‘God in America’: A Nation’s History in Religion

by | October 8, 2010 at 6:37 AM | TV News

'Lost's Michael Emerson as John Winthrop in the Miniseries 'God in America' (Photo: PBS/Anthony Tieuli)

'Lost's Michael Emerson as John Winthrop in the Miniseries 'God in America' (Photo: PBS/Anthony Tieuli)


BY: Frazier Moore

NEW YORK – Consider the blessings and demands that await a consumer at any supermarket, with its dizzying array of choices to be made. Toothpaste, soda, laundry detergent — whatever. Every product comes in countless variations and competing brands.

Now take that decision-making burden and endow it with the high moral stakes of conflicting spiritual values.

Such has been the hurly-burly of religious observance in America. For four centuries, this has been a land where religious liberty was a notion held sacred, even as the nature of “liberty” was hotly debated.

The pursuit of liberty spurred breakthroughs in religious expression. The available options for religious observance were multiplying.

All of that is examined by ‘God in America,’ a sweeping three-night, six-hour survey of rough-and-tumble competition in what the series calls the religious marketplace.

This series traces how religion helped define America — and how, early on, the prospect of religious freedom in the New World helped clarify how settlers’ emerging appetite for individualism could also be fed by other, secular-based freedoms. Being an American was validated as a cause endorsed by God.

Put another way (according to the film): Religious liberty became a founding principle that would shape America’s identity.

Airing Monday through Wednesday at 9 p.m. EDT on PBS, ‘God in America’ is a co-production of ‘American Experience‘ and ‘Frontline.’

With religious faith as its narrative thread, it tells the story of America in a fresh and unexpected fashion, interweaving archival footage, interviews with religious historians and dramatizations by noted actors (including ‘Lost‘s Michael Emerson as Puritan leader John Winthrop; Keith David as writer, abolitionist, statesman Frederick Douglass; Toby Jones as George Whitefield, America’s first evangelical preacher; and Chris Sarandon as Abraham Lincoln).

The series serves as a wide-ranging crash course — which is just what many people need today, in the view of its executive producer.

“America has a religious literacy problem,” says Michael Sullivan. “Americans are very religious, but also tend to be ignorant about religions other than their own, as well as about their country’s religious history.”

Unfolding with remarkable seamlessness, the saga begins in New Mexico, where the spiritual rituals of the Pueblo Indians collided with the Catholic faith of Franciscan missionaries, who assumed their church would prevail as the authoritative spiritual force. Then a bloody revolt by the Pueblos sent the Spanish missionaries packing in 1680.

The series then charts the birth of a nation where religious liberty was made explicit — though not without a struggle. A few decades later, Catholic immigrants were forced to challenge the legality of Protestant domination of public schools.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s faith was put to the test as he went through a spiritual change that had national implications.

The 1925 Scopes evolution trial pitted science against religion.

During the civil rights crusade, Martin Luther King Jr. drew on the Bible as well as the Constitution as he campaigned for equal justice.

The series’ final hour explores the religious and political aspirations of conservative evangelicals of the modern day.

Meanwhile, waves of immigrants certified the U.S. as the most religiously diverse nation on Earth, further expanding the religious marketplace. And continuing to generate conflict among these different belief systems, as currently demonstrated by the clash over plans to build an Islamic community center and mosque near the World Trade Center site.

“The debate in lower Manhattan is exactly what the series is about,” says David Belton, director of ‘God in America.’

The questions it raises have been posed throughout the nation’s history, he says, but, however difficult, they always lead to answers: “What is America? Where does it come from? Where does it go next?”

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