“God in America” coming to PBS on Monday

UPDATE: Michael Sullivan, Executive Producer of God in America, talks with Paul about God in America. AUDIO


Boston, MA [August 26, 2010] Since the days when the Puritan “city on a hill” beckoned on the horizon of the New World, religious faith and belief have forged America’s ideals, molded its identity and shaped its sense of mission at home and abroad.

For the first time on television, God in America explores the tumultuous 400-year history of the intersection of religion and public life in America, from the first European settlements to the 2008 presidential election. A co-production of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and FRONTLINE, this six-hour series examines how religious dissidents helped shape the American concept of religious liberty and the controversial evolution of that ideal in the nation’s courts and political arena; how religious freedom and waves of new immigrants and religious revivals fueled competition in the religious marketplace; how movements for social reform–from abolition to civil rights–galvanized men and women to put their faith into political action; and how religious faith influenced conflicts from the American Revolution to the Cold War.

Interweaving documentary footage, historical dramatization and interviews with religious historians, the six-part series will air over three consecutive nights beginning on October 11, 2010. Narrated by actor Campbell Scott, the series includes appearances by actors Michael Emerson (as John Winthrop), Chris Sarandon (as Abraham Lincoln) and Keith David (as Frederick Douglass), among others.

“The American story cannot be fully understood without understanding the country’s religious history,” says series executive producer Michael Sullivan. “By examining that history, God in America will offer viewers a fresh, revealing and challenging portrait of the country.”

As God in America unfolds, it reveals the deep roots of American religious identity in the universal quest for liberty and individualism–ideas that played out in the unlikely political union between Thomas Jefferson and defiant Baptists to oppose the established church in Virginia and that were later embraced by free-wheeling Methodists and maverick Presbyterians. Catholic and Jewish immigrants battled for religious liberty and expanded its meaning. In their quest for social reform, movements as different as civil rights and the religious right found authority and energy in their religious faith. The fight to define religious liberty fueled struggles between America’s secular and religious cultures on issues from evolution to school prayer, and American individualism and the country’s experiment in religious liberty were the engine that made America the most religiously diverse nation on earth.

Local Church Helps Out the Holy Spirit. They Think.

Northridge Church in Plymouth, Michigan gets a tip of the hat for performing one of the most bizarre pre-sermon skits in all of Church history. A man in a Lobster suit comes to the stage and recites the lyrics to the Beatles’ Come Together while a Mime, Little Beau Peep, a clown, Elvis, and a snake handler dance circles around him.

Come Together includes a not so veiled reference to shooting Cocaine, among its other jumbled lyrics that reference God knows what.

Is this why you go to church?


I have all these memories, I don’t know what for
I have them and I can’t help it

~ Sun Kil Moon, “Like the River”

George: That’s not your grandfather.
Paul: It is, you know.
George: But I’ve seen your grandfather. He lives in your house.
Paul: Oh, that’s my other grandfather, but he’s my grandfather, as well.
John: How do you reckon that one out?
Paul: Well, everyone’s entitled to two, aren’t they?”

~ The Beatles, “A Hard Day’s Night”

My friends will sometimes talk about their grandfathers as if they are gods. They’ll share stories of love and fun and good times. And I am always jealous.

I can barely remember either of my grandfathers. They both died when I was young and they both were sick for most of my life. I had Grandpa Ball (my mother’s father), simply called Grandpa, and Grandpa Edwards (my father’s father), always known as Gramps in our household. Whenever I hear stories told of these two men, I always feel a pride in the fact that I am related to them by blood. But I can barely remember them. And this breaks my heart.

As I’ve said, both men were sick for most of my life. I don’t think I ever saw Grandpa walk. The only time I ever saw Gramps walk was when he would walk from his chair to the kitchen every night to pour himself a bowl of cereal.

I remember my Gramps chair. I remember thinking it was a sin for anyone other than him to be sitting in it. I sat in it after he died, and immediately got up. I vaguely remember sitting on his lap when I was young, the smell of medicine and the touch of calloused hands.

I remember when I first heard Gramps life story. It was the life sung by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. It was the life of a working class hero. I remember hearing stories of a strong faith in God. I remember a quiet old man with a raspy voice. I remember a man who loved his family. The nativity story on Christmas morning. Grocery shopping on a hot summer’s day.

I remember the day Gramps died. And that’s the most vivid memory of all. Leaving school early. Arriving too late. Leaning on my father’s chest. Lifeless body on the bed. The bed I used to sleep in. Children crying in the backyard. Emotionless. Confused.

I cried at his funeral. All I have left are stories and vague memories.

Memories of Grandpa are even fewer. I don’t remember a time when he wasn’t sick. I remember a stupid knock knock joke I would tell him, and he would laugh every time. “Knock knock. Who’s there? Tommy. Tommy who? Tommy ache.” And he would laugh and laugh. I know that he loved me. I know I loved him. I remember my grandparents’ home up north in Roscommon. It was like a second home to me. He was sick every time we went.

I cried at his funeral. All I have left are stupid jokes and sickness.

I never said goodbye to either of them. I can barely even remember their voices.

It’s 4:30 in the morning right now and I am crying. I couldn’t sleep because the memory of these two men wouldn’t leave my mind. I barely knew them, yet I love them more than anybody that ever lived.

Sometimes I wonder why God would choose to taunt me with friends who tell me stories of their loving grandfathers. Sometimes I think God is the cruelest person in existence.

But then memories of these men come and haunt me. And I know that, though they are gone, they have made me a better person just by being there. And I know God wants me to celebrate what I had… what I have.

Maybe someday I’ll have children. I will tell them the memories I have of my grandfathers. I will tell my children they come from the two greatest men who ever lived.

Maybe someday I’ll have grandchildren and I will be a grandfather myself. And maybe my grandchildren will look up to me as a great man. Maybe someday they will want to be like me. That would be the greatest honor. And that is all I want.

Making Up Evangelicalism

Randall Balmer is Professor of American Religious History at Barnard College, Columbia University. He has written several books which explore the development of political activism by people of faith, specifically conservative evangelicals.

His most recent foray into this effort is The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond (2010: Baylor University Press) in which he asserts that what has come to be known as the “Religious Right” did not have its beginnings as a response to the Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion on demand in 1973 (Roe v. Wade). Rather Dr. Balmer forwards a radically different motivation for the formation of conservative evangelical political engagement in the mid to late 1970s: the Green v Connally decision by the District Court of the District of Columbia on June 30, 1971 which threatened the tax exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policy denying admission to students of color.

Balmer’s conclusion that the Roe v. Wade decision was not a precipitating factor in the formation of conservative evangelical political engagement serves as a classic example of historic revisionism. Of the response of evangelicals in 1973 to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion on demand Balmer writes:

While a few evangelical voices, including Christianity Today magazine, mildly questioned the ruling, the overwhelming response on the part of evangelicals was silence, even approval.

Indeed, Balmer’s thesis is that the abortion issue was only “cobbled into the agenda of the Religious Right” as a political maneuver by Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of evangelical political activism, who knew (according to Balmer’s characterization) that the sterile subject of tax exemption would not rally evangelicals to political action, engendering the kind of emotional response that “protecting those poor, defenseless babies” would create. Randall seems to be asserting that the abortion issue was only a front for the real cause of standing against the IRS for threatening the tax exempt status of evangelical schools. Money. not morals, was the precipitating cause of the Religious Right.

To support his revisionism, Balmer quotes Dr. Edward Dobson who was “formerly Falwell’s assistant at Moral Majority,”:

“The Religious New Right did not start because of a concern about abortion. I sat in the non-smoke-filled back room with the Moral Majority, and I frankly do not remember abortion being mentioned as a reason why we ought to do something.”

Balmer offers no footnote to cite the source of the above quote, only stating that the comment was made in 1999, and offering no details about the context. So I picked up the phone and called Dr. Dobson, who is now living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

When I asked Dr. Dobson if he recalled making such a statement he replied that while he has no doubt that he may have made such a statement, the way in which Dr. Balmer was using it seemed to be out of context. Dr. Dobson told me, “I have always argued that while abortion was not the major issue in the formation of the Moral Majority, it was certainly one of the issues.”

When I asked Dr. Dobson if he agreed with Randall’s assertion that the Religious Right was formed more as a response to Bob Jones University losing its tax exempt status rather than as a reaction to the Roe v. Wade decision, Dr. Dobson told me that such an assertion was “absolutely false. The subject of Bob Jones University never came up in any conversations as a reason for forming the Moral Majority. In fact, Bob Jones, Jr. once called Jerry Falwell ‘the most dangerous man in America,’ so the notion that these men would be concerned with defending Bob Jones University lacks merit.”

What kind of history is this? On what basis does Balmer reach the conclusion that money and racism were the motivating factors that precipitated conservative political activism and not the moral issues of abortion, marriage, and homosexuality?

Dr. Balmer is firmly in the camp of those who see the purpose of the gospel to be primarily about reforming the ills of society through social action. He’s part of the new “Religious Left,” a category of evangelicals he denied exists during a recent radio interview with me. While his bias is implicit in his conclusions, it’s also explicitly stated. Not until you get to the end of Balmer’s 84 page revisionism does he show his hand:

“For too many years I offered an exasperated defense, arguing that the Bible I read enjoins me to act with justice and points me toward the left of the political spectrum.”

The Making of Evangelicalism is a distortion of facts in support of biased characterizations of conservative evangelicals. In addition to the absurd notion that a defense of the sanctity of life was not the precipitating cause of the formation of the Religious Right, Balmer asserts that conservative Christians opposed women’s rights, supported torture, care more about abortion than divorce, support the destruction of the environment, and favor the affluent more than poor, without once offering a shred of objective balance from those he accuses. This sounds more like Keith Olbermann than a respected historian.

What kind of historian produces a history that presents facts in evidence supporting only half the history?  Balmer has not written a history of the making of evangelicalism. The reality is Balmer is “making up” evangelicalism by reading into history a conclusion influenced by his own progressive bias against conservative evangelical political engagement. History as he would like it to be, not as it was.