PBS and Prothero Probe God in America
Religion prof helps guide show’s survey of four centuries of church and state
Spending five years on any project requires an act of devotion. But for Stephen Prothero, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of religion, the half-decade he’s been an editorial consultant to the PBS documentary God in America has been something more—a rare opportunity to teach us something about the role religion’s played in shaping us as a nation.
“You can’t understand American history without understanding religion,” says Prothero, who appears in the series, along with Ralph Reed, Jr., former executive director of the Christian Coalition, Ronald White, a Lincoln biographer, and John McGreevy, a professor of history at Notre Dame University. The group is described in a New York Times review of the show as “an impressive and interesting bunch.”
The six-hour documentary, concluding tonight at 9 on WGBH (Channel 2) and on PBS stations around the country, is a collaboration between the series American Experience and Frontline. Beginning with the first European settlers in the New World and ending with today’s nexus between politics and conservative evangelical efforts, this is an epic about the role of faith in American public life, as opposed to a study of different religions.
Prothero has written several books about religion in the United States; his Religious Literacy was a New York Times best seller. BU Today spoke with him about the show.
BU Today: Why was this show necessary, and what is its theme?
Prothero: It grew out of a conference five to six years ago that WGBH held that was, in part, a response to 9/11: What can public television do to educate Americans about religion? The people who did the series thought about it as a way to entertain, of course, but also to educate Americans about this incredibly important thing in American history. Whether you’re religious or not, religion matters.
The theme is about religion in American public life: throughout history, the role religion has played in American public space, religious intolerance, the role of religion in America’s politics.
Is it a good thing or a bad thing that religion is so central to American public life?
I don’t know about that. The issue for me was to get rid of some popular stereotypes: the United States is a secular country so religion doesn’t matter, the United States is a Christian country so non-Christians don’t matter, or George Bush was doing something horrible when he mixed religion and politics. They’ve mixed ever since George Washington put his hand on a Bible. I would say religion has done horrible things, and it’s done great things. How did we get slavery? In part, because people used the Bible to justify it. How did we get rid of slavery? In part, because people said it was an affront to God and justice.
Does the show break new ground or summarize existing scholarship for a lay audience?
I think it probably summarizes existing scholarship, for the most part. I think what the show does that a lot of contemporary scholarship doesn’t is tell a story.
What’s the single greatest challenge facing American religion today?
I think one of the challenges is our religious illiteracy, and that is a problem the series is trying to address. We live in a country that has always been religious, and yet we know little about our own religion and the religions of others. I was gratified after the premiere that I got a lot of email from educated people saying, “I didn’t know that.”
Is it really possible to generalize about God in America in six hours?
Yes. It’s possible to do it in a tweet. You can do it in a lifetime; you can do it in six hours. What changes as you change the time frame is the type of story you tell. The focus here is the particular moments that are emblematic—the First Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, the Civil War, Lincoln’s crisis—that provide some kind of window onto the greater story.
Watch a trailer for the three-part series God in America, which concludes tonight at 9 on PBS.
Rich Barlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments