By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010; C01
"God in America," a three-night joint production from "Frontline" and "American Experience" that begins Monday night, blends two subjects that most folks avoid in polite company -- religion and politics. It compellingly presents an American history that has been alternately ruined and elevated by faith.
Even though the title suggests a subject that is far too broad, the series is commendably evenhanded and sober, as one would expect. If there were urgent-care centers for people who've flipped their lids watching too much Fox News or MSNBC, the nurses there would strap these frantic citizens to gurneys and administer "God in America" via a nice, slow IV drip, like a powerful PBS antibiotic. (As a side effect, "God in America" can also make the viewer a little drowsy.)
The calming baritone narration of actor Campbell Scott sends us back four centuries, where producers have wisely chosen to start the story in New Mexico instead of Plymouth Rock, with the arrival of Spanish monks, conquistadors and Catholicism, which led to the eventual brutalization of the Pueblo Indians.
We get to the Puritans soon enough in Part 1, where Michael Emerson (the nefarious Benjamin Linus from "Lost") plays pious Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop (of "city upon a hill" sermon fame) exactly like Benjamin Linus -- which gets interesting when Winthrop banishes Anne Hutchinson (Laila Robins) from the town, on account of her progressive thoughts on salvation. She is no longer part of that particular Dharma Initiative.
The favored narrative device for "God in America's" first half is reenactment, with cinematic scenes and period locations that feature George "the Great Awakening" Whitfield (Toby Jones from the "Infamous" Truman Capote biopic, who also played Swifty Lazar in "Frost/Nixon"); pioneer evangelical James Finley (Creighton James); Lincoln (Chris Sarandon) and Frederick Douglass (Keith David).
Such somber fare -- in which the actor stares piercingly at the camera and recites famous lines spoken or written by the historical figure he's playing -- rules most historical documentary now. It gets strange when "God in America" occasionally switches to "grainy" black-and-white scenes of New England colonists walking bleak, wintry beaches: That must be some very old film, there.
A viewer can almost sense "American Experience" eventually handing the reenactment baton over to the newsier hand of "Frontline," as "God in America" explores the way religion -- again, evangelical Christianity -- currently feeds politics and the culture wars, and vice versa. Did the "city on a hill" turn out to be the U.S. Capitol? A megachurch? Or both?
The neat trick is to connect the uneasy church-and-state issues that dog Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson (who all play themselves in archival footage, thank you) all the way back to the arrival of the first religion-obsessed New World settlers. Ultimately "God in America" asks what sort of progress we've made toward mutual religious tolerance. (Some? Yes.)
"God in America" takes the long view and visits familiar territory: Our nation's history is one of emphatic and often cruel Christian principle, rescued repeatedly from theocracy and other fundamentalist blunders by the intellectual heroics of the founding fathers, Abraham Lincoln and other non-divine interventions of common sense.
Or, because this is PBS, "God in America" can be seen a whole other way: Without its spiritual firmament, the nation would have merely been a collection of immigrants and ideas, but lacking a . . . soul.
It was religion, after all, that played a large part in getting Americans to at last see the sin in slavery. It is also an undeniable component of the suffrage and civil rights movements. Yet "God in America" is in many ways an examination of people who got -- and still get -- spittin' mad, denying others' rights (gay rights, abortion rights, and now mosque-building rights) because faith got in the way. For every pitfall such zealousness inflicts on American history, viewers are then encouraged to see the sublime effects religion has had on the nation's character.
A trove of sensibly articulate professors pops up to explain and even marvel at this essential dichotomy, over and over. It's so evenhanded that it may seem foreign to viewers who've grown accustomed to shouting matches. The vitriol of some of our modern-day social squabbles seems tame when compared with the past.
But what about God? There's a lot of talking about religion in this series, but when it comes to God -- what is God? Where is God? Who is God? -- "God in America" and its academic experts necessarily view Him (or Her) as an abstraction, a bit player in this saga.
If God is watching all six hours, I guess He (or She) is used to that.
God in America
(six hours) airs Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 9 to 11 p.m. on WETA and MPT.