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Renegades' religion

Movies | God in America gives more weight to the fringes of faith-based culture than to its roots

Issue: "2010 Election: The Governors," Oct. 23, 2010

From the first arrival of the colonists, America was founded on a certain contrariness. Our Founding Fathers' fathers fled their homeland to practice their faith their way (or the Bible's way, they'd contend). Within a short number of years their descendants found that not only was the spiritual authority of England's church intolerable, so was the civic authority of her king. So it's no surprise that affection for the renegade has always been and remains part of the American character.

But this does not explain why the PBS documentary God in America, airing in three parts over six hours on Oct. 11, 12, and 13, gives far more time and weight to the fringe personalities of religious faith than to those who had a far deeper and wider influence on our culture.

Six hours is scant time to tackle a subject as enormous as how American worship has developed over the last 500 years and how that worship has affected our history. Perhaps that's why director David Belton adheres to the crib notes approach to Christianity, propagating the same old clichés without bothering to explore whether there was something more to, say, the Puritans than grim disapproval and intolerance. Nearly the entire segment on the Puritans is dedicated to dissident Anne Hutchinson, who claimed to hear direct revelations from God. Meanwhile, Jonathan Edwards barely rates a footnote.

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A later segment paints 19th-century heretic Charles Briggs, who argued against the inerrancy of the Bible, as a virtual hero of the faith. Narrator Campbell Scott intones, "Briggs lost his job, but he had started a revolution." This is followed by an unidentified expert commenting, "A number of Christians said, 'Finally, we do not have to accept the entire Bible as a book that has no errors in it. When our brains tell us this story conflicts with this story, we can say yes the Bible is an imperfect document. We don't have to leave reason at the door when we go to worship.'" It would be easy for a religiously illiterate viewer to assume that Briggs' view became the dominant one among Protestants.

Such treatment isn't reserved for Protestants. On the impact of Jewish and Catholic immigrants, the series focuses on Rabbi Isaac Wise, a reformer whose radical teachings provoked fistfights in the temple, and John "Dagger John" Hughes, the bishop whose efforts to have the King James Bible banned from public schools resulted in riots. Orthodox Judaism and Catholic leaders who espoused causes more charitable receive no voice. Such a narrow focus on firebrands does little to serve the producers' stated purpose to "deepen the public understanding of religion and spiritual experience in the life of the nation."

There are notable exceptions. The episode on the role religious faith played in framing our government is far more fair and factual than Christians have come to expect from public broadcasting. Using original documents, including Thomas Jefferson's personal correspondence, and the analysis of experts, God in America illustrates how we have come to misunderstand the framers' purpose for the establishment clause. Likewise, the segment on the development of President Lincoln's faith and how it shaped his view of the Civil War and his actions in emancipating the slaves is also riveting and emotional. Belton doesn't shy away from showing that Lincoln's deepening faith directly led to a shift in his position-a shift that moved him from a pragmatist trying only to preserve the union to a moralist who realized his duty to abolish the greatest evil in American law at that time.

PBS didn't provide WORLD a review copy of the last two hours of the series, which focuses on recent history and the present. We can only hope that it follows the examples of the two exceptions and is more rigorous and thoughtful than the rest.

Megan Basham
Megan Basham

Megan, a regular correspondent for WORLD News Group, is a writer and film critic living in Memphis, Tenn.. She is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All.

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