Tuned In: 'God in America' explores religion

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- It may be difficult to imagine a program with elements that appeal to Steelers fans, "Lost" aficionados, religious scholars and PBS viewers, but next week's "God in America" might just do the trick.

"Lost" fans will recognize actor Michael Emerson (aka Benjamin Linus) playing puritan John Winthrop in dramatic re-creations. Long-time, memory-like-a-steel-trap Steelers boosters may have a similar reaction when they see a former punter appear as a religious history scholar in this "Frontline" and "American Experience" joint production.

The six-hour series airs 9-11 p.m. Monday through Wednesday next week on WQED.

The series grew out of a conference at WGBH, the PBS station in Boston, where scholars and religious thinkers discussed how public broadcasting could better explore religious faith for its viewers. Mike Sullivan, executive producer for special projects at "Frontline," said the consensus of the conference was that America had a "religious literacy problem," a notion that goes hand-in-hand with a recent Pew study that found Americans lacking in basic knowledge about religion.

"Although many Americans were deeply involved in their faith, many also were very ignorant about religion, about other faiths certainly, and sometimes even their own and certainly about the religious history of the country," Mr. Sullivan said at a PBS press conference here in August. "Out of those discussions, the idea for 'God in America' was born. We decided to try to tell the often neglected historical story of how religious ideas and spiritual experience shape the public life of the country."

Monday's episodes explore the role of European settlers in bringing their beliefs to the continent and how new religions took root as the country expanded westward. Tuesday's episodes look at the impact of the Civil War on religious beliefs and how new ideas challenged Christian and Jewish sects. Wednesday the program explores religion in 20th-century America and its role in the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement as well as the present state of the country's religious diversity.

Mr. Sullivan said because America's religious history is so vast, the producers of "God in America" had to find a way to shape the series. They chose to explore the notion of religion and public life.

"Although we have a Native American story at the very beginning of the series, it's a lot of the Protestant and Christian denominations of the country that have driven this intersection of politics and religion," he said. "It's not an exploration of America's spirituality. It's really an inspection of religion and public life and that conflict throughout history."

The film integrates dramatizations, like those featuring Mr. Emerson, historical footage and interviews with religious scholars, including that former Steeler. Frank Lambert, now a professor of history at Purdue University and author of "Religion in American Politics: A Short History" (Princeton University Press, 2008), was a punter for the Steelers in the 1965 and 1966 seasons.

"People who view this will come to it with their own views of what religion in America has been, how they have imagined it," he said. "I would hope, though, that when they come to it, they will see a much richer past and that they will find some context to the current cultural debates that we have about religion."

Mr. Lambert pointed out that some Americans look to the founding of the country and "see nothing but deists," but he points out that, "Deists were sitting in Philadelphia, and they came up with a godless constitution." Others want to look at the founders and see nothing but Evangelicals, the religious right of the 18th century.

"It's much more complicated than that," he said. "This program, I think, captures the tensions between those groups, the tension between the Enlightenment that influenced many of the founders and the founding documents and those from The Great Awakening, the Evangelicals who, by the 1770s, were the fastest-growing religious group in the country."

So how does one go from being a punter for the Steelers -- Mr. Lambert averaged 43.6 yards in his two years with the team -- to a scholar of religious history? Mr. Lambert said he signed a two-year, no-cut contract with the Steelers and when it was up he simply wanted to do something different.

"The real challenge for playing for the Steelers or anybody was can you play at the top level, and I demonstrated to my own satisfaction that I could do that," Mr. Lambert said after the PBS press conference. "I loved the camaraderie of football teams, but after playing for two years, my wife and I were expecting our first child, who was born in Pittsburgh, and I had some other options."

Before he played in the NFL, Mr. Lambert had conversations with IBM about working for that company. After his two years with the Steelers, he chose to go back to his original plan, becoming an account rep and living in Pittsburgh for a few more years. He received a doctorate from Northwestern University in 1990 and has taught in Purdue's history department since 1991.

He noted the differences between the NFL today and when he played in the 1960s.

"There are a lot of things I like about today's game and some things I don't like, and part of what I don't like is the unbelievable hype not only of the NFL itself but many of the players who are trying to create an attractive personality that will be winsome to sponsors," he said. "Back then it was much more about what was happening between the lines."

Mr. Lambert said he continues to cheer for the Steelers and makes an annual trip to Pittsburgh to attend a game with his two sons (this year his 8-year-old grandson will join them).

"We have a blast," he said. "We love Pittsburgh and we like the Steelers and there's no question who we root for."

Where is Stephen Cropper?

We've written about this twice before, but some viewers continue to call so maybe the third time will be the charm. In late July we reported that WTAE-TV had hired a new chief meteorologist, Mike Harvey, who began appearing on Channel 4 last month in early evening and late newscasts. At the same time we noted that Stephen Cropper was being moved to a weekend shift.

In September, we reported that because of Erin Kienzle's maternity leave, meteorologist schedules will be in flux through the fall. News director Alex Bongiorno said Mr. Cropper will likely share 5 p.m. weekday weather duties with Mr. Harvey, but that probably won't take effect until Ms. Kienzle returns later this fall.

Viewers continue to call and e-mail claiming Mr. Cropper has disappeared entirely, but I suspect they're just not looking in the right newscast, which can change depending on the week because of the station being down a body in the weather department. Ms. Bongiorno said Mr. Cropper appeared in morning newscasts all last week.

Start seeing motorcycles

Local writer/producer Mike Seate's "Cafe Racer" series premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday on Discovery HD Theater (contact your cable company for channel number).

Mr. Seate hosts the 13-part series about the history and development of cafe racer motorcycles. The program was filmed throughout the United States, including in Western Pennsylvania, and in the United Kingdom. The series features actor Jason Lee ("Memphis Blue") in two episodes.

'Intervention' town hall

A&E, Comcast, the Salvation Army and Gateway Rehab will sponsor a community discussion about drug and alcohol abuse at 6 p.m. Oct. 20 at Oakland's Central Catholic, 4720 Fifth Ave.

Jeff Van Vonderen of A&E's "Intervention" will be on the panel with local experts, and an episode of the series will be screened.

Channel surfing

Fox has ordered more episodes of "Raising Hope," the first new fall series to get that green light for a full season of 22 episodes. ... ABC canceled Thursday night drama "My Generation" after two low-rated episodes. ... New episodes of TLC's "What Not to Wear" premiere at 8 p.m. Friday starting Oct. 29. ... The latest episode of "The John McIntire Show" -- "Modern Technology ... Is It Swallowing Our Souls?" -- has posted to Comcast On Demand's local section. ... Adult Swim has renewed "Children's Hospital" for a second season of 14 new episodes. ... ABC Family has canceled "Huge." ... Syfy renewed "Haven" for a second season; FX renewed "Sons of Anarchy" for a fourth season. ... It looks like Starz is moving forward with plans to re-cast the title role of "Spartacus" after star Andy Whitfield's cancer recurrence. ... Syfy has renewed "Warehouse 13" for a third season to air next year. ... A memorial service for the late Bob Sprague, a reporter for KDKA-TV and most recently KQV-AM, will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Church of the Redeemer in Squirrel Hill. ... Animal Planet's "Fatal Attractions" (9 p.m. Fridays), about people who get a little too friendly with animals and end up dead, features two people from Western Pennsylvania: Sandra Piovesan, whose body was found among a pack of wolf-dog hybrids she befriended, appears in the Oct. 22 episode, and Ricky Weinhold of South Heidelberg, who was killed by a bull he kept as a pet, is in the Nov. 5 episode.

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," "Rescue Me" and an MIA KDKA-TV reporter. This week Tuned In Journal includes posts on "The A-List: New York," "Caprica" and "Harry Loves Lisa." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's podcast includes conversation about "The Good Wife" and "No Ordinary Family." Subscribe or listen at post-gazette.com/podcast.

TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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