PBS's first segment of a three part/six segment series God in America, aired last night. For those who missed it, or may wish to watch all six segments on their own time, you can watch it on their website as the new segments are released over the next 3 days.
I went into the first segment highly interested in seeing how PBS would bring this greatly debated topic to the public. Now, I understand the religious mentality and background that the colonists, settlers, and eventually the founding fathers came from in coming to America (and which is the main focus of the first segment), but I was sadly disappointed by the lack of discussion and depiction of pre-colonial inhabitants. That the series debuted on Columbus Day, I was slightly put off to the few minutes of reference devoted one tribe among the millions of Native Americans that inhabited the land before it was taken from them.
The series suddenly jumps from Columbus, not to the first American colonies, their failures, successes, struggles, and the lack of prominence of faith in making it big like other foreign ventures had been in the midst of, but skips about 40 years after Roanoke to Plymouth. To me, this gap is very important in depicting that the "first colonies" were not simply leaving Britain to escape from religious persecution directly, but they were venturing across the ocean because of the promise of gold and riches that they had witnessed other countries coming back with. That the show skipped this grab-for-gold mentality gives the impression of a somewhat Christian-based agenda rather than a tell-all tale.
From this hasty and spotted beginning, the segment does begin to flush out to be more seamless and give the sense of progression and building of ideas. Giving about 5 to 10 minutes of discussion and background of different Christian individuals that made eye-raising statements or broke from tradition. Focusing in the beginning on the Puritans and Anne Hutchinson and trailing from there to different traveling preachers who attempted to change the way Christians were thinking.
The biggest disappointment came when the second segment began encroaching on the founding fathers. Absolutely NOTHING was mentioned about Deism, Freemasonry, the Enlightenment, Transcendentalism, and the usage of the term "God" as a generic statement for a divine creator and not specifically the God of Abraham even though many of the men that shaped our country were members and believers of these events and groups.
The second segment was still spotty, though it was nice break to hear interesting and relevant information to the title and idea of the show--though it was fairly brief-- on Jefferson and the idea of a competitive marketplace for religion. To me, that was the highlight of what I assumed the entire series would be more about. The birthing of the idea that we as (newly emerging) Americans are capable of offering an even field to all religions without favoritism, was why I was setting an alarm to remind me the show was about to start.
I certainly enjoyed the second half of the segment much more than the beginning, but felt highly disappointed. The dynamics within the Anglican Church and the emerging Baptists, Jefferson and the guaranteeing of religious liberty, the revivals in the woods, and the immigrating Catholics into Protestant communities was quick which left me feeling a little confused at the rapid pace of not that much information on a broad scale. Unfortunately still, nothing of the Native American beliefs ever are mentioned apart from the beginning minutes or how they were forced to adapt to these changes of religious imposition. I do look forward to watching the third and fourth segments tonight as the aboriginal tribes and faiths of the slaves are never mentioned at all in the first segment and the second holds that it may be discussed-- indeed, I can't recall even slaves being mentioned in the first segment but once about slaves enjoying revivals with their masters like equals. I doubt the Treaty of Tripoli shows up or the discussion of the original versions of the Pledge of Allegiance (the addition of "under God" being a 1954 addition)
Parts Three and Four
Well, it seems my high hopes for the second segment (parts three and four) of the three part series was not going to come close to my expectations. The series is certainly shaped to be a covering of Christianity in America rather than of God in America. Nothing is mentioned of African tribal faiths coming into connection with varieties of Christianity (and Native faiths) in the Caribbean and Americas as slaves were imported from the Dutch and British to our colonies. The series almost becomes preachy by the halfway point with the decisions and mental and moral debates Mr. Lincoln goes through only rouse me after a painting is shown of Lincoln in classic "Christian depiction of Jesus' garbs" being taken to Heaven by what appear to be archangels. (If anyone knows the painting's name or painter, please let me know!).
Part four enters into Judaism in America and the conflicts both Jews and Christians had with Judaism and it's modernization which was enlightening to me because I am admittingly unfamiliar with Judaism and it's modern/non-traditional developments, but with the way the series has been, I feel I have missed so much. Still, we are solely sticking to the God of Abraham.
The big event of science vs. religion focuses on one case in particular, the Scopes Trial, which is an important point, but when discussing the developments of Darwin's idea, this was a development in the making for a very long time. American botanist, Asa Gray is never mentioned in his close work with Darwin (and he is the man that arranged the first US edition of the book), nor the web of minds Darwin linked through his work in the history of a different idea of the origins of the species of the planet.
For the last segment, which airs tonight, I really have no hopes in the show attempting to wholly encompass the idea of a variety of beliefs in America and the struggle of those who are not mainstream Christians. But I'll watch it none the less.
Parts Five and Six
The third segment (parts five and six) was interesting in that, I feel it definitely began to show the falseness of those who placed faith in the political arena and the show focused right upon Billy Graham and his slithering into political mainstream as a "guide" to those making their way along the presidential path. On a bit of an opposite side of the fence, the segment swings into the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr.'s use of faith in his work that I thought was a very interesting. You have a man like Graham who uses his faith (and the majority faith of the US) to make political contacts and helps to make Christianity a selling point in votes. A man who tried to prevent JFK from winning the election by bringing up the "Catholic question" and then goes slithering up to JFK after he wins. Then you have MLKJ who is a pastor that feels injustice is being done by Christians and to Christians and that this action is just not of the brotherly love Jesus speaks about. But rather than using his faith to perpetrate his own personal gains, he uses it to inspire himself and followers in his cause to create equality NO MATTER WHAT the faith of those he helps may be.
In the end that seems to be the message that the show was trying to create. That even if you are Christian (or one of the hundreds of other faiths not mentioned in the show), you should recognize that there are other faiths, spiritualities, and religions in the US and the rest of the world and that our beginnings and what the Constitution stands for are to give that freedom of and from religion to everyone. That the show never really discusses the Native American faiths, the prominent variety of faiths the founding fathers had, or really anything outside of the Abrahamic God was terribly disappointing for the scope the show seemed that it would encompass. If you are going to tackle the idea of God in America, why not go all the way?