The PBS television series God in America was aired in 2010. I did not see it when it was aired on television. I finally saw it last week on DVD. It is simply superb. The series consists of six parts, each about 55 minutes long when the various trailers and ads are skipped. The subtitle is very accurate: “How Religious Liberty Shaped America.”
The series, which features both actors who are cast in bit roles as famous American figures and scholars who teach about various issues in the history of religious history, sets out to give the viewer an accurate account of religious liberty in America. How has religious liberty been used, abused and developed over the past four centuries plus? Religion professor Stephen Prothero (photo) is clearly the most frequent voice in all six episodes but shorter appearances include well-known evangelicals such as Grant Wacker, Harry Stout and Mark Noll. Randall Balmer, who grew up in an evangelical background, also has a prominent role in several of the episodes relating to the twentieth century. The bottom line is that religion matters deeply in America and this series will actually show you why. Indeed, religion matters in America more than anywhere else on the planet.
For the first time on television, God in America explores the four centuries old intersection of religion and public life in America, from the first European settlements to the 2008 presidential election. The series examines how religious dissidents helped shape the American concept of religious liberty and the controversial evolution of that ideal in the nation's courts and political arena; how religious freedom and waves of new immigrants and religious revivals fueled competition in the religious marketplace; how movements for social reform–from abolition to civil rights–galvanized men and women to put their faith into political action; and how religious faith influenced conflicts from the American Revolution to the Cold War.
Interweaving documentary footage, historical dramatization and interviews with religious historians, the six-part series is narrated by actor Campbell Scott. Executive producer Michael Sullivan says, "The American story cannot be fully understood without understanding the country's religious history. By examining that history, God in America will offer viewers a fresh, revealing and challenging portrait of the country."
The series explores various themes through emblematic stories of our religious history. It uses the political and spiritual journeys of some of America’s most important historical figures to do this. Some of these are well known; e.g. Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Winthrop. Some are less well know; e.g. Reform Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, Presbyterian scholar Charles Briggs, Frederick Douglass, Anne Hutchison and the Pueblo leader Po’pay.
What is the role that religion has played in social reform in America? This series offers us the finest documentary available on this question. What role has religion played in politics, especially since World War II? Again, this series is as good (and as fair) as anything I have seen.
Let me give you one example. Following World War II America, especially under the influence of President Dwight Eisenhower, adopted strong civil religion as a means for fighting against “godless communism” and the Soviet Union in the Cold War era. In the 1950s we added God to our coins and to our pledge of allegiance. But in the same decade the first attempts to remove overt teaching about God and faith in the public schools also began. I believe the fifth episode (“The Soul of a Nation”) of this series is simply the best presentation of these oft-misunderstood matters that I’ve ever watched. I would urge churches and small groups to see the last two episodes if you want to understand the complicated issue of church and state separation, an issue badly misunderstood on both sides of our present political divide.
One of the most striking contrasts shown in episodes five and six is the difference between the Moral Majority and the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands out as a prophet of righteousness who appealed to faith while he sought to bring justice through our legal system. At the same time MLK refused to be “used” by political leaders, as in his opposition to LBJ when Johnson felt he would not support him as he should with regard to the Vietnam War. King handled power with great caution.
On the other hand the leaders of the Moral Majority desired to elect a president and sought to remain close to government’s power (Reagan and later Bush). Their goal was to overtly control the outcome of issues that mattered to them. many of which had little to do with righteousness. If you’ve ever wondered about the right way to bring the claims of Christ to bear on a civil society then these two episodes will provide plenty of helpful insight for great discussion and fruitful response.
Most Americans have little or no appreciation for the delicate balance that we’ve experienced when it comes to the way church and state relate to one another in our constitutional republic. This series will show you how our thinking and practice has developed over the course of our long history. It will also prepare you for some of the new challenges that we face as newer (non-Judeo Christian) religions move into the civic arena of our shared national life.
There are some minor mistakes in the series but this is not entirely surprising. For example, in the first episode the Puritans and Pilgrims are treated as if they are one and the same. And there are notable absences in the story, such as that of the Mormons. But the official Web site will tell you a great deal about how certain decisions were made regarding what to include and what to leave out.
You can actually watch the entire six-part series online. It would be well worth your time. You can also buy, rent or borrow DVDs. I got mine, as always, from my public library. A plethora of online resources will also help discussion and interaction with the series.
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My wife and I enjoyed this series immensely. It was very well done, especially the parts about 19th century revivalism. The treatment of the Scopes trial was, in our opinion, a tad superficial and simplistic. But that’s to be expected, I guess; a good exploration of Scopes would be a documentary of its own.