BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – PBS finished its portion of
the Television Critics Association summer press tour on Thursday with several
fascinating presentations of upcoming shows, including a four-part series on
Nova called "Making Stuff Stronger, Smaller, Smarter, Cleaner" (airing in
January), Circus, a three-part series
behind the scenes at the Big Apple Circus (November) and an American Masters
film about John Lennon, Lennon NYC
Add to that list God in America, a three-part look at the history of religion in
public life told through commentary and dramatization. (Michael Emerson of Lost is one of the actors.) The shows will air Oct. 11-13
on WFYI (Channel 20).
One of the experts featured in the series is Purdue
University Professor Frank Lambert, a social and cultural historian who started
teaching in West Lafayette 20 years ago after a successful career as an NFL
punter with the Pittsburgh Steelers (1965-66) and an IBM account
I spoke to Lambert on Thursday about the series and some
contemporary religious issues. Here's the conversation.
Nuvo: If I'm a religious person, why should I watch this
Lambert: If you're a religious person, you're interested in
the impact of religion on American public life, and I hope you would be
interested in how that has been an important factor from the very beginning of
the republic itself. If you're like a lot of people of faith, you sense that in
our culture, religion is downplayed. There's all the talk about secularization,
and even some people talk about a post-Christian or post-religious America. The
fact that PBS is putting on a six-hour program that addresses the significant
impact of religion on American life, public life, would be something that
religious people would welcome.
I would hasten to say there will be some things that are
perhaps disturbing, because not only does religion shape America, America
shapes religion. And there are some religious people who say my religion is the
same yesterday, today and forever. I'm sure at the personal level that's true.
That's not true, however, in American public life.
Nuvo: If I'm a non-believer, why should I watch?
Lambert: If you're a non-religious person, I should think
you're interested in an accurate, broad understanding of how we have become who
we are. People around the world today look at America and say, "How can the
most materialistic people on the face of the earth, where the buck is almighty,
also be the people who talk more about religion in the public square than
anyone else?" That's a big question. And I would think that people of a more
secular bent, if they're going to be fully informed of their past, need to
understand how we got to be the way that we are. Religion is an important part
Two of the best historians on Puritanism, Perry Miller and
Edmund Morgan, were (in the case of Perry Miller) and are, in the case of
Edmund Morgan, avowed atheists. Yet they appreciated the role of Puritanism in
shaping not only New England but America. Their research did not convert them,
but they wanted to tell the story of who we are and how we got to be that way.
Nuvo: What have you learned about from participating in this
series, either about religion, television or anything else?
Lambert: From my participation in this project, I've learned
a lot more about television. As a historian, as a scholar, when you write a
book, you do that in most cases as an individual. You develop the theme, you
ask the big questions, you do the research, you decide what's in and what's not
in. When you're participating as a scholar in a documentary, you're there to
add context, to add explanation. But the final product is shaped by producers
and directions – and, in this case, very competent ones.
Nuvo: Are we a Christian nation?
Lambert: That depends on what you mean by "Christian
nation." Are we a Christian nation in the sense that, say, Iran is an Islamic
nation? No. Religious law does not prevail in this country. Are we a Christian
nation in the sense that most people embrace – granted, over a wide
spectrum – some expression of Christianity, and is that deeply rooted in
our heritage? I would say yes.
But the fact of the matter is, while the founders separated
church and state, they did not want a national government run by any particular
religion, so they separated them – they certainly did not say religion is
not important. In fact, it's quite the opposite. They wanted to have a vigorous
free marketplace of religion, where people could express themselves and where
religion could grow. And it did.
Part of my explanation for why Americans are so religion is
there's no coercion. American religions are wonderfully innovative and
entrepreneurial. You can find a place today, if you so desire, to belong to a
religious group that satisfies any number of needs you might have. You can shop
around. And in this country, individuals make the important religious
decisions. Not the state.
Nuvo: The issue of putting a mosque near Ground Zero in New
York – where is it going to fit into the country's religious history?
Lambert: I think that really speaks to one of the major
themes of this, and that is religious liberty. You can't really have a little
bit of religious freedom. You either embrace it or you don't. It really means,
if you have unfettered religious freedom, you're willing to say "I protect the
rights of those whose views I detest. But I do that because I claim those same
rights for myself." If we believe these high ideals, that we have God-given,
inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I don't think
you compromise those. Because if you do, then you're back to saying, "Let's let
the government decide who gets to worship and who gets to worship there and
what they worship."
There'll be controversy, there'll probably be court cases,
but ultimately I think it will come down on the side that if Muslims have
legitimately found a place to worship there, they will be entitled to worship
Nuvo: Would you be OK with that?
Lambert: Yes, I would. Because I embrace America's religious
liberty. When I think of the American Revolution, that's what was truly
Nuvo: Are religion and evolution incompatible?
Lambert: I don't think so. There are plenty of religious
people, religious groups, who have said evolution is God's way of creating.
It's an ongoing creation. God's doing it, God's behind the engine, God selected
evolution as the way to do it. That goes back to the 18th century.
The problem some Christians and religious people have is, if
the Bible is to be taken literally, it's not evolution. There was that moment
where God said, "Let there be man," and there was man. If you take that
literally, then God is bound by that.