DVD review: PBS ‘God in America’ series addresses religious tensionsWritten by Eric McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Addressing the role of religion in society is always a tricky thing. Believers are quick to defend, often being uncritical in their argument and demeanor. Nonbelievers, equally uncritical, either fain little interest or wish the religious would simply go away. It is no wonder that one of the two taboos in the polite meanderings of a social gathering is the discussion of religion. The other taboo is politics. Combine the two and civil conversation becomes difficult, at best.
But this is exactly what the producers of two PBS programs set out to do. The folks at Frontline and American Experience pooled their collective talent in documentary making to give us “God in America: How Religious Liberty Shaped America.” This six week series airing on PBS begins with the Spanish conquistadors and the English pilgrims. It ends with the rise of the so-called “evangelical right” and the influx of new religious vitality from Islamic, Asian, and Latino influences brought by recent immigrants to our country.
In between there are all the usual characters: Pilgrim governor John Winthrop struggling with what to do with the contrarian Anne Hutchinson; a religiously ambivalent Thomas Jefferson, working with the Baptists against his own Anglican Church to create the “wall of separation between Church and State;” a crusading Archbishop John Hughes advocating for the rights of Catholic children to be educated in heavily protestant New York City; a soulful President Abraham Lincoln who was forced by the civil war to engage and clarify his own feelings about God. The list goes on and on.
But there are also some unusual characters as well. I particularly enjoyed the story telling around the life of James Finley, a character from my own Methodist tradition I knew little about. The story about 19th century Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise and the formation of the “reform movement in Judaism” was also new ground for me. In all cases, the storytelling is crisp, engaging and undergirded with a subtle and simply shared soundtrack of classic American hymnody.
Good storytelling is not the only thing that happens in this series. The series also addresses the creative tensions religious life in America brings. The tension between “community” order and “individual” freedom; between scriptural literalism and the metaphorical interpretation; between science and faith; between political entanglements and keeping prophetic distance from politicians are all explored. The discussion on the work of Billy Graham and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was compelling. Mr. Graham’s preoccupation with befriending presidents despite Dr. King’s desire to maintain a “prophetic distance” from these leaders reminded me why I find the work of Dr. King so much more challenging and interesting.
The series ends with President Reagan reclaiming the puritan vision of making America the “city on a hill” and President Obama celebrating the rich religious diversity found in our country. But the writers of the series did not stop there. While much of America has been shaped by religion, they remind those of us who are religious that much of who we are as religious people has been shaped by the American spirit. This spirit that challenged the Puritans and Anglicans to make room for Baptists and Methodists, challenged Protestants to make room for Catholics and Christians to make room for Jews. This spirit that today challenges Christians and Jews to make room for Muslims, Sheiks, Hindus, Buddhists, the spiritual but not religious and even non-believers. This is not a bad lesson for we religious types to remember— for in remembering it we realize that someone in our history had to make room for us.
Eric McGlade serves as pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Bowling Green.