For all our bragging about separating church and state, throughout our nation's history, religion has never been on the sidelines. If you're going to watch only six hours of serious TV this fall, spend it all on the joint Frontline and American Experience documentary God in America (WGBH Channel 2, October 11-13 from 9 to 11 pm), which traces the paths of America's religious, political, and social thinking since the 17th century. Sounds a little heavy, right? Fair point. This is a short, but never simplified, explanation of how democracy's ideals influenced belief, faith, and practice — and vice versa.
What makes the three-nighter a standout is that it explains this complex interrelationship without selling anything. The narration, dramatic re-enactments, and expert commentaries maintain an academic distance from questions of a given faith's validity, and by treating all denominations as equal players, they avoid the theological distractions that effectively censor most discussions of God's role in real life. Is God a primitive myth or a divine force? God in America doesn't care. Belief, revival, evangelicalism, salvation, and reform have been powerful factors shaping America, and the best perspective from which to understand that is disinterest.
The first two hours (the slowest-paced installment) look at Colonial America as the product of the European Reformation — the New World as a sanctuary and beta site for the radical Protestant notion that man and God can communicate without priests or other anointed intermediaries. GiA contends that this culturally ingrained anti-orthodoxy led to the Constitution's disinclination to establish an Old World–style official state religion. That in turn empowered laity to define their own beliefs. Such unprecedented freedom enabled the squabbles and schisms that created so many religious cults and denominations and, eventually, the evolution of the concept of a "personal" God of salvation into that of a God of Nations who had a "special relationship" — a "covenant" — with America.
Hour three, which examines how this God behaved when the nation was in civil war, is equally revealing but considerably more emotional. It makes the case that Lincoln's own emerging religious convictions and acceptance of the notion of personal andnational salvation was the catalyst for both Emancipation and the total-war campaigns that defeated the South. All our wars since have enjoyed Biblical sanction.
From there, GiA looks at how immigrant Jews, unable to accommodate Orthodox practice into modern America, developed reform editions that were easier to live with. Protestant groups subsequently did the same, exchanging the doctrine of a word-perfect sacrosanct Bible for beliefs more compatible with rational thought. And that provoked the Fundamentalist backlash that haunts current affairs to this day. (The final two hours bring things up to the present, but previews of the concluding installment were not available as of this writing.)
What's outlined above are some of the cause-and-effect events this remarkable series covers, but there's a lot more on offer. GiA also addresses the less tangible trajectory of Americans' perceptions of the God-man relationship — perceptions that, as much as politics and personalities, have influenced our past. In total, the programs do nothing less than explain how we got where we are today in an original and revealing light. Brilliantly researched and documented, God in America will make you a believer in the power of religious freedom. It's like being born again . . . intellectually.
Clif Garboden is a freelance writer who believes in the power of television.