Wednesday, October 13, 2010

God in America

Religion remains very much in the news, but so is American ignorance about religion. And now we have PBS’s 3-night, 6-hour special God in America, which presumably hopes to address religion’s importance in American society and history – and correct some of that ignorance.

The only significant criticism that I heard from commentators in anticipation of the show was that that it doesn’t cover everything and that, while admittedly one cannot literally cover everything in a mere six hours, there are still some egregious omissions – the most obvious one being any serious treatment of Mormonism. Given Mormonism’s uniquely American origin, that does seem like a serious omission. (Perhaps it went by so fast that I missed it, but, watching the first two hours on Monday, I noticed no reference to the great Jonathan Edwards, something which – especially as a Princeton alum – I also consider a serious omission. But then again one really cannot include everything).

A more serious issue with that first episode, I thought, was what seemed, to me at least, to be an over preoccupation with religious tolerance as a kind of organizing structural idea for the episode. The series seems eager to show not just how religion has decisively influenced American society and history, but also how so many people with so many different religious beliefs have managed to coexist in this society. That too is a very important part of the story and certainly deserves to be told. But it does seem to get narrowly filtered at times through a contemporary pluralist prism. Thus the opening segment on the Spanish evangelization of the Native Americans focuses on one particular episode of conflict between the Church and the Pueblo Indians, allegedly brought about because the Church would not accommodate traditional Indian beliefs and practices, in contrast to the more open-minded Indians who, of course, were quite prepared to incorporate Christianity into their system. Obviously, the filter through which that particular incident is presented slants it in one interpretive direction. Even worse, it results in a kind of neglect of the larger story of Spanish (and French) Catholic efforts to evangelize Native Americans.

The issue here is not anti-Catholicism. Thus the drama of Anne Hutchinson vs. John Winthrop (interesting and important in its own right, to be sure) also gets a disproportionate amount of attention – undoubtedly because it can be seen as a story of intolerant male hierarchy vs. tolerant female openness.

That same tolerance paradigm, on the other hand, results in a lengthy and, on balance, positive portrayal of New York’s first Archbishop, John Hughes, who in the mid-19th century, successfully led his Catholic immigrant flock in a fight against the established (Protestant) Public School system. The program presents Hughes’ efforts to use the established (Protestant) American self-understanding of religious freedom to advocate for equality and inclusion for the new immigrants and their Catholic religion, successfully turning the tables on the Protestant establishment. In the process, Hughes helped make American Catholics into patriotic defenders of American religious liberty. Hughes’ ultimate success, however, as the program does also acknowledge, came less from his adoption of American ideological language than from his utilization of the opportunities offered by American political democracy, transforming his immigrant flock into a powerful voting block.

The qualitative highpoint of the series, so far at least, was the first segment on the second night, which dealt first with the Churches’ internal conflicts over slavery and then with the Civil War itself. The program traces Abraham Lincoln’s personal religious evolution through the firestorm of war and the family tragedy of his son’s death in the White House, leading him to faith in a personal and loving God and to his Second Inaugural’s interpretation of the Civil War as God’s judgment on the United States for the sin of slavery.

The second evening concluded with two good segments on the dilemmas of adaptation to modernity, highlighting the story of Reform Judaism in the United States and the debate over evolution (culminating in a famous trial in Dayton, TN).

So far so good. Now let’s see what the third episode has in store, as it presumably will take the story of the American religious experience into the changed challenges of the present.

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