Faith of a Nation: PBS looks at 'God in America'
Anyone who has trawled through the 1,158 pages of Sydney Ahlstrom’s magisterial A Religious History of the American Peoplecannot help believing that a less hefty volume would miss some central elements of America’s many-sided religious experience. The ambitious and extraordinarily well-produced PBS series “God in America” (airing on most stations for six hours, Oct. 11-13) has had to work with severe time constraints. Consequently, while much of importance is included, much is also left out.
Ahlstrom made clear that the iconic role of the New England Puritans, with their symbol of America as “the city on the hill,” was not the only early religious impulse in the country. The Puritans, who sought religious freedoms for themselves, refused them to others, forcing Anne Hutchinson, for example, into banishment for upholding the rights of conscience against the state. Colonies founded by minority religions (like the Quakers in Pennsylvania and the Catholic Lord Calvert in Maryland) opted for religious tolerance among Christians. Roger Williams’s bold experiment in Rhode Island was the most radical. It allowed complete liberty of conscience: one could believe or not in this new land. Further south, Anglican establishments were less cocksure than were the Puritans that they were a specially chosen people.
The first segment of “God in America,” set in New Spain (currently New Mexico), recounts how the Franciscan friars did not reciprocate Indian hospitality. The Native Americans left room for the new religion of Christianity, while maintaining their own customary religious dances and rituals. When the Franciscans tried to extirpate what they saw as “pagan” rituals, however, rebellion broke out. A war of the Pueblos against the Spaniards led to the massacre of 21 priests and 400 Spanish colonists. The Pueblos forced the Spanish to flee Santa Fe for El Paso. Later the Spanish general Diego de Vargas returned for revenge but showed more tolerance for the indigenous religious practices, allowing a syncretistic amalgam of Native American and Christian practices.
This initial segment marks the last time we hear about Native American religion in America. Tales of the sending of native children away from reservations to “missionary” schools (Protestant and Catholic) and a subsequent “lost generation,” whose knowledge of tribal customs has diminished, are not part of the series. Nor do we hear of attempts by Black Elk (a Catholic deacon) to find a true inculturation of Christianity in and through tribal lore, or of the missionaries’ gallant efforts to save tribal languages.
After taking up the war in New Mexico, the Puritans and Anne Hutchinson’s trial, the series moves to the role of religion (especially the heartfelt revival preaching of George Whitfield, who traveled thousands of miles to preach to audiences of many dissenting faiths) in preparing ground for the American Revolution. The Revolution won avid support from many religious leaders, who likened their historic battle to the Exodus story of freedom versus slavery. The revolutionaries believed that “the God of Glory is on our side.” Part One highlights the debates in Virginia on religious liberty and the important role of the Baptist preacher Isaac Backus in fighting for the abolition of established religion. After the Revolution, Methodist and Baptist preachers followed the immigrants west, preaching famous revivals at Cane Ridge, Ky., and elsewhere. In 1811 alone, one million Americans took part in revivals.
Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, argued that religion was the first of America’s political institutions, since it anchored a civil society alongside the state, which helped volunteerism to flourish. “God in America” shows how between 1840 and 1850 religion influenced many movements: temperance, Native American rights, prison reform, an incipient women’s suffrage, abolition of slavery, the implanting of learning through the Sunday School movement and denominational colleges, and the founding of orphanages.
The most extensive treatment of Catholics in this first part focuses on the role of Archbishop John Hughes of New York (called “Dagger John” because of his feisty spirit and the way he signed his name, as a bishop, with a dagger-like cross in front of it). The huge influx of immigrant Irish Catholics into New York, Philadelphia and Boston led to Know-Nothing riots and the burning of churches and a convent by American nativists. Hughes called on a private Catholic militia to protect his churches from threatened arson. He also championed Irish-Catholic parents who withheld their children from public schools that inculcated an anti-papist Protestant set of courses and prayers. After unsuccessfully seeking a compromise on equal public funding for Catholic schools, as was granted for the so-called public (but actually Protestant) schools, Hughes helped Catholics organize politically to pass legislation banning religion from the public schools. The documentary presents Hughes as a champion of the very religious liberty that Protestants had claimed for themselves. Yet this segment shows only one aspect of a much richer American Catholic history.
The power of this documentary lies mainly in its rich enactment of historical episodes. Part Two does this magnificently around the figure of Abraham Lincoln and the events of the Civil War.
Initially, Lincoln had an aversion to card-carrying Christians. But as the war ground on, Lincoln, wary of any strong notion of a personal God acting in history, came to wrestle mightily with what was the will of God in this crisis.
The Southern states in their secession constitution invoked the Almighty, calling upon a compact with God. Southern Methodists and Baptists formed their own regional denominations. As Lincoln stated in his second inaugural address: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes his aid against the other. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.” Lincoln’s assassination made him, among Christian Americans, a Christ figure whose shed blood helped redeem the nation.
Part Two also focuses on the rise of Reform Judaism around the figure of Rabbi Isaac Wise and the split among Jews that took place after Wise’s unkosher banquet to celebrate the founding of Hebrew Union Seminary in Cincinnati. It then moves to the disputes between fundamentalists and liberals of the late 19th century and to the struggle between William Jennings Bryan, the “Great Commoner,” and Clarence Darrow over evolution at the Scopes trial in 1925.
The final two hours deal with the civil rights movement, Billy Graham and the endeavor to link religion and patriotism in the anti-Communist crusade (with dubious consequences).
The series also takes up the rise of the Moral Majority and the new Christian right and reflects on the rise of a more religiously pluralistic America after 1965, when revised immigration laws brought to our shores more Muslims, Hindus, Parsis and Buddhists. America has now become a new kind of spiritual marketplace.
Constraints of time force “God in America” to omit some crucial elements of American religious history. There is almost nothing, for example, about home-grown American religious movements like the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Disciples of Christ, Christian Science or the perduring influence of the American Transcende-ntalist Movement that flowed from Thoreau and Emerson and led to Unitarianism. Nothing is said about the Parliament of World Religions or the earlier immigration of Japanese and Chinese Buddhists or the fact that Muslims were living in the United States long before 1965.
The choice of dramatic re-enactments, visually compelling though they are, makes it hard to raise other important religious issues. To what extent, for example, does the dramatic statistical rise in unaffiliated or self-declared “no-religion” Americans (16 percent in 2010 compared to just 6 percent in 1990) reflect the political polarization of religion, flowing from the rise of the Christian right? “If that is what it means to be religious,” many say, “I do not want to be that!”
There is a valid argument for viewing America as a spiritual marketplace, with entrepreneurs fending off lazy monopolies and forcing all religions to compete for adherents. But as Alan Wolfe, a sociologist at Boston College, claims, such a religion has become a species of “capacious individualism.” We are not nor should we be a “Christian nation,” even if most of the population is Christian. Catholics recall that the epithet “Christian America” often excluded them. The myth of America as a Judeo-Christian civilization no longer holds water either. As De Tocqueville argued, in earlier periods, though beliefs shifted across denominations, there was underlying agreement on a moral civil religion that was quasi-Christian in inspiration. As that has eroded, what can take its place to anchor a consensual view of common citizenship and nationhood? The danger is sheer pluralism, a “naked public square.”
In his brilliant book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, the sociologist James Davison Hunter argues that in the 21st-century United States, Christianity, despite all its vitalities, is a weak and “marginalized” culture. Christians have opted for political strategies that equate the public with the political in ways harmful to both religion and politics. Hunter argues for a Christian stance of “faithful presence” in and to a secularized, religiously pluralistic America where one can believe or not, by constitutional warrant.
Watching “God in America,” with its vivid dramatic encounters, left me wanting much more such sociological analysis. The talking heads interspersed throughout are mainly historians who tell very well what happened in history but interpret less well what is taking place now.