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October 11, 2010
Since the days when the Puritan "city on a hill" beckoned on the horizon of the New World, religious faith and belief have forged America's ideals, molded its identity and shaped its sense of mission at home and abroad.
For the first time on television, God in America explores the tumultuous 400-year history of the intersection of religion and public life in America, from the first European settlements to the 2008 presidential election. A co-production of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and FRONTLINE, this six-hour series examines how religious dissidents helped shape the American concept of religious liberty and the controversial evolution of that ideal in the nation's courts and political arena; how religious freedom and waves of new immigrants and religious revivals fueled competition in the religious marketplace; how movements for social reform -- from abolition to civil rights -- galvanized men and women to put their faith into political action; and how religious faith influenced conflicts from the American Revolution to the Cold War.
Interweaving documentary footage, historical dramatization and interviews with religious historians, the six-part series is narrated by actor Campbell Scott and includes appearances by actors Michael Emerson (as John Winthrop), Chris Sarandon (as Abraham Lincoln) and Keith David (as Frederick Douglass), among others.
"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."
As God in America unfolds, it reveals the deep roots of American religious identity in the universal quest for liberty and individualism -- ideas that played out in the unlikely political union between Thomas Jefferson and defiant Baptists to oppose the established church in Virginia and that were later embraced by free-wheeling Methodists and maverick Presbyterians. Catholic and Jewish immigrants battled for religious liberty and expanded its meaning. In their quest for social reform, movements as different as civil rights and the religious right found authority and energy in their religious faith. The fight to define religious liberty fueled struggles between America's secular and religious cultures on issues from evolution to school prayer, and American individualism and the country's experiment in religious liberty were the engine that made America the most religiously diverse nation on earth.
God in America comprises six 60-minute episodes:
Episode One, "A New Adam"
The first hour of God in America explores the origins of America's unique religious landscape -- how the New World challenged and changed the faiths the first European settlers brought with them. In New Mexico, the spiritual rituals of the Pueblo Indians collided with the Catholic faith of Franciscan missionaries, ending in a bloody revolt. In New England, Puritan leader John Winthrop faced off against religious dissenters from within his own ranks. And a new message of spiritual rebirth from evangelical preachers like George Whitefield swept through the American colonies, upending traditional religious authority and kindling a rebellious spirit that converged with the political upheaval of the American Revolution.
Episode Two, "A New Eden"
Hour two considers the origins of America's experiment in religious liberty, examining how the unlikely alliance between evangelical Baptists and enlightenment figures such as Thomas Jefferson forged a new concept of religious freedom. In the competitive religious marketplace unleashed by this freedom, upstart denominations raced ahead of traditional faiths and a new wave of religious revivals swept thousands of converts into the evangelical fold and inspired a new gospel of social reform. In a fierce political struggle, Catholic immigrants, led by New York Archbishop John Hughes, challenged Protestant domination of public schools and protested the daily classroom practice of reading from the King James Bible.
Episode Three, "A Nation Reborn"
Hour three explores how religion suffused the Civil War. As slavery split the nation in two, Northern abolitionists and Southern slaveholders turned to the Bible to support their cause. Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass condemned Christianity for sanctioning slavery. In the White House, Abraham Lincoln struggled to make sense of the war's carnage and the death of his young son. The president, who previously had put his faith in reason over revelation, embarked on a spiritual journey that transformed his ideas about God and the ultimate meaning of the war.
Episode Four, "A New Light"
During the 19th century, the forces of modernity challenged traditional faith and drove a wedge between liberal and conservative believers. Bohemian immigrant Isaac Mayer Wise embraced change and established Reform Judaism in America while his opponents adhered to Old World traditions. In New York, Presbyterian biblical scholar Charles Briggs sought to wed his evangelical faith with modern biblical scholarship, leading to his trial for heresy. In the 1925 Scopes evolution trial, Christian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan faced off against freethinker Clarence Darrow in a battle between scientific and religious truth.
Episode Five, "Soul of a Nation"
Hour Five explores the post-World War II era, when rising evangelist Billy Graham tried to inspire a religious revival that fused faith with patriotism in a Cold War battle with "godless communism." As Americans flocked in record numbers to houses of worship, non-believers and religious minorities appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to test the constitutionality of religious expression in public schools. And civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as a modern-day prophet, calling upon the nation to honor both biblical teachings and the founders' democratic ideals of equal justice.
Episode Six, "Of God and Caesar"
The final hour of God in America brings the series into the present day, exploring the religious and political aspirations of conservative evangelicals' moral crusade over divisive social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Their embrace of presidential politics would end in disappointment and questions about the mixing of religion and politics. Across America, the religious marketplace expanded as new waves of immigrants from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America made the United States the most religiously diverse nation on earth. In the 2008 presidential election, the re-emergence of a religious voice in the Democratic Party brought the country to a new plateau in its struggle to reconcile faith with politics. God in America closes with reflections on the role of faith in the public life of the country, from the ongoing quest for religious liberty to the enduring idea of America as the "city on a hill" envisioned by the Puritans nearly 400 years ago.
Published October 11, 2010