An advertisement for a trip to Yellowstone National Park

PBS officials defended the decision to air a documentary on Thomas Jefferson’s metaphor of a “wall” of separation between church and state against accusations the film is a propaganda tool for the Christian Right.

In a June 8 blog cross-posted at Talk2Action, Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said he was “deeply troubled” by “Wall of Separation,” an hour-long film being rolled out this month on public television.

While he hadn’t seen the program, Lynn said promotional materials suggested it “promotes a radically revisionist view of church and state.”

A press release on the PBS Web site describes the wall of church/state separation as a “metaphor deeply embedded in the American consciousness.”

“But what would surprise most Americans is the discovery that this is not what the Founding Fathers intended when they established the nation and wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights,” the press release continues. “In fact, they had a radically different interpretation of the role of religion in state and federal governments.”

“Just what was their view?” the release asks. “Why was it different? Where did the ‘wall of separation’ metaphor come from? And how did its meaning evolve into what we consider it today?”

The PBS press release, using the same language as the Boulevard Pictures Web site, says the documentary “explores both sides” of the issue, from the beginning of the wall metaphor first used by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Baptists in Danbury, Conn., in 1802, to its inclusion in a landmark 1947 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Everson v. Board of Education. That case, the film says, set precedent for subsequent decisions banning prayer and Bible reading in public schools, as well as more recent disputes over posting the Ten Commandments and prayers at high-school football games.

In a Friday column, PBS ombudsman Michael Getler quoted the chief TV programming executive at PBS as saying the film was selected for distribution through “PBS Plus,” a supplemental lineup that appears on about half of the nation’s 350 public-television stations, as part of a mandate “to present a diversity of viewpoints on issues of public importance.”

Getler called that a “reasonable explanation,” but after viewing the film twice and reading the transcript, he concluded the film, while including some differing views, “does indeed leave one with a sense of advocacy and pursuit of a point of view–which challenges not only Thomas Jefferson’s view of a ‘wall of separation’ but a string of Supreme Court decisions.”

After a little Web surfing, Getler added, that “is not surprising.”

The film’s executive producer, Jack Hafer, said in an interview four years ago: “We have an obligation as Christians to shape culture–and the arts and entertainment arena is the greatest shaper of values in our culture today. We must talk about the faith, spread the faith, if you will. But we must also shape culture apart from that–in pre-evangelistic ways.”

Hafer started his own production company, Gummshoe Productions, in 2002 to make “To End All Wars,” an R-rated World War II movie widely promoted as a Christian film. Discussing the movie with World Magazine, Hafer said his goal was to make a film that would not be a “Christian movie,” in the stereotypical sense of a low-budget vehicle for proselytizing, but a good movie in Hollywood terms that “also embodies and expresses a Christian worldview.”

The director and writer of “Wall of Separation,” Brian Godawa, was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “an award-winning Christian Hollywood scriptwriter,” who wrote a book in 2002 about “how to watch movies discerningly as a faithful Christian.”

Last year Godawa, wrote a TV documentary “Our First Liberty,” for the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal-defense group started in the 1990s by James Dobson, Bill Bright, Larry Burkett, D. James Kennedy and others and led by former federal prosecutor Alan Sears.

According to the PBS ombudsman column, “The Wall of Separation” features interviews with American University Professor Daniel Dreisbach and John C. Eastman, dean of the Chapman University School of Law.

Dreisbach has called the wall of separation a “misused metaphor,” originally intended only to restrict establishment of religion by the state and not faith communities.

Dreisbach contends the “wall of separation” metaphor as used by the Supreme Court in 1947 was grounded in the fear of religion, particularly Catholicism, and that recent rulings signal a return to antagonism toward people of faith.

Eastman, the long-time director of the Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence and one-time law clerk for Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, sued Los Angeles County in 2004 for removing the cross from its county seal.

Eastman also filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the right of the Boy Scouts to discriminate against gay Scoutmasters, on behalf of school vouchers in Cleveland, against an effort to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance and for civic displays of the Ten Commandments.

But PBS ombudsman Getler said the “star of this film, who carries the message that I, as a viewer, got, and assume the producers clearly want carried, is the unseen narrator who, time and again, conveys the theme of this film–that God is the necessary foundation of society’s law and government.”

The film’s narrator is actor Liev Schreiber, whose credits include three “Scream” movies and the role of Raymond Shaw in the 2004 remake of “The Manchurian Candidate.”

PBS senior vice president John Wilson told Getler “The Wall of Separation,” like many other public-affairs programs, could be labeled “point of view,” but that he believes it “is an appropriate addition to the body of work PBS has presented on constitutional issues.”

Headquartered in Arlington, Va., PBS is a non-profit media enterprise owned and operated by the nation’s 354 public-television stations. “Christians have a right to proselytize,” Lynn said, “but I don’t usually expect to see proselytism on PBS.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

Share This