"Life and Liberty . . . For All Who Believe," a propaganda documentary about alleged dangers from the radical right, has a tone and style that recall hysterical right-wing propaganda of the '50s -- the stuff that warned us all that the Commies were poisoning our minds quicker than we could say J. Edgar Hoover.
As such, the program joins the ranks of such quaint historical curios as "Red Nightmare," a Warner Bros. fantasy about the Red takeover of an American town, except that "Nightmare" was, if hardly more persuasive, at least possessed of a more passionate urgency. "Life and Liberty," paid for and supplied by Norman Lear's group, People for the American Way, contains much disquieting footage of the religious right at work, but the program isn't very well put together, and its credibility may be just as justifiably questioned as that of the right-wing propagandists it denounces.
The half-hour, to be shown at 11 tonight on Channel 5, carries no production credits other than the "People for" logo, along with a toll-free phone number soliciting contributions. Burt Lancaster is the nominal host, appearing briefly to warn of a "powerful, wealthy movement" that wants to "force, I mean force, their narrow doctrine on all of us." Then an unidentified announcer takes over as guide through the film's alarmist scenario about the religious right's plot to subvert the country and trash basic civil liberties.
Unfairly, the script lumps just about all the religious rightists together, intending to associate Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and easily the most prominent figure in the movement, with such actions as a lunatic-fringe book burning (the cry of "Praise God!" is heard as the flames go up) and the idiotic statement of a Rev. Bailey Smith, who does not appear to be a major force in this movement, that "God almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew."
Falwell was on TV just the other night, as a matter of fact, in another of his innumerable broadcasts, stating he has nothing to do with book burners and has never advocated such tactics.
Fortunately for this film, many of the members of the fundamentalist right rush right in to hang themselves with their own moronic rhetoric. Paul Weyrich, leader of something called Coalitions for America, advocates pushing "the gospel in a political context," using "simplistic polemical terms" to sway the masses, and declares, "Ultimately, everything can be reduced to right and wrong. Everything."
A mind that thinks like that is frightening, but the nutty far-right has been with us a long time in this country, and we have survived it. "Life and Liberty" maintains that the groups are dangerous now because they have a "billion-dollar communications system" at their disposal and a weekly TV and radio audience of "40 million." Since no source is given for such figures, they are hard to believe, and one does like to cling to the notion that the American people still know specious hooey when they hear it.
The film -- its title comes from the last line of the "Pledge of Allegiance to the Christian Flag" -- also reports on successful attempts by Neanderthals and bigots to get books removed from school reading lists or banned for classroom use altogether. This aspect of the story truly is alarming, because it reveals people who have no shame about their ignorance--who, indeed, feel the times are right for flaunting it in public.
Earlier this week, four ministers in Calhoun County, Ala., asked that all the works of John Steinbeck be banned from high school libraries there (hinting that "The Dukes of Hazzard" is an extremely flattering portrait of the modern South, not a libelous one). If "Life and Liberty" had concentrated on the issue of book burning and book banning, on the radical right's rabid interest in suppressing ideas, it might have made a more effective broadcast. Instead, it tries to paint in strokes too broad and too sloppy to stick.