God Fights Back

Full Program Description

God Fights Back
Religious fundamentalism flourishes in the East and West
Original broadcast: Monday, June 28, 1999 at 10pm
(check local listings for re-broadcast dates)

"What I liked about Jimmy Swaggart was the fact that when you watched him on TV, he had the ability to keep you on fire. It was what you wanted to hear. . . . He had the ability to say black and white, right or wrong, and there were no in-betweens."
-- Sheila Kerley, United States

By mid-century, modern technology and Western thought had swept religion to the margins of public life. Since, millions have turned back to God -- and taken political action based on their religious beliefs.

In Iran, the faithful were baffled and offended by Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi's vision of progress and secularism. Mosques offered hope for those who felt alienated and longed for the moral certainties of their past, and religious leaders rejected the values of the Shah's regime as foreign and corrupt. A resurgence in Islamic fundamentalism led to a revolt against the Shah, forcing him to flee the country and, in 1979, to the return of the long-exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Welcomed back as Imam, the supreme religious leader, and father of the Islamic revolution, Khomeini wasted no time in setting his agenda. "We want Islam," he said, "only Islam." With those words, the century's first true theocracy was born. Khomeini would become the symbol of resistance against the secular world and the rallying cry to fight for God and Islam.

Halfway around the world, in the United States, religious fundamentalism was also on the march, the Christian faithful eager to restore a "nation under God." Minister Jerry Falwell emerged as the spokesman for a new political movement known as the "moral majority," and called his followers to political action. By the time of the 1980 Republican National Convention, Christians had taken control of the party's conservative wing.

The movement's cathedrals were television studios; the high priests, televangelists. By 1988, it was ready to elect one of its own: Pat Robertson, host of the popular 700 Club. Though Robertson would lose his bid for the presidency, conservative Christians succeeded in pushing their agenda to the forefront of American politics, certain that they held the answers to the moral uncertainties and stresses of modern life, and that unlike Church and State, faith and politics need not be separated.

The people remember: The Shah of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, Moral Majority, Ronald Reagan, Washington for Jesus, assassination of Anwar Sadat, Algeria, Islamic Salvation Front, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Iran-Iraq war, jihad, Pat Robertson.

God Fights Back is written, produced, and directed by Ben Loeterman. Series senior producer is David Espar. Series executive producer for WGBH Boston is Zvi Dor-Ner; Peter Pagnamenta is executive producer for the BBC.

John Forsythe narrates.

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Jimmy Swaggart photograph © Steve Early - Waco Tribune/Corbis Sygma