The New Jerusalem


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...

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About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.