Who knew that seventeenth-century Puritan John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts, allowed a reality-TV crew to follow him around? A hand-held camera has captured him clearly as he scribbles in his journals with a white quill pen or stares gloomily out the window while muttering about religious dissident Anne Hutchinson. Now he’s berating Hutchinson face to face; when she dares to answer back, he looks so startled you’d think he’d accidentally swallowed a piece of Plymouth Rock.

Whoops, sorry. Now I realize the Winthrop cameos are just more cheesy reenactments in God in America, an otherwise commendable new documentary examining how religion has propelled and reflected the nation’s civic and political life. Airing on PBS on three consecutive evenings, starting October 11, the six-hour program abounds in stagy dramatizations that suggest second-rate Colonial Williamsburg actors moonlighting on public-access channels.

That’s too bad, because God in America—or at least the two-thirds of it furnished to reviewers before press time—has much to recommend it. Peppered with insights from a battalion of religious historians—including Boston College’s Mark S. Massa, SJ; Boston University’s Stephen Prothero; and the University of Notre Dame’s John McGreevy and Mark A. Noll—the series manages to be accessible without being too superficial. And it ponders themes that feel highly relevant in a day when mosque-building and Koran-burning plans spark punditry and furor.

Concise but not rushed, the documentary is particularly good at balancing historical overview (summaries of demographic patterns, viral ideas, theological trends, etc.) with succinct evocations of seminal personalities. Episode 1 kicks off with the arrival in New Mexico of Spanish conquistadors and missionaries and goes on to chronicle the latter’s troubled relationship with Pueblo Indians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But then we quickly glide ahead to Puritan Massachusetts, where we encounter Winthrop and the smart, confident Hutchinson, whose insistence that God had told her that she would be saved challenged the Puritan belief that one could not receive such assurance.

Other memorable characters soon come into view. There’s eighteenth-century celebrity preacher George Whitefield, who drew audiences by the thousands with a message about spiritual rebirth. And Methodist preacher James Finley, who wrote about the life-altering epiphany he’d experienced at the dramatic 1801 Cane Ridge Revival in Kentucky. (So strong was the vogue for revivals at the time that by 1811 more than a million Americans went to at least one a year.)

The documentary devotes a good deal of time to Bishop John Hughes, who—against the backdrop of the anti-Catholic sentiment that greeted waves of immigration in the early nineteenth century—battled for the rights of Catholic children in the Protestant-controlled New York school system. There’s also an enthralling segment about nineteenth-century Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a pioneer of Reform Judaism who scandalized some American Jews by serving littleneck clams and other nonkosher food at a banquet honoring Hebrew Union College’s first graduating class.

God in America examines the centuries-spanning tug-of-war between a vision of religion as a social binding agent and one of faith as inescapably personal and internal. It ponders Americans’ sometimes ambivalent feelings about the principles enshrined in the First Amendment. It alludes to the perennial rivalry between reason and emotion in theological and social discourse. And it repeatedly references the notion of American exceptionalism: in its theological dimension, the theory that God has chosen this country for a special, superior destiny. The documentary looks at how this conviction motivated the Puritans, fanned the flames of the Civil War, and fueled the energies of William Jennings Bryan.

As these few examples indicate, God in America is well stocked with thought-provoking material. Alas, the overall effect is sadly marred by the dorky reenactments, which often feature historical personages (Winthrop, Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and many more) talking—eloquently—to themselves. These sequences introduce a painful air of phoniness to the series. And the premise that implicitly underlies the technique—that audiences don’t have the patience for information unswaddled in Madame Tussauds–style trappings—is hardly flattering. But then, we live in an age of infotainment, from cable news channels to video games depicting the Afghan war.

To end this review on a less cranky note: God in America does send a slightly reassuring message to anyone distressed about what seems to be swelling anti-Islamic feeling and rhetoric in the United States. At the end of a sequence about nineteenth-century anti-Catholicism, Prothero returns to a theory he’d advanced earlier in the program: that Americans have often seen their history as a version of the Exodus story. “We have this idea of freedom in our heads from the beginning,” he says. “And we have this story about a people who are enslaved—which is wrong—who move, through the power of God and their own efforts, to freedom—which is right.... And even when we are doing things that are persecutory, and that are immoral, and that are enslaving other people, that story is operating on us as we’re doing it. And I think gradually we hear the story, and we hear the voice that says ‘stop.’”

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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Published in the 2010-10-08 issue: View Contents
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