God in America

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Article Reviews
God in America (American Experience and Frontline) on PBS

With recent news of American's lack of religious knowledge, God in America is an important program. Americans were correct about only half of questions on the Pew Forum on a Religion and Public Life questionnaire, though the greater amount of education an individual had, the better they did on the quiz.

Even more educated viewers, though, would likely learn something from God in America, a six-part documentary broadcast on PBS October 11-13. The series leads from the first Catholics in what would become the American Southwest and Puritans in New England, through revivals, the civil war, immigration, fundamentalism, and civil rights, to politics and religion today. It features interviews with historians as well as "historic dramatization." The dramatizations sometimes slow the documentary or simply offer something more visually interesting than talking heads, but they are highly effective when the actors read from historical documents that their characters wrote.

While much of what the documentary covers is basic to those familiar with American history, hearing these historical documents is valuable, as is seeing the development of themes that continue through today. For instance, there's the tension between an individuals' freedom and ability to approach scripture and faith on their own and the good of community and interpretation coming from the pulpit. The relationship of government and faith, and especially the idea that God is on your side, is also a focus, discussed in the context of the founding of the country, the civil war, and today's political debates around moral issues.

God in America is mostly a story of Christianity--most of America's history has been Protestant. The last two episode promises to focus on religious diversity in the United States (U.S. Catholic was sent previews of the first four episodes). In addition to exploring Catholics and Native Americans relationship in the Southwest, the struggle of non-Protestant immigrants is another prominent theme throughout the programs, including the establishment of Catholic schools in the United States.

There may be stories left out from the past 400 years, but the six hours thoroughly covers the most important themes of the intersection of religion and public life. Religion, we see in God in America, has always been a source of both inspiration and division in the United States.