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Faith column: Watching TV will make you smarter (in this case)

October 3, 2010

Latest faith column is a preview of PBS series “God in America.”

Full text here:

I’ve come to realize my father was right about television eroding a person’s intelligence. Thankfully, there are exceptions — those TV programs that actually make you smarter. A new six-hour PBS documentary this month falls into that category.

“God in America” looks at religion and public life during the past 500 years, from the first Europeans’ contact with the New World to the 2008 election. The three-part series, which includes documentary films, historical dramatizations and scholars’ analysis, will air on KLRU on Oct. 11, 12 and 13 at 8 p.m.

“Americans are awash in a sea of faith, but their knowledge about religious faiths and religious history often runs as shallow as their commitment to religion runs deep,” says Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero, a consultant for the documentary. “A series like ‘God in America’ can help correct that imbalance and provide the basis for a common understanding of the role religion has played in American public life.”

Prothero, author of “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t,” champions this cause. He knows that if we don’t grasp the fundamentals of our varied belief systems and how they have shaped us, we will not understand history.

Like Prothero, the filmmakers and supporting organizations are determined to shed light on our past so that we can understand our present.

Religious and historical understanding seems especially crucial at a time when we Americans are torn about our national identity and purpose and what role religion should play, though, as the series reveals, we have always been wracked by these divisions.

I’ve found that some of us like to overstate the influence of Christianity without acknowledging how fractured Christians actually were in America’s early days. We tend to idealize the Christian values — the ones so many politicians are exhorting us to restore — without acknowledging that some of those values might not be so palatable today.

Others have tried to downplay the importance of Christianity in our nation’s development, but that too misunderstands history.

The American story is indeed steeped in Christianity, for good and for ill. “God in America” chronicles how Europeans brought their faith to a new world, how they shared Christianity with indigenous people — and sometimes forced it upon them — how they blended faith and democratic ideals to create a uniquely American religion.

The series lays bare the triumphs and disasters of religion, perhaps the most wrenching example being Christianity’s role in slavery and the Civil War.

Even as we engage in war now, it is hard to comprehend the vast numbers of dead and wounded on our own soil. Harder still for us to imagine the savage brutality of slavery. But thinking of such things remind us that throughout history, people on both sides of national debates and conflicts have claimed to be endorsed by the Almighty. People on both sides have held up evidence from scripture.

Slavery is immoral, the abolitionists argued, and offends God. Ah, Christian slaveholders countered, then why does the Bible give explicit instructions on owning slaves?

The series also explores, among other key historical moments, the interaction between the Protestant establishment and the waves of Catholic immigrants in the 19th century; the clash between science and religion in the Scopes monkey trial; Supreme Court decisions on religion in public schools; and the blending of politics and faith in both parties.

“God in America” provides helpful context to understand today’s conflicts. As we continue to wrestle with issues such as homosexuality and abortion, war and economic policy, education and health care, we often invoke our religious values. And as our country grows more religiously diverse, the debates become more complex, more challenging.

We have never reached a consensus on the role of religion in the United States. We have always disagreed about how to read the First Amendment. And the Bible. These things likely never will change. So before we declare our certainty that God is on our side or that we’re going to restore the true America, perhaps we ought to turn on the television this month to get a little perspective.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Don Rhoades permalink
    October 14, 2010 10:39 am

    Thank you so much for giving us a heads up about this Frontline series. I found it illuminating and very well done. I heard nothing about it except from you, so, thanks again!

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