Miniseries traces religion's U.S. impact across 400 years

(RNS) A new six-part PBS series explores how deeply religion has
influenced and informed American public life, from Catholic
missionaries' first encounter with Native Americans to the political
marriage between the GOP and religious conservatives.

"God in America," a presentation from the PBS "American Experience"
and "Frontline" series, will air over three consecutive nights starting
Monday (Oct. 11). The series is an intense exploration of the complex
dynamics that animate a nation that is both deeply religious yet without
an official religion.

The series interweaves interviews with experts, documentary and
dramatization to tell a compelling story that stretches from John
Winthrop to Jerry Falwell.

"God in America" is the latest in a succession of studies that
examine the role of religion in American public life. The recent
Religious Knowledge Survey, released last month by the Pew Forum on
Religion & Public Life found that atheists and agnostics, Jews and
Mormons, scored higher than the two groups that have had a profound
impact on American religion, evangelicals and Catholics.

In addition, an upcoming book, "American Grace: How Religion Divides
and Unites Us" by scholars Robert Putnam and David Campbell, finds "a
new religious fault line" in American culture. Putnam and Campbell argue
that Americans' increasing tolerance of diversity -- religious and
otherwise -- presents a unique opportunity and challenge for the nation.

Rather than offering a case study in history, "God in America"
quickly ties the past to the present. Director David Belton, a British
native, says the series prompted a significant shift in his own view of
American life.

"It affected me quite a lot," Belton said in an interview. "I'd
studied American politics in college. I think I suddenly realized how
little I did understand about America.

"There's a view in Europe and in Britain that American religion is a
bit odd. In England, we don't talk about religion. ... We're sort of
reluctant to discuss it. Now a lot of things in America make sense."

A central component of the series is the use of dramatic
reenactments to help make history come alive through the spirituality
and struggles of key historical figures. Viewers walk alongside
Franciscan friars in New Mexico, sit in on a debate between Puritan John
Winthrop and dissident Anne Hutchinson and pack a suitcase with
fundamentalist politician William Jennings Bryan on his way to argue
against evolution.

Other re-imagined figures include abolitionist Frederick Douglass,
Reform Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, civil rights leader Martin Luther King
Jr. and evangelist Billy Graham, among others.

Belton says every word of dialogue in the reenactments was actually
said or written.

"We needed to tell the proper narrative story of what had happened.
We also had to reflect that there were new battles going on in people's
minds, new questions. Would they be able to live and exist in a new
country? Would they find that they had a religious place here?"

The series intricately considers the roots of religious liberty and
its development in America's courts and politics. It also probes how
religious ideas shaped later reform movements and created a competitive
religious marketplace.

"That's what America really needs to understand about itself,"
Belton said. "It has this extraordinary religious heritage that informs
everything it does and why it thinks the way it does. It's not just a
series of religious documents that make people feel free, that were
written by Jefferson and Madison. America feels a need to be

Cecile S. Holmes

Cecile S. Holmes writes for Religion News Service.

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