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TV review: 'God in America' on KCET

Taking a cue from Ken Burns' style of documentary filmmaking, “God in America” spends a modest six hours taking on the historical role of religion in this country.

October 11, 2010|By Robert Lloyd | Television Critic

If you are going to call a documentary "God in America," you are bound to not quite live up to your title, even allowing six hours for the attempt. ( Ken Burns took three times that long just to explain baseball.) Airing Monday through Wednesday on KCET, this is one of those PBS fall blockbusters that strives to swallow a huge topic whole and inevitably manages only a bite, albeit a big, flavorful one.

Still, the size of the subject speaks to the worthiness of the project, as Mt. Everest stakes more of a claim on the climber's imagination than does Bunker Hill. That it is a joint presentation of the history-minded "The American Experience" and the current-events series " Frontline" suggests an interest in the way the past resonates in the present, and it does indeed seem that there is nothing new under this particular sun.

Whether you agree, as some insist, that ours is a fundamentally religious (read: Christian) nation, it's hard to deny the broad point of "God in America" that our larger history is bound up with that of religious practice and that our political and social discourse, our advances and our refusals to advance, are shaped by what people have believed about the world beyond this world -- keeping in mind too that action does not always accord with professed belief.

The ongoing struggle between the old and the new, the orthodox and the liberal, the group and the individual, the earthly and the ethereal, rules and revelations, self-protecting elites and aspiring masses has characterized the national narrative in its secular and spiritual forms since visitors from Europe first set forth upon this continent their new notions. (Brief respect is paid at the series' beginning to the less dogmatic beliefs of the people who were here before them.) "God in America" goes so far as to suggest that the Revolution itself was a foregone conclusion, having already been locally rehearsed many times over in the fight for freedom of religion -- and also, it should be said, for freedom from religion.

Engaging as it is, with its revival meetings and circuit riders, civil rights marches and monkey trials, "God in America" is far from encyclopedic -- if you come here hoping to learn even a little about such American-bred creeds as Mormonism or Christian Science or, for that matter, anything outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, you will be disappointed. This is a sampler, dedicated overwhelmingly to the adventures of Protestant evangelical Christians. Other religions are for the most part represented in light of that dominant faith (or, rather, group of faiths), from Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy having to repeatedly explain that he would not take orders from the pope, to evangelical Christian George W. Bush's declaration after 9/11 that American Muslims should not be made targets. "Islam is peace," he said. (Bush, we are told, was ultimately regarded by right-wing evangelical supporters as a disappointment, as was Ronald Reagan before him.)

The pace is for the most part slow and a little solemn, and one feels there was care taken not to step on sensitive toes. Like most such multipart public-television documentaries, it owes a lot to Burns, including the way it knits history from the lives of (usually remarkable) individuals, thematically grouped. The story of Isaac Mayer Wise, who created Reform Judaism -- he celebrated the ordination of the charter class of his Hebrew Union College with a non-kosher dinner including littleneck clams and beef in a cream sauce -- is stood next to that of Charles Augustus Briggs, a controversial 19th century Presbyterian minister who might be termed a premature adopter of Darwin. Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. stand in contrasting ways for the growing closeness of the pulpit and politics after World War II.

There is the usual mix of excited talking heads, archival images and, in the earlier episodes, dramatic re-creations that here run perilously close in tone to music videos and other fancy commercials -- fish-eye lenses, grainy black-and-white effects, overexposure, shallow focus.

There are perhaps a few too many scenes of clerics thinking aloud and writing down sermons in otherwise empty rooms, as if there were no budget for a church and parishioners, though we do get random costumed extras looking pensive. Actors include Michael Emerson, whose role as head Puritan John Winthrop, sending Anne Hutchinson into exile for claiming to speak directly to God, oddly echoes his Ben Linus on " Lost." (Winthrop originated the phrase "city on a hill," to which Reagan later appended the word "shining.")

Diversity, which is, after all, the essence of the whole American experiment, does finally get its due, toward the end of hour six, in Barack Obama's inaugural address ("We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers") and in the geographical person of Los Angeles, which we're told is "the most religiously diverse city in the world." You only have to believe in people to feel a little proud about that.

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