God in America

God in America: How religion shaped the American experience

This new three-part six-hour series premieres on PBS this week and takes on the enormous task of tracing the influence of Catholic and Protestant Christianity and Judaism on the American psyche, daily life and politics. In fact, the series suggests that the American identity and character is inherently religious.

Check your local listings; the broadcast dates and times can vary widely. Or you can watch full episodes online at your convenience: PBS.org/godinamerica.

This joint Frontline and American Experience project, directed by David Belton (who produced the 2005 film “Beyond the Gates” about a priest during the Rwandan genocide in 1994), and narrated by actor Campbell Scott, is a documentary with some dramatized segments . It begins with the arrival of the Franciscans from Mexico into what is now the American southwest in the 1530’s and their first tragic encounters with Native Americans. From there the narrative moves to Massachusetts and the Puritans, onto New York and the story of Archbishop John Hughes and marches straight into the Civil War and Lincoln’s (played by Chris Sarandon), ponderings about slavery. The 20th century looks at the reemergence of conservative Christianity confluence with politics.

The segment about Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) is very interesting. She was tried by both civil and church courts in the late 1630s for teaching women and men about the Bible in her home and her doctrinal views on grace. The church trial ended in her excommunication from the Puritan church (for those that may not know, the Hutchinson River Parkway in New York is named for Anne, who with most of her children, was killed by Indians in the Bronx where the family had moved).

A considerable amount of time is spent on New York’s first Catholic archbishop, John Hughes (1797-1864). He took on the public school system of New York City over the use of the Protestant Bible and teachings in schools. He wanted separate Catholic schools supported by taxes. Failing this, he founded the first Catholic school system in the United States.

The series does not consider American-born religious cults such as Jehovah Witnesses or Mormons.

Separation of Church and State may be protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in public life, but the interpretation of this principle has a long history. This series demonstrates that while it may exist on paper, the internalized struggle to separate church and state continues to complicate political life, legal issues and policy.

In June I attended the Religious Communication Congress in Chicago. In one of the sessions, a lay Jesuit missionary in Taiwan spoke of his personal dedication to living and promoting “tolerance” between religions. An American-born Islamic woman waited until all the panelists had spoken. She stood up, and in a very dynamic and articulate presentation, proclaimed that she doesn’t want tolerance; who wants to be the object of “forbearance”, like something annoying or burdensome that has to be borne with? She asked for “respect” and proposed that this is the only way to take the next best step as citizens in the United States today.

"God in America" traces main personalities and events in our religious history; it is not complete or very deep. As the United States continues to be a nation of immigrants, people bring their faiths and customs with them, the series shows that some of the same challenges that the country faced in its first centuries of life exist today. We have only to think of the ongoing controversy in Lower Manhattan over the building of an Islamic Cultural Center.

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