Marc interviews Frank Lambert about PBS's "God in America"



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 (November).

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 representative.

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 show?

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 of that.

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 there.

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 revolutionary.

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.


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