As daunting as the title might sound, “God in America” has impressively distilled an enormous topic down to its essential building blocks. Using specific events and historical figures to punctuate its points — and relying on actors to give voice to those words during the pre-video history — this “Frontline”-”American Experience” collaboration deftly connects the U.S.’ religious past to the nation’s cultural and political present. Even with study guides and tie-ins, it’s the kind of serious documentary that deserves a wider audience than it’s apt to attract.The opening night is unfortunately the least compelling — focusing on the evolution of religion during the colonial period and its aftermath. That said, the section is not without its merits, detailing how religious liberty became “the founding principle that would help shape America’s identity.” The project truly takes off in its middle section, examining how President Lincoln agonized over the religious implications of slavery before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation; the struggle among Jewish immigrants over pressure to assimilate; and the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the aftermath of World War I, as embodied by William Jennings Bryan and debate over literal reading of the Bible, as illustrated by the Scopes Monkey Trial. (The Bryan-Clarence Darrow faceoff is recreated with care, though watching “Inherit the Wind” is still more fun.) The tension in that period, religion professor Stephen Prothero explains, was to “defend fundamentalism against the onslaught of modernity” — an issue we still see with regularity today. The third chapter shifts to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which gave a “big green light,” as Prothero puts it, “to the conjoining of religion and politics in American life.” In the wake of the counterculture movement, that yielded Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the overt wedding of evangelism to conservative politics. Narrated by Campbell Scott, and featuring the likes of “Lost’s” Michael Emerson as Puritan leader John Winthrop and Chris Sarandon as Lincoln, “God in America” explores these issues in such an authoritative way that it’s hard to imagine anyone taking offense at its conclusions, though some doubtless will. Nevertheless, the takeaway is unmistakable: not only what’s unique about religion’s development in America, but also the magnified role faith occupies in our public square and political discourse. The last hour features the Rev. Jim Wallis accusing the evangelical movement of having been “hijacked by a cabal of television preachers and far-right political operatives … that bears no resemblance to the gospel of Jesus Christ.” It’s a point of view seldom given voice in the daily rough-and-tumble of cable news, just as there’s scant representation of the growing numbers of those who characterize themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” And that’s precisely the point: “God in America” has the luxury of stepping back to sift through 400 years of history in order to provide insight as to where the U.S. is right now. In that respect, if there’s one deficiency, it stems from logistics, since the project ends with Barack Obama’s inauguration, omitting the religious underpinnings of the Sarah Palin-Glenn Beck blowback against his presidency. Prothero — who emerges as the program’s talking-head star — closes on a good question: “How important is religion going to remain?” Alas, maybe that’s for the next six hours.
PBS, Mon.-Wed. Oct. 11-13, 9 p.m.
Produced by American Experience and Frontline. Series executive producer, Michael Sullivan; executive producers, David Fanning, Mark Samels; series producer, Marilyn Mellowes.
Series director, David Belton; producer/directors, Sarah Colt, Greg Barker; music, Philip Sheppard. 6 HOURS.
With: Michael Emerson, Chris Sarandon, Toby Jones, Keith David, Jefferson Mays, Stephen Prothero, Jim Wallis.
Narrator: Campbell Scott.
Data provided by:Nielsen Media Research (Preliminary Results)