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Transcripts of Patheos' Live Chats with the producers of God in America.

Tuesday, Oct. 12, 3-4 p.m. EDT: series director David Belton -- Transcript
Wednesday, Oct. 13, noon-1 p.m. EDT: producer Sarah Colt -- Transcript
Thursday, Oct. 14, noon-1 p.m. EDT: series executive producer Mike Sullivan -- Transcript


Below is the transcript of the conversation with producer Mike Sullivan on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010. For the main landing page go here.


Patheos: Welcome, everyone, to our third and final chat with the people behind God in America. -- 12:00

Patheos: Today, we’re speaking with. Mike is an executive producer, special projects for Frontline, the acclaimed PBS documentary series produced at WGBH Boston. -- 12:00

Patheos: He supervised the widely praised and highly rated four-hour Frontline/American Experience co-production “The Mormons,” the six-hour series “Country Boys,” and several award-winning Frontline specials including “Ghosts of Rwanda” and “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.” -- 12:00

Mike Sullivan: Hi everyone -- 12:01

Patheos: Thanks for being with us, Mike. Let’s jump right in. -- 12:01

Mike Sullivan: ok -- 12:01

[Comment From Spike Spike : ]
Mike, I loved the series. Can you talk a little about how "religious inclusiveness" has (or has not) expanded to non-believers in more modern times? -- 12:01

Mike Sullivan: I think that's more speculation than reality at the moment in terms of acceptance of, especially atheists. I did see a presidential survey which said that Americans would be more likely to elect an avowed homosexual as president before they would elect an atheist, so there's still a long way to go. -- 12:02

[Comment From Believer Believer : ]
Last night's episode felt different to me because the history was not that long ago. How do you put nearly current events into a historical context? -- 12:02

[Comment From Roger Roger : ]
Wow - that is crazy that Americans would rather have a gay president than a non-believer. -- 12:03

Mike Sullivan: Believer -- It was a struggle to convert our recent current events into American history and we tried mostly to do that by making linkages to the past, by drawing comparisons between, for example, how Billy Graham differed in his relationship to power than Martin Luther King or the religious right. -- 12:04

[Comment From Randy Lives Randy Lives : ]
Our TV culture is getting dumbed down worse every year. This series hopefully shows that America has not given up yet on getting informative media that helps us understand the world better. Do you think there's reason to be optimistic? -- 12:04

Mike Sullivan: Randy Lives -- I'm not necessarily more optimistic. i think we try to do our part to elevate the level of the conversation but in the end it's the people who really treasure that level of inquiry who come to the series, not everyone. -- 12:05

[Comment From Judith Snyder Judith Snyder : ]
Why was so little attention paid to the native people, when so much that happened to them had to do with God in America. ie Manifest Destiny, Christian conversions, erasing of a culture, etc. etc. -- 12:06

[Comment From Spike Spike : ]
How about a gay atheist - electable? -- 12:07

Mike Sullivan: Judith -- This is a complaint we've heard a lot about the series. We thought we'd done some justice to the Native Americans in hour one about the Pueblos and the Franciscans. Obviously there was much more that could have been done, but it was difficult to do justice to all these many subjects in a six hour religious history of the country. -- 12:07

[Comment From Nikki Nikki : ]
A large percentage of the comments I've heard this week are "what about this group?" or "why didn't you cover this group more?" Can you please explain to people that you only had six hours??!?!? -- 12:08

Mike Sullivan: Spike -- because he's gay, perhaps -- 12:08

Mike Sullivan: Nikki -- which you did very nicely. The real choice was between covering lots of things once over lightly or to dive in depth into the dynamics of a few representative stories. And we chose the latter course as a better way to expose the dynamics of this history. -- 12:09

[Comment From Stephen Fox Stephen Fox : ]
Oliver Stone had interesting segment in the movie W about how Karl Rove tried to Coach Bush 41 into the esoterics of playing the religion card, the language the nuances that Bush 43 later perfected. Did you consider exploring the cynicism of Rove's machinations a little further; and is there a chance with followup panels you may talk to Rice University's Chandler Davidson about how Race and Class in Texas affected political strategies among fundamentalist there from resentment of LBJ to Steven Miller's recent book on Billy Graham and how it played with Nixon and the Rise of the Southern GOP. You explored that aspect a little but Miller's refinement of that nuance is extraordinary -- 12:10

Mike Sullivan: Stephen -- FRONTLINE had done an earlier film called "The Jesus Factor" that grappled with a lot of this material about Bush and we really weren't doing presidential profiles . Trying to explicate how Bush responded to religious forces as president was our main subject about him. -- 12:11

[Comment From Nikki Nikki : ]
Maybe PBS should have given you more time. -- 12:11

[Comment From Michael Furey Michael Furey : ]
Mike, do you think that the way people shop for churches that fit their ideologies is helping to polarize the country? -- 12:12

Mike Sullivan: Nikki -- I would have been even more exhausted than I am already! I'm not sure it would have been watchable at a longer length. -- 12:12

Mike Sullivan: Michael -- Not necessarily. I think the real impact is to maintain America as a country awash in religious practice because people can find the kind of religion that fits their view of the world. -- 12:13

[Comment From Charles St. Claire Charles St. Claire : ]
I enjoyed the series. Is doing a documentary on religion the touchiest subject you've tried? Does anything else get people as mad as telling a story about religion? -- 12:13

Mike Sullivan: Charles -- Only politics -- 12:14

[Comment From Me Me : ]
Was it a tough transition to go from MLK to Pat Robertson? -- 12:14

Mike Sullivan: Me -- as a journalist, no, because all these stories are interesting to me. What I found most interesting in the contrast between the civil rights movement and the religious right movement was their very different relationship between faith and power that they embraced. -- 12:15

[Comment From Questioner Questioner : ]
Do you think the power of the Religious Right has peaked? -- 12:15

Mike Sullivan: Questioner -- well it's certainly mutated. I think the issues of the younger evangelicals have changed the overall agenda substantially. Without them would you have George W. Bush committing billions to AIDS in Africa? -- 12:16

[Comment From Me Me : ]
Could you explain that - what do you mean by the relationship between faith and power in the movements? -- 12:16

[Comment From Judith Snyder Judith Snyder : ]
We're a work in progress. -- 12:17

Mike Sullivan: Me -- Well Martin Luther King seemed to always resist becoming a political insider and saw his job as to push politicians to act on behalf of African Americans. The religious right, on the other hand, entered into the corridors of power and started to work on behalf of Republican candidates. It's a very different relationship between what you want to accomplish and how you play the power game. -- 12:18

[Comment From Stephen Fox Stephen Fox : ]
Thanks for Reply on President Bush and the Jesus Factor. One other question. George Truett was possibly the most prominent Baptist first half of 20th Century, with of course MLKing taking the Middle years. Did you consider Truett's speech on Church State on Capitol Steps in May 1918, 1920 (?) at all? -- 12:18

Mike Sullivan: Stephen -- I'm sure our series producer considered Truett but he disappeared in the early cuts as we were consumed with the conflict between modernism and fundamentalism in that period, and therefore focused on the Scopes Trial. -- 12:19

[Comment From Tom Tom : ]
Had you considered using some sociologists and political scientists in addition to those from the fields of religious historians and religious studies? -- 12:19

Mike Sullivan: Tom -- Some of the religious historians are in fact historians of other subjects as well, but in developing this alternate view of American history we did rely on the people we consider the greatest experts, the scholars of America's religious history. -- 12:20

[Comment From Jennifer Jennifer : ]
My favorite part of the series was on the Scopes monkey trial. That was real-life dramatic, like it was written from a movie script. -- 12:21

Mike Sullivan: Jennifer -- What makes it even more interesting is that was taken directly from the trial transcript or from the journals and writings of Darrow and Bryan. -- 12:22

[Comment From Danny D. Danny D. : ]
If you had to pick one "favorite" character in this whole series - someone you found most fascinating - who would it be? -- 12:22

Mike Sullivan: Danny -- that's a hard one. I'll try a few -- George Whitefield, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, and Martin Luther King (as seen through the eyes of the incomparable Andy Young). -- 12:23

[Comment From Tom Tom : ]
I thought it would have been helpful to cover Quakers and Anabaptists who had a different vision of settling America and whether the nation was/is a Christian nation. The separation of Anabaptists from culture would have given a very different read on "God in America," particularly with respect to conflict, politics. ... -- 12:23

[Comment From BB BB : ]
Abe Lincoln gets my vote, all the way. -- 12:24

Mike Sullivan: Tom -- It's true we focused more on stories of conflict that led to religious liberty rather than the great practitioners of it. We weren't trying to just give proper credit to the heroes but to really expose the dynamics of how religious liberty developed in the country. All these stories deserve greater due but we made our choices and there they are. -- 12:25

[Comment From Timothy Burns Timothy Burns : ]
Mike, can you talk about megachurches for a minute? How did they arise? What do they say about our society or our approach to religion? -- 12:25

Mike Sullivan: Timothy -- I'm not really an expert on that. But I always think about Rick Warren in this regard who came out of his seminary and decided he wanted to build a church for the "unchurched," people who didn't like going to church at all. And so he started asking them why they didn't' go to church and build a church to appeal to those very people. I think it's a startling example of the kind of religious innovation that's taken place in the marketplace. -- 12:27

[Comment From Love Life Love Life : ]
I think the series tried to be very fair. But who do you think will be most angry, now that it's over? Do you think any groups have a legitimate gripe? -- 12:27

Mike Sullivan: Love life -- We did try to be fair but worried that people would react as many have, saying "where's my story?" I had hoped people would see themselves in the stories of others and relate the dynamics of their struggles to their own. Maybe I was overly optimistic. -- 12:28

[Comment From Nate Nate : ]
Looking back at your experience working on the series, what ended up surprising you the most---about the history, and about the process of making the film? -- 12:28

[Comment From Nikki Nikki : ]
Yeah - that would be nice - seeing our own story in the stories of people who are not like us! Not our greatest strength... -- 12:29

Mike Sullivan: Nate -- On the subject matter itself I was really surprised by the story of Jefferson and the Baptists political alliance that was so crucial in forging the principles of religious liberty. And I was surprised by Lincoln's spiritual journey. On the filmmaking it was my first foray into working with dramatization and I had the great luck to find the right director to do it in a subtle and sophisticated way. -- 12:30

[Comment From Everyone else Everyone else : ]
Mike - where's my story???? -- 12:30

Mike Sullivan: Everyone else -- stay tuned! -- 12:30

[Comment From David David : ]
What's your next project? -- 12:30

Mike Sullivan: David -- I have some other projects I'm going to finish up, but I'm looking for new territory. Any suggestions? -- 12:31

[Comment From Tom Tom : ]
With regard to the greatest experts I would have liked to hear a little more from Mark Noll, even have his interview posted on the interview webpage. In addition, both George Marsden and Nathan Hatch have addressed concerns relevant to the series. A topic which I thought was particularly missing was the relationship of "America's God" to higher education. -- 12:31

Mike Sullivan: Tom -- those are all good people and we did use Mark Noll a little. But there was only room for a certain number of experts so the series would have a little continuity to it. We looked for bright and fair-minded people who had a grasp on this history. And in general I think we succeeded. -- 12:33

[Comment From David David : ]
How about the Pagans? -- 12:33

Mike Sullivan: David -- In truth we didn't find a big and powerful story about Pagans and their intersection with American public life. Perhaps if we were a little smarter we would have. If you check out the "God in America Faithbook" you will find paganism well represented. -- 12:34

[Comment From Gerard Gerard : ]
Mike, I'm an aspiring filmmaker. Any advice? How do I get started? How do I get people to pay for my work? Everyone wants content for free today. -- 12:34

Mike Sullivan: Gerard -- I've always thought becoming a good filmmaker is best done by attaching yourself to a master filmmaker in the beginning. It is in the end, a craft, and best learned at the side of a master. And then come work for public television. We still have a pipeline to some serious dollars to make good films. -- 12:36

[Comment From Anthony V. Anthony V. : ]
What was your criteria for hiring your producers? Did it have anything to do with religion? -- 12:36

[Comment From David David : ]
I meant we could be your next project. We would welcome you with open arms. -- 12:37

Mike Sullivan: Anthony -- No. What I was looking for were really good filmmakers who could "see" religious experience, who weren't dismissive of it, and who were good journalists. -- 12:37

[Comment From Babs Babs : ]
If you take religious pluralism to its logical end, do you think religion will stop being a source of divisiveness for people? -- 12:38

Mike Sullivan: David -- ok, "Pagans in America" sounds like a winner! Maybe you could do it. -- 12:38

[Comment From Gerard Gerard : ]
I'll do it! -- 12:39

Mike Sullivan: Babs -- I think it takes more than religious diversity to end divisiveness. But the general trend lines are to adding more people into what Stephen Prothero calls "the sacred canopy." So I'm realistic but hopeful. -- 12:39

[Comment From Shawn Shawn : ]
What happened to the Latter-Day Saints coverage? A Church that was not a reformed version of churches coming out from Europe, but a claim of a Restoration of Christ's original Church with a divine authority claim of God himself, and his Son Jesus Christ,John the Baptist, Peter,James, and John should had been noteworthy. Not to mention the persecution of their faith and the famous trek to the West to settle the new American frontier. Everything you did cover was the same old same old-a man or women reforming what was handed down from previous sect beliefs. I know you did a special on "The Mormons" years ago, so why the ditch this go around? I heard only two short bleeps in this entire show, maybe 5 sec. Even my 1976 US history book in Calif. had three pages of coverage of the role the LDS Church had on America. Just wondering what happened here. Who made the editing call. I'm throwing the flag, 15 yards for "holding" back. Thanks for the rest of the program. -- 12:40

Mike Sullivan: Shawn -- As I've said before, we did not set out to cover every faith tradition and we had, of course, already done a four-hour series called "The Mormons." Honestly I didn't know what more we could say than we'd already said in that series. -- 12:41

[Comment From Tom Tom : ]
The interview w/Schaeffer was good. Both father and son are quite complicated figures. Would have loved to hear from a member Jimmy Carter or the Billy Graham's family. Were they unavailable? Do you have a good interview/production to refer me to on their lives? -- 12:41

Mike Sullivan: Tom -- On Billy Graham we made a decision to not tell a particularly personal story about him, but to show him as an emblematic character in America's 1950s religious revival. His family were available but in the end we decided not to use their interviews because they were mostly biographical. -- 12:42

[Comment From Guest Guest : ]
I am interested the history of books--who reads them, what information is inside them, how an industry has evolved where vampires can be the subject of "literature" and my 10 year old has never heard of Charles Dickens. -- 12:43

Mike Sullivan: Guest -- is this a "Books in America" suggestion? -- 12:44

[Comment From Shakur Shakur : ]
What would be the equivalent of JFK getting elected today? Mitt Romney? Or a Muslim? -- 12:44

Patheos: Compare the beliefs of all Americans #godinamerica http://bit.ly/d0io87 [via Twitter] -- 12:45

Mike Sullivan: Shakur -- Probably Mitt Romney is a more reasonable analogy. Catholics had been around a long time by 1960, but there was a lot of leftover baggage. I think the same applies to the Mormons in this day and age. Muslims are a much newer idea for American voters to contemplate. -- 12:45

[Comment From Leslie Leslie : ]
Your documentary proves that The U.S. was established on The Covenant of The Messiah and that The Messiah of Israel is still performing signs and wonders in The American Church today. You need to do a documentary of The Messiah and His near return and the signs and wonders that are manifesting right now in the heavenlies. -- 12:46

[Comment From Guest Guest : ]
absolutely. I think about what Benjamin Franklin might say if he walked into a Barnes and Noble -- 12:46

Mike Sullivan: Guest -- ok, I'll put it on the list! -- 12:47

[Comment From Bill Bill : ]
What about Scientologists in America? Think there's a good story there? If so, what is it? -- 12:47

Mike Sullivan: Bill -- We've talked about Scientology a few times but never were sure we had the right approach to do a successful exploration. -- 12:48

[Comment From Anthony V. Anthony V. : ]
The story is: Tom Cruise is Crazy -- 12:48

[Comment From Tom Tom : ]
I'm interested in an expanded series with some coverage of religious groups which arose in America, e.g., Church of Latter-Day Saints, along with other "home grown" and/or unique groups such as the Amish. I think it would fill out the more complex nature of "God in America." But maybe this requires sociology. FYI: I'd be interested in a PBS show on "Pagans in America." -- 12:48

[Comment From Judith Snyder Judith Snyder : ]
All and all I really liked this program. It was educational, fascinating and broadened my views. More power to you. -- 12:49

Mike Sullivan: Tom -- Another vote for Pagans in America! -- 12:49

Mike Sullivan: Thanks Judith -- 12:49

[Comment From Guest 2 Guest 2 : ]
Leslie- it's so interesting that's what you took from the program. That's not what I saw at all. -- 12:49

[Comment From Guest Guest : ]
What impact do you hope the series might make? -- 12:50

[Comment From Tom Tom : ]
Amen! That is to Judith's comment. -- 12:50

Mike Sullivan: Guest -- I hope that when the next political religious controversy comes along people will know more of where it comes from, how things like it have played out in the past, and where it might lead. -- 12:51

[Comment From Colt Colt : ]
Do you think if we paid as much attention to religion as we do to sports, we would be better off or worse off? Would we know more and be more inclusive, or more set in our beliefs? -- 12:51

[Comment From Mere Mere : ]
I'd also be interested in seeing a show on the secular movement -- 12:51

Mike Sullivan: Colt -- I think more familiarity does breed greater tolerance. That may just be a hope, but I hope it's true. -- 12:51

[Comment From Tom Tom : ]
Why did you start with the story in the Southwest instead of chronologically on the East Coast? -- 12:52

Mike Sullivan: Mere -- I agree. I think that's a fascinating subject, both the origins and growth of the secular movement and the status of atheists today. All good territory. Any votes for "Atheists in America"? -- 12:53

Mike Sullivan: Tom -- you have a lot of questions! The story actually began chronologically with the arrival of the Franciscans but it did climax after the Puritans. But we wanted to tell the story in one place, rather than break it up to preserve chronology. -- 12:54

[Comment From Jen Jen : ]
I'd consider supporting "Agnostics in America," but I'm not sure. -- 12:54

[Comment From Pew study Pew study : ]
Mike, after the Pew study from a couple of weeks ago, do you have an opinion on that? What is our religious literacy? Is this a problem? Is it a problem we don't know much about the history you uncovered? -- 12:55

Mike Sullivan: Pew study -- Well Stephen Prothero looked at the study and gave American an F. I'd be a little kinder marker but its clearly a subject we all need to understand better, just to be smart Americans. -- 12:56

[Comment From Jeffrey Jeffrey : ]
Thanks for the program. Was there a story you wanted to tell in the series that you didn't have time to and missed while watching this week? -- 12:56

Patheos: We have time for about two more questions for Mike. -- 12:56

Mike Sullivan: Jeffrey -- I think the origins of the secular movement in the late 19th century was an intriguing story we did very little with. It would have been grand to have a chapter on that as well in the mix. -- 12:57

[Comment From William William : ]
Do you have any regrets after making the series? Do you watch it and say "i wish we did this"? -- 12:57

Mike Sullivan: William -- no, not really. We made our choices and they still feel solid to me. -- 12:58

[Comment From Shawn Shawn : ]
Just a side note scripture concerning this land of ours, America, from 2000 BC. From the Book of Mormon, Ether 2: 10. "For behold, this is a land which is choice above all other lands; wherefore he that doth possess it shall serve God or shall be swept off; for it is the everlasting decree of God." Would have fit in nicely with others who believe the same. -- 12:58

[Comment From Guest Guest : ]
Is there any particular interview on the website you'd recommend checking out? -- 12:58

Mike Sullivan: Guest -- Clayborne Carson has a lot of fascinating things to say about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement that we weren't able to include. It's a rich interview. -- 12:59

Patheos: That’s just about all the time we have. Thanks to everyone for the great questions, and especially thanks to Mike for a thought-provoking, entertaining series. -- 12:59

Patheos: For more information on the program, to watch it online, or to buy the DVD, you can always go to http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/. -- 1:00

Mike Sullivan: Thanks everyone. It was fun. -- 1:00

Patheos: Mike, any last words? -- 1:00

Patheos: Thanks again, Mike. Best of luck on the next project.

 

-- End Transcript --

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