NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–I don’t know how many conservatives in the U.S. regularly watch PBS historical documentaries, but I am one of them. So when I learned the network would be airing a six-hour documentary Oct. 11-13 titled “God in America,” I was hooked.
A joint venture between the PBS programs “American Experience” and “Frontline,” the three-night series follows the history of religion in America, from the 1600s to the present day.
Of course, watching a PBS documentary on such a subject can be a chore, because half your brain is trying to enjoy the program while the other half is taking mental notes and constantly wondering: Is that true? That’s partially because God in America, like most television documentaries on religion, is lacking in orthodox, evangelical representation. (If I hear something that doesn’t sound right, I’ll just research it.)
Yet after previewing all six hours I came to a surprising conclusion. “God in America” — while it has its flaws, a few of them major — is worth watching. It’s far from being a church production, but it has plenty of strengths and just might spark some Christians into learning more about the history of their faith.
Covering 400 years of the history of religion in America in a mere six hours would be next to impossible, and the documentary doesn’t pretend to accomplish that. Instead of being a decade-by-decade retelling of religion in the U.S, it provides highlights and sticks with each topic for 10-15 minutes apiece. In the first episode, for example, the story of the Puritans and Anne Hutchinson is followed by the story of George Whitefield, which is followed by the story of Baptist pastor Jeremiah Moore, which is followed by the story of the Cane Ridge Revival. In the span of 90 minutes, you’ve covered 150 years.
The segment about Moore alone makes it worth watching the first night’s episode, particularly if you’re a Baptist or a lover of religious freedom. Moore was a Baptist pastor from Virginia who, in 1773, was arrested and thrown in jail. His crime? Preaching without a license. In colonial America, Virginians paid taxes to support the Anglican Church.
“The Baptists were drawing converts away from Anglican parishes,” the documentary narrator says. “… The colony responded by restricting where non-Anglicans could preach.”
Moore was only one of many Baptists who refused to get a license and was arrested. The documentary tells how Moore and other Baptists found an advocate in Thomas Jefferson, who — despite rejecting Christ’s resurrection and the biblical miracles — believed the Baptists should have the liberty to believe and preach as they wish. As a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, Jefferson sponsored a bill that ended state-sponsored religion and gave freedom to all faiths. Over the objections of Patrick Henry, it passed, and it provided a model for the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment granting religious freedom.
The document’s spotlight on the civil war — which will air in Part 2 — is another strength. Highlighting divisions within Methodism, it shows how denominations and churches split over the issue of slavery, each claiming biblical support. It was Lincoln himself who observed that at least one side must be wrong because “God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.”
Part 3 covers the debate over prayer in schools, the rise of Billy Graham’s ministry, the role of the black church in the civil rights movement, and the growth of religious conservatives in politics. The episode makes clear that Christianity played a key role in Martin Luther King Jr.’s righteous stance, and it plays a clip from an early sermon with him shouting to a chorus of amens, “If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong!'”
The segment on the growth of the social conservative political movement also is mostly balanced, showing how the Roe v. Wade decision provided the spark and Francis Schaeffer provided the intellectual drive for evangelicals like Jerry Falwell — formerly non-political — to take public moral stands.
But the program has its faults. It fumbles at times over theological language and interpretation, saying, for instance, that Baptists believe one must be “baptized as an adult.” (Baptized after conversion is the correct answer). Its depiction of the Scopes “monkey” trial is completely slanted to the left theologically and is easily the series’ low point. It wrongly implies there aren’t any legitimate conservative evangelical arguments on evolution. (A brief mention that at least half of Americans still reject evolution would have been nice.) And its concluding thoughts about President George W. Bush will leave many social conservative squirming. (Richard Cizik, a political and social moderate, is seen calling Bush’s two terms a “huge disappointment” to evangelicals. A counter argument, such as by Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land — who believes the Bush White House was the most pro-life administration since Roe — would have helped.)
Overall, though, God in America does a pretty good job of providing a quick overview of religion in America. Perhaps Christians will watch it and discover, as I have, that learning about the great heroes of the faith is inspirational and can serve to strengthen what one already believes. Maybe they’ll also learn what I have learned: Watching a TV documentary is like eating an appetizer — it makes you want more. If you get inspired and want to read more about the subject, check out Mark Noll’s “History of Christianity in the United States and Canada.” And, if you want to go the extra mile and read about the history of Christianity for the past 2,000 years, check out Bruce Shelley’s “Church History in Plain Language” or the reference book “131 Christians Everyone Should Know.”
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.