How religious faith and belief forged the nation’s ideals, molded its identity and shaped its sense of mission at home and abroad is the subject of a fascinating PBS series, “God in America.”
A co-production of American Experience and Frontline, the program explores and illuminates the intersection of religion and public life over America’s 400-year history.
The first two-hour program airs at 9 p.m. today on Maine Public Television. Subsequent episodes will be shown at the same time on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The six-hour 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.
“God in America” interweaves documentary footage, historical dramatization and interviews with religious historians. Narrated by actor Campbell Scott, the series includes appearances by actors Michael Emerson as John Winthrop, Christopher Sarandon as Abraham Lincoln and Keith David as Frederick Douglass, among others. Emerson is best known for his role on the ABC series “Lost.”
The scholarly star of “God in America” is Stephen Prothero, a professor of religious studies at Boston University and author of “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn’t.” In interviews, Prothero weaves together strands of the nation’s secular and religious history in a way that will make viewers smack their foreheads and exclaim, “Well, duh. Of course that’s how they are connected. Of course that’s how we got from there to here.”
For example, the roots of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority can be traced to the rise in evangelical churches in the late 19th century and their religious leaders’ negative reactions to the acceptance of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” by the scientific community and educators. That led to the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial.
Prothero points out in Episode 4 that although teacher John Scopes was convicted, the live radio broadcast of the 1925 trial held William Jennings Bryan and, by extension, all evangelicals up to ridicule. Bryan died a week after the trial and evangelicals withdrew from the public square until the 1970s when Falwell and others spoke out against the growing counterculture movement.
Other revelations for viewers may include: how Virginia baptists influenced Thomas Jefferson’s support for inclusion of religious freedom in the Constitution; the fact that the president who added the words “under God” to the pledge of allegiance was not baptized until after he was inaugurated; and how schools that used the Bible as a teaching tool stopped receiving public funding.
“God in America” is a fascinating and compelling history well worth six hours of viewers’ time. Everyone who tunes in most likely will learn something new about how religion has shaped the nation and get a hint of how it again is redefining America in the 21st century.