr. SKAGGS: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. SKAGGS: Yes, the dirty language.

GROSS: Huh. But how did Billy Graham become preacher to presidents?

Mr. VAN TAYLOR: I think he did it by making himself available. He's not a
divisive figure; he's always been a unifying figure. And he was always ready
to lend his services to the president, and he has done so for Democrats as
well as Republicans. And I think it needs to be said that his relationship
with Nixon, particularly but with many presidents, is really a relationship of
mutual exploitation. You know, by making themselves close to Billy Graham,
the presidents could lend themselves an air of moral authority. But by making
himself close to a president, Billy Graham could lend himself an air of
worldly authority. I mean, there he was whispering into the ear of Richard
Nixon and thereby legitimizing all of the people who believed in him, in Billy
Graham. This was a constituency that felt left out; that felt that history
was in some ways passing them by, was ridiculing them. And when they saw
Billy Graham standing next to the president, they could feel, `Hey, we are
part of American society. We are the mainstream.'

GROSS: And Billy Graham has had an incredibly long political-religious life,
public life. I mean, what has his role been to President George W. Bush?

Mr. SKAGGS: Well, in the 2000 election, just two days before the actual vote,
Billy Graham appeared with George W. and Laura Bush to, in effect, endorse
him, though he said, of course, `I never tell who I vote for, and I don't
endorse presidents.' But it was pretty clear who he was endorsing. It was an
endorsement, and it was an endorsement during the time in which George W. Bush
needed it. I think because Billy Graham is elderly and frail and has
Parkinson's disease, I don't believe that he has been a constant, you know,
counselor to George W. Bush or anything of the sort, but he has appeared
whenever it was necessary, and he is close to the Bush family.

Mr. VAN TAYLOR: It's also true that Billy Graham has been inserted in the
narrative of George W. Bush's life in a very critical way. George W. Bush
says that it was a walk on the beach in Kennebunkport with Billy Graham that
planted a seed in his heart that led him to Jesus and really turned his life
around from a midlife crisis of, really, failure and dissolution to the path
that led him to the White House. In fact, we show in our film that it was an
earlier encounter with a much more out-there figure, a guy named Arthur
Blessit, who is best known for carrying a 6-by-9' cross all the way around the
world, that spoke to George W. Bush's heart in 1984 in Midland, Texas. And I
actually believe that Billy Graham himself has said that he doesn't really
have a particular memory of this walk on the beach that George W. Bush has
made so much of. But he has allowed himself to be portrayed as the man who
made the difference in his life, which is a much more prestigious way for
George W. Bush to come to God.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit more about Blessit, about who is he.

Mr. SKAGGS: Sure. Well, Arthur Blessit is a guy who started out in the '60s
with a mission on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. He would literally go into
strip clubs during the day and hold revivals there because he wanted to get
directly to the sinners. He went on to hold big revival meetings, like the
one he held in Midland, Texas, in 1984 called Decision '84 and, through his
charisma and his belief, to have a strong effect on a lot of people. But what
he's best known for is the fact that he fashioned a 6-by-9' cross out of wood
and emulated Jesus Christ himself by carrying that around and has made it his
mission by carrying it around to every country in the world, which he has, in
fact, done. I think he's a zealot in the biblical sense of the word, and I
think that he certainly is going to have a more polarizing effect on more
people than somebody like a Billy Graham.

GROSS: How much has President Bush discussed the influence of Arthur Blessit
on him?

Mr. SKAGGS: I think he's discussed it almost none at all. And, in fact, it
was not known to virtually anybody until quite recently, at which point
Blessit himself and Jim Sale, who was interviewed in our film, broke their
silence about it. I guess once they saw that Bush was claiming his religious
faith so strongly, they felt it was OK to come out of the closet, as it were,
about this. And in our interview with Jim Sale, who was the only other person
present at this meeting between Arthur Blessit and George W. Bush, he tells a
very personal, up-close story about the three of them getting together at the
Holiday Inn in Midland, Texas, and praying the "Sinner's Prayer."

Bush is very careful about to whom he speaks and how about his religion. In
public, he does a very good job of speaking in broad, uplifting terms. When
he's speaking just to evangelical audiences, he sometimes gets a little more
specific. But Blessit is not someone that I think he's ever felt entirely
comfortable talking about.

GROSS: My guests are David Van Taylor and Cal Skaggs. Their film, "With God
on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right," will be
shown on the Sundance Channel December 5th and 15th. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with David Taylor and Cal Skaggs about
their film, "With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the
Religious Right." It features many archival clips. Here's Jimmy Carter.

(Soundbite of "With God on Our Side")

President JIMMY CARTER: And I formed a very close, intimate, personal
relationship with God through Christ that has given me a great deal of peace,
equanimity, the ability to accept difficulties without unnecessarily being

GROSS: President Carter was the first openly evangelical president, the first
president to actually talk about being born again. What was the evangelical
reaction to him?

Mr. VAN TAYLOR: I think it was a reaction of great relief and hosannas, as
somebody says in our history. To have a president actually use those words
was a very unusual phenomenon, and that's seen by the reaction of the press at
the time. I mean, we have some very amusing, in retrospect, clips of
mainstream media figures like John Chancellor and Harry Reasoner saying, you
know, `What is this born-again stuff?' Or, `We've looked into it,' Chancellor
says, `and it turns out it's nothing unusual,' which shows you just how far
out of the secular mainstream this kind of discourse had become when, in fact,
being born again is one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity and
certainly of evangelical Christianity.

GROSS: So the evangelicals were very happy with Carter's election. The
press, you say, really didn't know what to make of it at first. But
eventually many evangelicals who voted for him ended up being unhappy with his
performance in the White House. What were the problems?

Mr. SKAGGS: Oh, they loathed him. They came to loathe him because Jimmy
Carter had a clear--Shall we say?--a bright line between personal belief and
constitutional rights and his constitutional duties as president. So he
himself did not necessarily believe in abortion, but he was bound to not stop
it. He himself had to take a stand that might have been slightly different
from his religious or moral feelings on that issue because he felt that the
Constitution required him to do it; that's how he explained it, we explained

But I think essentially it can be explained much simpler, and that is that
Jimmy Carter was a liberal evangelical Christian. And there are liberal
evangelical Christians who do not have the same right-wing political views
that the religious right has. And once he was in office and they realized
that he did not share their political views, they turned against him, really,
more violently than they might have were he not a professed evangelical

GROSS: Well, the religious right helped defeat Jimmy Carter and elect Ronald
Reagan. What do you think was new about the relationship between Ronald
Reagan and the religious right?

Mr. VAN TAYLOR: Well, Jimmy Carter's profession of being born again came out
of his own personal experience and came as a surprise to everybody. By the
time that Ronald Reagan came around in 1980 as the nominee of the Republican
Party, evangelical Christians had, for the first time, really, formed their
own political organization. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979
specifically for the purpose of getting religious people, and particularly
evangelicals, involved in the political process. And so they were out there
registering voters, encouraging people to go the polls, and, therefore, they
really were an interest group at that point. And Reagan and his advisers saw
that they were an interest group that needed to be courted, and they did court

And Reagan made a very critical speech in which he addressed a group of--a
very large convocation of evangelicals in Texas, saying, `I know you can't
endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you.' And that really was a
turning point for Reagan. And that portion of the vote was seen by many as
making the margin of difference in his election. So it was a whole new part
that they were playing in electoral politics by that point.

GROSS: Jerry Falwell's group, the Moral Majority, was formed in 1979, and it
really helped elect Ronald Reagan. What are the techniques that the Moral
Majority helped pioneer to get out the evangelical vote?

Mr. VAN TAYLOR: Well, I mean, we have a wonderful archival film that was made
at the time by folks related to Jerry Falwell's group. I can't--it was called
something like "The Christian Vote" or "The Christian Voter." And that in
itself was a pretty up-to-the-minute technique. In this film, you see some of
the techniques that they pioneered. They were creating fliers that they would
put under the windshields of people's cars saying, `This is the Christian
scorecard of this candidate vs. this candidate,' meaning this candidate is
against abortion; this candidate is in favor of abortion rights; you know,
this candidate is against homosexuality; this candidate is in favor of gay
rights. This candidate is trying to give the Panama Canal away; this
candidate is standing firm on our foreign policy--so getting issues
comparisons out there, which is a technique that has continued throughout the
ensuing decades. And, more generally, they went out and found Christian
voters at churches and registered them to vote, and that's what's still
happening now and that's what, quite arguably, made the difference in this
last election.

GROSS: And what about the Christian Coalition? How would you compare their
techniques to the Moral Majority's?

Mr. SKAGGS: The Christian Coalition had a longer life than the Moral
Majority, and it was organized somewhat differently. Though led by Pat
Robertson, it was certainly guided and pushed by Ralph Reed, who, as you know,
is now the head of the Republican Party in Georgia and who is one of George W.
Bush's main counsels in this past election.

Ralph Reed, who, as a very young man, seemed to have been gifted with
political skills from birth, realized that it wasn't simply to get people to
vote in presidential elections every four years but that the Christian
Coalition had to dig in and get people elected to school boards, to local and
county and state jobs and gradually, as they said very openly in their video
they made, `take over' one of the political parties. And the result was they
built grassroots organizations in, if not every state in the union, certainly
most of the states in the union. And so they not only had this national thing
going, but they also had the state Christian Coalition organizations that were
organizing in that state. And that's a degree of organization that Jerry
Falwell's Moral Majority never achieved.

GROSS: Let's hear another clip from the documentary "With God on Our Side."
Ralph Reed and journalist Al Hunt are guests on "Meet the Press" in 1992.

(Soundbite of "Meet the Press" from 1992)

Mr. AL HUNT (Journalist): Do you think abortion should be permissible in
cases of rape or incest or where the life of the mother is in danger?

Mr. RALPH REED (Christian Coalition): Well, I think what we believe as an
organization is that abortion should not be used as a form of birth control.
I think it..

Mr. HUNT: Should it be permissible in cases of rape or incest specifically?

Mr. REED: Al, we favor a law that would allow for an exception to protect the

Mr. HUNT: But not for rape or incest?

Mr. REED: But--let me finish--but, if necessary, in order to pass a law--if
it became necessary in order to build the coalition and get the votes to pass
the law, we would favor, or at least we would allow, rape and incest
exceptions, sure.

GROSS: In the second half of the show, we'll talk more with David Van Taylor
and Cal Skaggs about their film "With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the
Rise of the Religious Right." It will be shown on the Sundance Channel
December 5th and 15th. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, homosexuality, abortion and the religious right--we
continue our conversation with Cal Skaggs and David Van Taylor about their new
documentary, "With God on Our Side." And Maureen Corrigan reviews a new
biography of P.G. Wodehouse by Robert McCrum.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with filmmakers David Van
Taylor and Cal Skaggs. Their new documentary is called "With God on Our Side:
George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right." It draws on and updates
their six-part documentary on the religious right that was broadcast on public
television in 1996. Here's another archival clip from "With God on Our Side."
This is Ronald Reagan in 1980.

(Soundbite of "With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the
Religious Right")

President RONALD REAGAN: I happen to believe, from all the study that I have
been able to do, all the information I've been able to get, that when you
interrupt a presidency, you are taking a human life. Now that puts that human
life within the protection of the Constitution, the guarantee of life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness.

GROSS: Two of the big issues that came into play for the religious right
during this past presidential election were abortion and gay marriage. Let's
look at the issue of abortion. When--I suppose you're going to say after Roe
V. Wade, but when does abortion become such a politically charged issue for
the religious right? And how is the language in discussing that opposition
developed? I mean, for example, like, a lot of people will frame it as a
human rights issue now because if a mother has an abortion, these people say
then she is depriving the unborn child of its human rights. And to cast
abortion as a human rights issue, who developed that way of looking at it?

Mr. SKAGGS: Well, it's almost datable to a precise moment as far as the
religious right is concerned, this issue of abortion, meaning the Roman
Catholic Church ever since Roe vs. Wade had been against abortion, obviously,
from their point of view. But, literally, late in the '70s, Jerry Falwell
seized upon this issue. I believe it's 1978 he preached what is called the
first abortion sermon, and he realized that this issue galvanized people in a
way that other issues were not. So abortion became, from that point on, one
of the primary--and has remained to this day one of the primary--rallying
points for the religious rights.

Mr. VAN TAYLOR: It wasn't just Falwell's insight, though. It was also the
insight of a group of political strategists, who were not primarily about
religion. People like Paul Weyrich and Morton Blackwell had seen evangelical
conservatives, as Morton Blackwell puts it, as the greatest tract of virgin
timber on the political landscape. And Weyrich noted that the Roman Catholics
were voting in one way--that is, mainly Democratic; the evangelicals were
voting in another way, mainly Republican. And what you needed was an issue
that would bring the two groups together, and abortion was tailor-made for
that. And in that first sermon, which Cal just referred to, what Falwell
actually says is, `This is not just a Roman Catholic issue. This is an issue
that we should all be concerned about.' And that was the political usefulness
of abortion as an issue.

GROSS: What about casting it as a human rights issue?

Mr. VAN TAYLOR: Well, you know, one of the things that George W. Bush has
been very good at--and people on the religious right have taken their hat off
to him--is that he avoids language which is divisive. You almost never hear
him talk about Roe V. Wade, you almost never hear him talk about abortion.
What he does is he talks about the `culture of life,' and he talks about
`upholding life and preserving life.' And that is something which almost any
voter or any citizen can say, `Yeah, that's a great idea' to. And that way he
kind of does an end run around this question of, `Are you pro-abortion? Are
you anti-abortion? Are you Catholic? Are you religious? Are you
evangelical?'--and instead says, `Are you for life?' And it also makes a
connection which goes back to the founding of this country, where every
man--or person, as we would now say--is--has an inalienable right to life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

GROSS: It's interesting to me that in an era of multiculturalism, whether
people are bigoted or not, they know they're not supposed to say nasty things
about people who are different from them in public, right? No matter how they
feel, it's not cool to say that in public anymore...

Mr. SKAGGS: Right.

GROSS: ...except for homosexuality, in which case it's really OK to say they
shouldn't be allowed to marry, you now, they shouldn't be allowed to teach.
There are a lot of `they shouldn'ts' that come up there. And I guess I'd be
interested in hearing you talk about how homosexuality became such a rallying
point for the religious right. And who came up--how was the language there
developed for defining the issue?

Mr. SKAGGS: Well, homosexuality became a rallying point, actually, rather
late. In fact, there's a conservative evangelical theologian who says that,
`When the Berlin Wall fell and when there was no longer an enemy out there, we
had to find an enemy in here. And the enemy in here that would allow us to
raise money and that would allow us to get voters and that would allow us to
advance our cause turned out to be homosexuality.' And as homosexuals became
more visible and were asking for political and social rights for themselves,
the religious right was losing one of its primary threats and organizing
tools, and that is international communism. And so there are people within
the religious right itself and people who are very religious evangelicals who
say that they found that homosexuality was a tool they could use.

They have, of course, taken that tool and turned it into an enormous threat to
American marriage, American culture, American values. And they have allies in
this. I mean, after all, Justice Scalia, in his dissent from the sodomy
decision of the Supreme Court a year and a half ago, said, you know, `With
this decision in place, then we could have bigamy, we could have bestiality,
we could have all sorts of things.' In other words, they create in
homosexuality a threat to sort of very moral fiber of theirs and their
community's lives, and in that way they vilify it, they raise money about it
and they use it as a political tool.

Mr. VAN TAYLOR: It's also true, you know, as you framed your question, Terry,
as a question about, you know, who is it OK to disparage publicly in this
society, the conservative evangelicals, almost to a person, will tell you that
it's not homosexuals that they like; it's homosexuality because that mirrors
what Christ asks of us, which is to hate the sin but love the sinner. And as
long as gay and lesbian people can be called sinners, there's a way in which
they can be told, `It's not you that we don't like. It's your behavior. And
that behavior can be changed, and all you need to do is work very, very hard
and pray very, very hard, and you will be able to overcome that sin.' So
there's a way for conservative evangelicals of squaring that circle.

GROSS: And I'm sure there's a lot of evangelicals who also feel that it's
been OK to say bad things about evangelicals; that they have been stereotyped
as a group.

Mr. VAN TAYLOR: Absolutely. I think they feel that they are the last
minority whom it's acceptable to run down.

GROSS: Let's hear another archival clip from "With God on Our Side." This is
evangelist James Robison.

(Soundbite of "With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the
Religious Right")

Mr. JAMES ROBISON (Evangelist): Mr. Lincoln said, `We may very well
self-destruct.' You don't have to look too long to see the possibility of it
today.' After all, if we can just keep getting more of our men to have sex
with more men, we won't have to worry about babies being born. And if we can
just get more women to get out there in the marketplace and start acting like
men, and if we can just get other women to look at motherhood as though it is
some dread terminal illness, if we can just get society so drunk and so
drugged, if ever anybody does get pregnant, then we can abort the baby!
That's where we are!

GROSS: We'll talk more with David Van Taylor and Cal Skaggs about their
documentary, "With God on Our Side," after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are filmmakers Cal Skaggs and David Van Taylor. Their
latest documentary is called "With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the
Rise of the Religious Right."

Here's another archival clip from the film. This is Jerry Falwell in 1980
after the election of Ronald Reagan.

(Soundbite of "With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the
Religious Right")

Rev. FALWELL: The fact is as of this morning, we have a president-elect who
has committed to help us pass a human life amendment through the Congress and
the state legislatures. We have a president-elect who has said that, `We will
help you return voluntary prayer to public schools.' We have a president-elect
who has said...

(Soundbite of applause)

Rev. FALWELL: We have a president-elect who has said, `I will work hard to
return America to that position of number one in the world in military might
for the cause of freedom and peace.'

Unidentified Man: Amen.

Rev. FALWELL: And this, which no one gave us any hope for, but now, as of
this morning we have: We have a Senate and a House of Representatives
committed to all those same positions to help us do it...

(Soundbite of applause)

Rev. FALWELL: ...a majority.

GROSS: Jerry Falwell, who founded the Moral Majority in 1979, the group that
helped elect President Reagan and remained, you know, very powerful through
the '80s, has founded a new group, which he describes as a Moral Majority for
the 21st century. It's the Faith and Values Coalition. And any thoughts on
this new group and how powerful Falwell and his son, who is the head of it,
will prove to be?

Mr. SKAGGS: I think that the coalition of religious right followers and
leaders is so vast that the idea that one organization like one Jerry Falwell
is now creating or the one that Pat Robertson created now--What?--12, 16 years
ago, the Christian Coalition is impossible. It's not going to work.
Actually, probably the most powerful religious right organization right now
and the most vocal is Focus on the Family, which is headed by James Dobson,
who has been totally politicized, if you will, by this last election. James
Dobson is the religious right person who never would endorse candidates that
said, `We must, you know, work side by side but not together.'

Well, in this past election, Dobson came out openly, exhorted everyone
who--the eight million people who listen to his radio station daily that they
must vote for George W. Bush, etc., etc. I think he has the most power of any
single religious right leader now, and I don't think Jerry Falwell's--and this
is just an opinion--Falwell's new organization with coalesce a new grouping of
this power.

Mr. VAN TAYLOR: But he doesn't need to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN TAYLOR: That's the problem. I mean, this is an organized and
effective constituency and a huge constituency in our population right now.
And Falwell is just lucky to be one more person on the bandwagon that he
helped get rolling in the first place.

GROSS: The religious right really helped George W. Bush get re-elected. What
are the issues now that you think the religious right is going to be holding
the Bush administration accountable for, you know, and wanting the Bush
administration to make a priority?

Mr. SKAGGS: That is a very, very tricky, very interesting and difficult
question because I think a problem the religious right may be facing is that
they want everything; that they are going to hold George Bush accountable for
Congress. And since that election, which, after all, is less than a month
away, they have flooded the e-mail list and flooded the phone systems, etc.,
on literally half a dozen issues already. Most of these issues are going to
coalesce around the federal courts and whether Bush will appoint and whether
Congress will--or the Senate will push through federal judges at the appeals
level and the Supreme Court who will overturn Roe vs. Wade, who will do
whatever else is necessary to get the, quote, "moral," unquote, agenda of the
religious right approved or changed. In other words, they do want to get
school prayer, prayer back in the schools. They do want to get the right to
display the Ten Commandments. But I think `the' big issue is abortion, and
`the' way to deal with that is to change the composition of the federal

GROSS: Do you think that the Bush administration is divided about how to deal
with the religious right that helped re-elect the president?

Mr. SKAGGS: In some ways, it's very interesting because it's very clear that
the religious right deeply believes in George W. Bush, and he deeply fulfills,
as no other president we've had in the past 50 years, their vision of what
leadership is and their vision of what values need to be put forth in our
society. The question is going to come. And they, to overstate the case, got
him elected--that is overstating the case, but they were inordinately
important in re-electing George W. Bush, I believe we are now finding out in
the analysis of the vote.

Can he possibly fulfill all their demands in this democratic system that has
checks and balances, etc., supposedly built in? Can they learn that they
cannot speak on every single issue and still be heard as thoughtfully as if
chose them carefully? It's a question. He doesn't have to get elected
anymore. Other people in the Congress do have to get elected again. And in
2006 and 2008, are they going to put not a brake but shift down to second gear
rather than third gear? It's an impossible question for me to speculate

Mr. VAN TAYLOR: We may well be entering into an era of political realignment,
in which, you know, the New Deal era is over. That's pretty well
acknowledged. And we may be coming into an era where the religious right--as
the unions were to the Democratic Party, the religious right is to the
Republican Party in the coming decade, and, therefore, they may win and win
big on any number of issues. That still doesn't remove the contradictions of
religion and politics and the fact that this country is built out of people
with strongly held religious beliefs but strongly divergent religious beliefs.
And once you start trying to bring the federal government or any government
into dictating which of those religious beliefs is going to be legislated into
being, you're going to run into trouble. And that can't last forever, and it
certainly can't last forever without undermining the strengths of this

GROSS: The film that's about to be shown on Sundance, "With God on Our Side:
George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right," is an update of a series
that you did in 1996 about the rise of the religious right. What has changed
the most between 1996 and 2004?

Mr. SKAGGS: To me, what has changed the most is that despite the religious
right's great help in electing Ronald Reagan for both terms, etc., they still
saw themselves and most people saw them as on the outside, pressing from the
outside. Now they are on the inside. Not only do they have a genuinely
religious right-wing president, but they hold offices, they hold appointments,
etc., within the government, all the way down to the fact that proportionately
a great number of White House interns come from Patrick Henry College, which
is a new religious right college in Virginia. So they're on the inside now.

And the question is--and I can't resist the temptation of quoting the Bible
back to them--that when Satan takes Jesus, in the fourth chapter of Matthew,
up to the mountain to tempt him, he takes him through various temptations,
escalating to the highest. And the highest is he gives Jesus the possibility
of looking down and seeing all the kingdoms of the world, and they will be his
and he will rule them; he will run them. And, of course, Jesus rejects this
temptation, and Satan is cast down. But the real difference between 1996,
when our series first aired, is the religious right then was groping, grasping
and demanding power. Now they have it. What will it do to them?

GROSS: I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.

Mr. VAN TAYLOR: Thank you.

Mr. SKAGGS: Thank you very much for having us.

GROSS: Cal Skaggs and David Van Taylor, along with Ali Pomeroy, made the
documentary "With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the
Religious Right." It will be shown on the Sundance Channel December 5th and

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new biography of P.G. Wodehouse. This

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Robert McCrum's new book, "Wodehouse: A Life"

As anyone who watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade last Thursday knows,
most of the balloons and floats feature fantastic characters out of children's
cartoons, TV shows, movies and books. But there was at least one humanoid
oddity, a giant balloon called Jeeves decked out in spats, striped pants and a
cutaway coat. The Jeeves balloon and the Broadway play that inspired it is
the latest testament to the enduring popularity of Jeeves' creator, the writer
P.G. Wodehouse. A new biography of Wodehouse has just been published. It's
written by Robert McCrum, the literary editor of The Observer in London. Book
critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.


Approximately 15 minutes after I started reading Robert McCrum's new biography
of P.G. Wodehouse, I had to stop. I was getting too many ticked off looks
from my students. They were writhing through a midterm exam. I was taking
advantage of the quiet to sit at my desk, drink coffee and crack open
"Wodehouse: A Life." But it wasn't working. Students in the throes of an
exam don't appreciate hearing snorts of laughter erupting from their
professor. If I'd explained that I was chortling at quotes from P.G.
Wodehouse, my students would have only been further mystified.

But if I'd begun reading from one of Wodehouse's antic masterpieces featuring
his cast of immortals, such as the mentally negligible Bertie Wooster, his
unflappable butler Jeeves and maiden Aunt Agatha, my students, many of them
cult fans of the already arthritic Monty Pythons, would have recognized the
genre of British humor that Wodehouse invented. As McCrum puts it, `Wodehouse
gave England an infectiously lunatic version of itself. His is a timeless,
airy universe of bright, young things, drunken gadabouts and crumbling
aristocratic piles, described in a language bristling with Edwardian slang and
self-coined boosterism, words like zippiness, oompus-boompus and

Throughout this smart and elegantly written sparkler of a biography, McCrum
reflects on why Wodehouse clung to his core belief that through lightness and
lunacy, life could be bearable, an ethos that was the source of his artistic
genius as well as his tragic undoing.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, nicknamed Plum, was born in 1881. His father was
a judge serving in Hong Kong; his mother, a chilling matriarch. They were
strikingly absentee parents. Wodehouse and his two older brothers were
shipped off to relatives and different boarding schools in England. Between
the ages of three and 15, Wodehouse saw his parents for a total of barely six
months. Without being psychologically heavy-handed, McCrum discusses how this
early trauma formed Wodehouse into a man who instinctively reacted to sadness
with jokes and an achieved sunniness of disposition.

After a two-year stultifying stint as a clerk at a bank in London, Wodehouse
launched himself as a freelance journalist. McCrum brings to life this golden
age of Edwardian magazines and newspapers, in which Wodehouse found his
literary voice. Throughout the teens into the 1930s, Wodehouse shuttled back
and forth across the big pond, writing for Hollywood and collaborating with
the likes of Jerome Kern and Cole Porter on musicals. About the latter
experience, Wodehouse said, `Musical comedy was my dish, my spiritual home. I
would rather have written "Oklahoma" than "Hamlet."

The great blunder of Wodehouse's life that I've skipped over but that McCrum
astutely investigates is this: During World War II, Wodehouse, who'd been
living in France, was interned in a series of prison camps by the Germans.
The experience was horrific. Wodehouse and his fellow inmates suffered
starvation. Some of the men had nervous breakdowns and committed suicide.
Wodehouse entertained his fellow inmates by writing amusing stories about camp
life. It's how he'd always responded to a tough situation; he made light of
it. The Nazis, seeing a public relations opportunity in 1941, persuaded their
famous English captive to go on radio and read some of his merry commentary on
camp life. Wodehouse thought he'd be showing the world how he and his fellow
captives were demonstrating stiff-upper-lipnesss, but the results were

While figures like George Orwell and Dorothy L. Sayers rushed to Wodehouse's
defense, he was denounced as, at worst, a collaborator; at best, a dupe by
audiences in America and war-ravaged Britain. As Wodehouse later inadequately
recognized, it was a loony thing to do. Without becoming an apologist for
Wodehouse's stunning lack of judgment, McCrum makes it understandable. He
also manages to scrutinize, without flattening, the writing of a comic genius
whose constructions are as frothy as meringue. After all, what can a critic
possibly say about gems like this line uttered by Bertie Wooster in the 1938
classic "The Code of the Woosters": `He spoke with a certain "What is it?" in
his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from
being gruntled.'

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Wodehouse: A Life" by Robert McCrum.

We'll close with the title song of the musical "Anything Goes." Cole Porter
wrote the song. P.G. Wodehouse wrote the book with Guy Bolton.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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