Over a week since the conclusion of PBS’s three-night, six-hour television event God in America, new commentary on the documentary continues to appear online. Highly anticipated by, among others, scholars of American religion, the special promised to explorethe tumultuous 400-year history of the intersection of religion and public life in America, from the first European settlements to the 2008 presidential election”—no small task. During the broadcast, Nathan Schneider, at Killing the Buddha, and Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, at Patrol Magazine, collectively liveblogged each hour of the series, and Patheos featured live chats and interviews with  producers Sarah Colt and Mike Sullivan and director David Benton.

Since the documentary aired, many academics have taken issue with what may have been omitted from PBS’s narrative, with how the material that was included was presented, and even with what may have been the underlying assumptions guiding the project. After the first two episodes aired, John Fea highlighted the “blatantly Whig” treatment of the First Great Awakening, concluding:

In the last three minutes of Part One, we get the triumph of the evangelical Whig narrative or, what Jon Butler has called “Born Again History.”

The narrator states that people began to insist that it was their right to worship in the church of their choice.  Evangelical religion is said to have provided the American Revolution with a sense of “moral” urgency. Prothero says that following the First Great Awakening, the Revolution was “inevitable” and “perfectly logical.”

In the end, the story of “God in America”—at least early America—is best told by following a direct line between Hutchinson and Whitefield, culminating in the American Revolution.  At times I thought I was sitting in a lecture at Glenn Beck University.

In response to a number of such academic criticisms, Matthew Avery Sutton defended the project, writing, at Religion Dispatches, “Professors: you try and fit the American religious experience from the sixteenth century to the Ground Zero Mosque into a six-hour lecture without taking some shortcuts.” He further elaborated:

I am encouraged, though, that so many academics tuned in to PBS and that the series has provoked such a vigorous debate. Nevertheless, I wonder if we scholars should think a little more critically about what our criticisms say about us. In the last three or four decades, the distance between the academy and the public has dramatically grown. At the same time, Americans’ faith in (and their tax dollars contributed toward) American higher education has dramatically shrunk. Scholars are simply not doing a good enough job of making their research accessible and relevant to the public. Meanwhile, we have successfully mastered the art of boring people.

PBS (especially its American Experience series) has stepped into the academy-public gap, bringing together the very best scholars with writers, directors, and producers who understand what it means to reach the public through the medium of television. Even better, in the last few years, PBS—like the history profession as a whole—has caught the religion bug, producing excellent shows on Aimee Semple McPherson, Jim Jones, the Mormons, and now God in America. They should be applauded for their effort.

This is not to say that there is not room for criticism. But we need to be fair about what we are criticizing. The transcripts for this entire series are not much longer than the page count of a single academic article.

There are several responses to the documentary that do in fact go beyond the criticisms that Sutton contests. At Patheos, Ed Blum utilized the documentary as a jumping off point from to imagine the contents of a future revision of the series. He forecast that this updated version would involve a greater emphasis on the influence of the West coast, would include issues of race beyond the Civil War and the Civil Rights eras, and would highlight the body and bodies as central sites for examining religion, for, he writes, “through representations of (the body), we can think of religion in a more holistic manner, encompassing not just mental and psychological struggles, but lived experiences, sex and sexuality, and the dilemmas of trying to comprehend souls through the mechanism of bodies.”

Similarly to Sutton, Paul Harvey also came to the series’ defense (“I’ve never produced a television series and will make no pretense of telling experienced documentarians how to do so. I liked God in America and will use portions of it in class for years to come.”), though also took his review of the documentary as an opportunity to consider a theme that was not addressed in the series:

But I do want to ask what this series would look like if we also understand American religious history to be about coercion and authority? Most of God in America is about the white Protestant majority in American history. In a series on religion and public life, that is fair enough; they have dominated religion and public life. But what if we make coercion, establishment, and repression as central to our narrative as freedom, disestablishment, and expression? What if this is a show in which Americans’ self-understanding as derived from Exodus is more critically examined than celebrated?

To cite just one example: what would a show look like that made a serious effort to examine connections between the expansive religious democracy of antebellum camp meetings and the rise of slavery? In some respects, Anglo-Americans fostered an intense religious democracy built on a foundation of republicanism that assumed a close correlation between Protestantism and democracy. This world has been cogently described and celebrated in works such as Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity and Mark Noll’s America’s God. Yet, while white and black evangelicals helped to create and spread this nascent religious democracy, their religious ideas simultaneously sanctioned social hierarchies.

Our religious history is full of this intensely paradoxical interplay of religious freedom and equality with religiously-sanctioned unfreedom and inequality. That story is typically reduced to the fight against slavery—as it mostly is in this series—though it goes far beyond that. In this dialectic of religious freedom and unfreedom, embattled ethno-religious communities actually deployed the American tradition of religious liberty (as well as their own spiritual practices and sacred writings) to compel redefinitions of freedom, autonomy, and the rights of citizenship. The discourse of American freedom, then, could lead to very different ends than envisioned by the Anglo–Protestants who authored the classic texts on religious freedom.

For more reviews, see The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and Forward. For an extensive array of additional interview material that did not make it into the film, see God in America‘s website.