Faith of our fathers

A PBS series takes a dramatic and timely look at religion in America

Staff writerOctober 7, 2010 

  • Tune in: "God in America" airs at 9 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday on UNC-TV.

  • Three North Carolina scholars - all from Duke University's divinity school in Durham - are among the talking heads in PBS' "God in America."

    Grant Wacker, author of the upcoming "Billy Graham's America," weighs in on the Charlotte-born evangelist.

    Offering background on the episode chronicling the civil rights movement, as led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is Richard Lischer, author of "The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Word That Moved America."

    And Lauren Winner speaks about the battles in Colonial Virginia between the official church, which was Anglican, and the Baptists, who were drawing converts away from Anglican parishes.

    Tim Funk

But the emblematic stories in "God in America" - a joint production of "Frontline" and "American Experience" - also make it clear that conflict has been a constant in religious America, too, with battles in every age to define a country committed to both liberty and social order.

In a narrative that begins pre-Revolution and ends post-9/11, we watch as the country embraces freedom of conscience and freedom to own slaves, makes room for immigrants and demonizes their "alien" faiths, constructs a legal wall separating church and state and equates religious conformity with patriotism.

The six hours are punctuated by sights, sounds and details that re-create the spark of times long past:

In a spare courtroom scene that drips with tension, a defiant Anne Hutchinson - a 17th century citizen of Boston who claims God has spoken to her - is interrogated by a black-robe-wearing John Winthrop, the stern, controlling voice of both government and the Puritan establishment.

During Lincoln's second inaugural address, given more than a year after he had emancipated the slaves, "the crowd was mostly silent," says actor Campbell Scott, the series narrator. But then, when Lincoln reached the halfway point in his speech, Scott adds, "African-Americans in the audience began to repeat 'Bless the Lord' after each sentence."

Charlotte's own Billy Graham, whose media-stoked popularity in the 1950s was akin, one scholar says, to Beatlemania a decade later, delivers a sermon with machine-gunlike force. Speaking under a tent in Los Angeles and later in New York's Madison Square Garden, the young, wavy-haired evangelist becomes the "primary engine of America's Cold War religious revival," grabbing the role of national pastor at a time when Congress voted to print "In God We Trust" on U.S. currency and add "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Among the many virtues of "God in America" - including the actors' subtle performances, expert commentary, the crisp but sweeping narration and the stunning array of visuals - is its timeliness.

Just a few weeks after a Florida preacher threatened to burn the Quran, we learn on the first night of the series that another extremist preacher in the 1700s, one Jim Davenport, ordered his flock to torch the books of a Congregationalist minister in Boston.

Mike Sullivan, executive producer of the $8 million PBS series, said the recent controversy over whether Muslims should be able to build mosques near the site of the 2001 World Trade Center attack and in other parts of the country reminded him of the Protestant animus toward Irish Catholic immigrants in the 1840s. It's a shameful chapter in American history and one retold with rich detail.

"We've been here before," Sullivan said in an interview. "The trend lines tend toward ultimate inclusion [of newcomers with their "different" religions], but we continue to battle over them."

The timing is right

The series also comes barely a week after a survey by the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life found that many religious Americans could use a refresher course in the history and beliefs of religion - their own and others.

The survey participants who knew the most, on average: atheists and agnostics.

Sullivan said he impaneled a group of scholars in 2005 to ask them what Americans needed to know about religion and what PBS could do.

"The consensus was that America had a religious literacy problem," he said. "People were religious, but they had a very shallow understanding of other faiths and certainly of the history of religion in America."

Then Sullivan and his team met with PBS brass, who said they wanted "a comprehensive history of how religious faith and spiritual experience had shaped American life."

And that's what "God in America" is, shining a light on various episodes that still echo in our time.

Spanish imperialists attempt to convert Indians to Catholicism in what is now New Mexico. Slaveholders and abolitionists justify their causes by reciting Scripture. Free-thinking lawyer Clarence Darrow duels with evangelical champion William Jennings Bryan over evolution at the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial. Martin Luther King Jr., a preacher who quotes the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, leads a modern-day Exodus. And a religious right that had long shunned politics as "dirty" suddenly rises up, in reaction to the counterculture of the 1960s and the 1973 Supreme Court ruling allowing abortion, to elect first Ronald Reagan and then, in 2000, an evangelical George W. Bush.

There are omissions. Sullivan, who previously produced a multi-night PBS documentary on the Mormons, barely mentions that America-born religion. And we get only the early Billy Graham, who opposed the election of Catholic John Kennedy and counseled his friend and fellow preacher King to "put the brakes on" his nonviolent marches. The later Graham, a bridge-building figure of ecumenism who stressed God's love and called for an end to nuclear weapons, is absent.

The lasting legacy

Still, "God in America" succeeds and then some in its goal of showing how this religious yet modern country has been mightily affected by faith.

Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, was one of the scholars consulted early on by Sullivan and company. And this author of "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know," is a prominent figure in the series.

Prothero literally has the first and last words.

"It's this new place," he says of America as the series begins, with immigrants from Europe - Puritans and others - looking for more freedom and a new life. "The New World, the new Jerusalem, the new Israel."

tfunk@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5703

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