January 16, 2021

An Unprecedented Opportunity: “God in America”

By Chaplain Mike

I have not been able to watch much of Frontline’s “God in America” series on PBS in recent days. But I definitely plan to do so. The little that I have seen was remarkable television, even more so because of the pervasive drought of thoughtful religious discussion on the airwaves.

I hope to be commenting on this series in days to come.

Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, rightly observes, “Americans are awash in a sea of faith, but their knowledge about religious faiths and religious history often runs as shallow as their commitment to religion runs deep.”

This is an unprecedented opportunity for Christians to begin to address that ignorance.

Of course, we are all aware that those of us with evangelical beliefs will not agree on every interpretation offered in a series like this. So what? What a great opportunity to take the place of learners and enter a discussion with our neighbors about the faith and how it works out in our cultural context. You can even download a “Viewing Party Kit” to help you set up gatherings for watching the shows with others.

In addition, there is a wealth of resources that accompany and complement this series, including an extensive series of lectures sponsored by the Forum Network curated around the “God in America” programs.

“God in America” consists of six episodes that explore American faith from the first European settlement to the 2008 elections. You can watch them online if that’s more convenient for you.

“The American story cannot be fully understood without understanding the country’s religious history,” says series executive producer Michael Sullivan. “By examining that history, God in America will offer viewers a fresh, revealing and challenging portrait of the country.”

I hope those in our IM community will take full advantage of this unprecedented opportunity.


  1. I really enjoyed it, but many aspects of American Christianity were left out. If you think C.W.F. Walther, the founder of one of the largest denominations in the country, deserved some recognition, you might be disappointed to know he is not mentioned once. The same for Bishop Fulton Sheen, whose television program during the fifties rivaled Milton Berle in ratings. Other great minds of Christian faith – such as Reinhold Niebuhr or Paul Tillich (who was on the cover of Time magazine) – were not mentioned once. It seemed like one goal of the series was to explain how we got to the 80’s and the moral majority, which they accomplished. But the result was to reinforce the stereotype that American Christians are mostly born-again Southern Baptists. I thought would have been helpful had they mentioned Niebuhr’s criticism of Billy Graham.

    I knew Frank Schaeffer had a lot of influence in the politicizing of evangelicals, but I didn’t know Jerry Falwell had no interest in politics until Francis Schaeffer talked him into it – who himself had no interest in politics until Frank talked him into it. Now Frank says the whole this was a big mistake. Nice.

  2. Scott Miller says

    What I have seen of the series has been mixed. The parts on Lincoln and Douglass and the Civil War were outstanding. The parts on Billy Graham’s influence during the Kennedy election of 1960 was great. The only issue I had was that the second half of each episode switches gears so dramatically that it had trouble maintaining the momentum for the second half of each episode.

  3. The Scopes trial portion was really interesting. Makes me want to read “Inherit the Wind”.

    • In addition to reading “Inherit the Wind”, I’d recommend actually reading the transcript of the Scopes trial. While I agree with Darrow and think his take down of Bryan was pretty amazing, “Inherit the Wind” makes Bryan seem like an uninformed hick, which he certainly was not. You see this in the trial transcript, but not in the play. Also the play makes the trial out to be some big fight between Scopes and the town, when really he was a willing participant, volunteering for the case to drum up tourism. (This isn’t to say that the movie version of the play isn’t wonderful. But it bothers me that it’s become the official story of the trial. Scopes lost and it wasn’t until the Sputnik scare of the 50’s that evolution was taught in most high schools again.)

      (Interesting note- when I mentioned Bryan to my mom who is a died in the wool 60’s radical, she started going on about his progressive politics- literally progressive, as he was part of that movement. He viewed evolution as a conservative science meant to destroy the religion of the working man and institute an eugenics program at their expense.)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        In his alternate role teaching “the history of science”, Stephen Jay Gould wrote a few essays on the subject of the Scopes Monkey Trial, including one which traced Bryan’s career and motivations. They’re scattered over his essay collections (Ever Since Darwin, Panda’s Thumb, Hen’s Teeth & Horses’ Toes, etc.)

  4. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    Ooh, you can watch it online. I’ll have to check it out.

  5. Prodigal Daughter says

    I’ve caught large portions of it, but need to finish watching the rest. It has been very engaging and helpful in explaining how we as a country got to where we are in religion and politics.

  6. Mike (the other chaplain) says

    I really liked it. They couldn’t cover everything, but much of it was fair and balanced. The civil rights segment was particularly good.

  7. I really enjoyed it – up until the modern era. Maybe it’s because the researchers and writers couldn’t be as dispassionate and objective about issues they themselves are in the midst of. But from what I saw they used the tired “Science versus Religion” way of casting Christianity in the modern era. For example, they said that “scientific” Americans began to looked back at the miracles in the Bible and say, “Science doesn’t allow for these”, and so were finally able to dismiss the Bible and become intellegent, thanks to science.

    Roger Ebert’s post Jeff linked to this weekend had a much better view on the matter of miracles. I was disappointed in PBS on that one.

  8. I saw some parts of the series, and it was pretty interesting. One part I saw had Michael Emerson (Benjamin Linus from Lost fame) was portraying John Winthrop. It was pretty intense. I actually thought it did a pretty good job of portraying all the people involved as real people and not simple caricatures. For example, they talked about the Scopes Trial, and they portrayed William Jennings Bryan in a way that was not really unflattering. It was certainly better than many other portrayals I’ve seen.

  9. I thought the portion dealing with post-WW2 America was very interesting, particularly the contrasts drawn between Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr.

  10. I am in the process of watching this entire series.

    I have just finised the first episode – and it is fanastic viewing.

  11. We watched most of it – well done, overall. I especially liked the MLK stuff. Took a course about his life and ministry in seminary, so it was nice to have that background.

  12. amazing! thank you!!

    • also, i felt that the series really helped to illustrate the north american articulation of Christianity within the broad canopy of church history. as a result of watching this documentary i know for certain myself, and i suspect that the same holds true for many here at imonk, that i do not acquiesce to a north american articulation of the gospel. it really helped me to see how the church in north america picked up the batton and ran with it. it’s comforting to know that we currently, as in generations past, are getting it wrong mostly, (some things right), and only occasionally are there these lightning rod figures who really seem to get it. unfortunately they get killed, but their wake re-directs the course of Christendom in north america.

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