In six hours of television, a broad topic such as American religion over the past 400 years can’t be covered in a comprehensive way. But God in America, the new documentary series running over three nights this week on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) TV network, gives it a shot.
Answers in Genesis was not able to preview the series. However, AiG staff members have reviewed articles on the website associated with God in America 1 and have also read reviews from people who were able to preview the programs. We think we have a good idea of what the series presents and the conclusions drawn.
God in America examines how religious thought has greatly shaped American society since the early 1600s.2 The series’ executive producer contends that the “American story cannot be fully understood without understanding the country's religious history.” 3
It appears the series will show many of the positives that religion (Christianity in particular) has brought in shaping the American nation. This includes the loud call for religious (and general) liberty in America’s early history, and how Christian-based movements pressed for social reform in the 1800s and 1900s (e.g., the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement). If this is indeed the tenor of the series, and if it is as balanced as has been reported, it will be encouraging to see a secular media outlet covering religion in a fair manner. That is especially welcome today as the media have been increasingly covering the many shrill and angry atheists who are poisoning constructive dialogue about the role of religion in society.
At the same time, a commentator for the Baptist Press news service (who has seen the series) has lamented that “‘God in America,’ like most television documentaries on religion, is lacking in orthodox, evangelical representation.”4 (We noticed the names of at least two interviewees in the series who would probably call themselves evangelicals.) That lack of representation is somewhat ironic given that most of the religious leaders profiled in the series were orthodox in their beliefs about Christianity and the Bible.
What About the Scopes Trial in the TV Series?
The Baptist Press writer also observed that a segment’s depiction of the Scopes “monkey” trial of 1925 “is completely slanted to the left theologically and is easily the series' low point. It wrongly implies there aren't any legitimate conservative evangelical arguments on evolution. (A brief mention that at least half of Americans still reject evolution would have been nice.)”4 To our knowledge, no creationist scholar was approached by producers to be interviewed about the “trial of the century.”
It is a false belief that has become ingrained in American culture.
Since the segment on the Scopes trial may be the most controversial in the series (and not just for creationists), it will be interesting to see if the program regurgitates the popular myth that Tennessee law had forbidden the teaching of evolution in its public schools. It is a false belief that has become ingrained in American culture. Actually, instruction regarding the supposed evolution of animals, from amoebas to apes, was not outlawed; instructors could teach plenty of evolution. The law did not, however, allow instruction in the supposed evolution of humans from an ape-like ancestor. We'll see if the documentary gets this right.
[Editor’s note 10/13/2010: Indeed, as we feared, the series falsely declared that Tennessee law “banned Darwin from the classroom.” View the section for yourself at http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/view/. Click on the segment “A New Light,” and fast-forward to 38:50.]
To find out what really was happening at the Scopes trial, read this eye-opening article by Dr. David Menton of Answers in Genesis. (Interestingly, the titles of the first two episodes of God in America play off two themes from the book of Genesis: “A New Adam” and “A New Eden.”)
We believe it’s time once again for Christians to present positive biblical truths throughout America. It’s time to call this nation, largely founded on Christian beliefs, back to the authority of God’s Word, especially now that America is wrestling over many social issues. “Gay” marriage, abortion, racism, evolution indoctrination in schools, and so on continue to plague the nation. Since everyone has a religion (even an atheist is a religious person, for atheism purports to be a comprehensive worldview), the question has become: whose religion is to influence American culture?
Unfortunately, the U.S. church has greatly compromised biblical authority and accuracy, starting with the Bible’s very first book. As a result, AiG is not sanguine about the current church being efficacious in dealing with social problems, for the Bible is not seen by Christian leaders as the authoritative source of truth (as it once was in this nation). If the Bible is viewed even by the church as errant, scriptural teachings on social issues will not be taken seriously by society in general—and secular humanism (the belief that human opinion is the starting point for interpreting the world) will only continue to grow in cultural influence. The church needs to re-establish biblical authority among its leaders and members before it can begin to change society.
The combination of religion and politics is often toxic (how many Thanksgiving dinners have been spoiled by conversations about the two?). But in this case, the two should indeed mix. The next question becomes the following: will American politics and society be influenced by the belief system of secular humanists or by biblical Christians?