Faith and Politics, a Rocky Romance

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NEARLY 15 years ago, while developing a documentary about early Christianity, the filmmaker Marilyn Mellowes came upon an unexpected version of the Gospels. This one had been assembled by Thomas Jefferson. During his presidency, he had literally cut and pasted the standard biblical account into a text more to his liking, omitting Jesus’ virgin birth, resurrection and supernatural miracles while maintaining the ethical teachings.

Having always considered Jefferson “cerebral and slightly allergic to religion,” she recently recalled, Ms. Mellowes was instantly intrigued. The story of the Jefferson Bible, as the refashioned scripture became known, did not fit into Ms. Mellowes’s documentary about nascent Christianity. But it stuck in her memory. And the paradoxical idea that the man credited with creating the metaphor of a wall between church and state cared and studied so deeply about Christianity helped to inspire a documentary about the history and influence of religion in American public life. The result, a six-hour series titled “God in America,” will be broadcast on PBS for three nights starting Oct. 11.

“God in America” takes from the example of Jefferson and Jesus a thesis: America cannot possibly be understood without understanding the role that religion has played over the centuries. And that role, the series demonstrates, is not only to stir personal faith but also to inform civic values and political decisions.

“As you look at the history,” said Ms. Mellowes, 64, who is the series producer, “it’s just a historical fact that while the founding fathers may have wanted to separate the institutions of church and state, they didn’t want to separate religion and politics. Those are two different things. It’s fair to say they were wary that religion could incite conflict and on the other hand they saw religion was essential to the composition of a moral citizenry. Which was necessary for the survival of this fledgling republic.”...

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