PBS began its four-part documentary, “God in America,” last night and it was better than I expected. Oftentimes, the mainstream media takes on religion in a very superficial way, considering religion as “the Easter Bunny with real estate” as a journalist friend once said, but the producers of the show went beyond the surface. The rest of the series will air each of the next three nights and, hopefully, will maintain the standard established last night.
One of the best parts of last night’s show was that the experts they lined up explained how America’s individualism was not derived exclusively from the Enlightenment, but was born of the religious, and specifically Protestant, impulses of the colonial culture. They used the example of Anne Hutchinson’s challenge to the Puritan establishment of John Winthrop to demonstrate the tension that exists in American Protestantism between its devotion to the individual’s direct access to the Scripture and the conformity to established norms derived by the dominant culture from those same Scriptures. The issues may have changed, but the debate itself was at the heart of the contemporary debate about health care reform.