God in America, a new three-part documentary produced by PBS, explores the historical role of religion in the U.S. The film takes a look at the complex relationship between democracy and religion, and considers the role religion has played in social reform movements from abolition to civil rights. Learn more about the film with this in-depth series Q&A.
You don’t have to look any further than today’s controversies about plans to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero or the threat by a pastor in Florida to burn copies of the Quran to realize how deeply intertwined religion and politics are in the public life of America. These stories are reminders that the struggle for religious liberty and the country’s religious identity is an enduring part of the American story. Those struggles are the major themes and storylines of the God in America series — from the earliest attempts by European settlers to convert Native Americans to Christianity to the religious ideas than animated the political crusades of the civil rights movement and the religious right. To explore more than 400 years of that history is surprising and enlightening journeys that will help viewers understand their country’s history in a fresh way and give rich context to today’s current events.
Why have FRONTLINE and American Experience come together to explore this topic?
The subject matter of God in America benefits from the strengths of both of these iconic series, which last partnered in 2007 to present a four-hour series, The Mormons. American Experience excels at revealing the resonant historical moments that have shaped our common development as a nation and a people. FRONTLINE trains a contemporary reporter’s eye on how the dynamics of history impact on today and inform the future. Together, the two programs bring unusual filmmaking experience and expertise, giving greater depth and perspective to an important discussion.
How were the series’ experts chosen?
Beginning with the film’s initial research and development phase, the God in America team worked with a wide array of scholars with a broad range of interests and expertise, from universities and colleges across the country. Those scholars interviewed in the films were ultimately chosen because they presented the most compelling and illuminating perspectives on the subject, offering historical imagination, their specialized knowledge and expertise and their broad-gauged interests, and a genuine commitment to bringing a complicated and controversial history to a public audience.
Why does God in America seem to focus on Protestant Christian denominations?
In fact, the series contains several major historical chapters on Catholicism and Judaism, and also explores the rich diversity of the contemporary American religious marketplace –with its millions of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and non-believers. But the historical story of God in America tracks back to the earliest days of the country and for much of that history, the central religious and political struggles were dominated by those of Protestant faiths. Even today, with all its religious diversity, the U.S. remains 75% Christian, with half of the population identifying themselves as Protestants.
Is God in America suggesting that America is a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles?
God in America reports that America’s Founding Fathers were Christian and were guided in many ways by Christian teachings, they intended for the new nation to be secular by law and expected its people to be religious by choice. They intentionally refused to allow the establishment of a national religion or a national church supported by taxes; did not demand that the nation’s leaders follow a particular religious belief or pass any sort of religious “test,” and left the word “God “ out of the nation’s Constitution (although the Declaration of Independence does invoke “Nature’s God”). And the fervor of religious revivals spilled into the political sphere and fueled the rebellion of the American revolution.
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