Monthly Archives: April 2013

God in America: Soul of a Nation

v07739acrasA continuing review of the Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America. This post looks at part 5, “Soul of a Nation.”

Summary: This episode is about religion and politics in the 1950s and 1960s. Act I: Billy Graham promotes Christian revival as America’s defense against Communism. Patriotism and religion are married, e.g., in the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Act II: Resistance to the marriage. Humanist and Jewish parents insist that religious education and religious exercises in public schools is unconstitutional; the Supreme Court agrees (McCullom and Engel). Act III: A good marriage of religion and politics in the black civil rights movements. Martin Luther King, Jr., is at the center of this segment, but Graham is woven in here as well, along with John F. Kennedy’s presidential election.

Likes: Everything covered in this episode works for my introductory survey of American religious history. I cover all these topics: Christian revival and “Judeo-Christian” civil religion in the Cold War; Engel as a landmark in a new approach to church-state relations by the courts; Kennedy’s election in the context of the long history of Protestant anti-Catholicism in America; religion and the black civil rights movement.

There’s some great historical footage here: Graham revivals; Nixon pontificating at a Graham revival (delish…); a period TV interview with the father leading the suit against the school board in Engel; footage of schoolchildren reciting the prayer at issue in Engel; Kennedy delivering the Houston address; various speeches of King, including amazingly sharp footage (restored?) of “I Have a Dream.”

Talking heads include my former teacher Grant Wacker. Sarah Barringer Gordon is on hand to explain the constitutional issues in McCollum and Engel. We’re recent enough in time that we can have some of the historical actors as talking heads, including Terry McCollum, the schoolboy who was at the center of the 1948 case against religious instruction.

Dislikes: I got annoyed that the narrator and the talking heads kept talking about “religion” in politics when historical actors (e.g., Graham) were talking more specifically about Christianity–or at the most expansive, “Judeo-Christianity.” My annoyance on this count is related to the realization that this series isn’t going to attempt to widen the story of religion in America beyond Christians, Jews, and, oh yeah, Native Americans at the beginning of the first episode. The series title ought to have prepared me for that; and yes, I know, you can only do so much in 6 episodes. But still… it’s a limitation of the series that looms large for me given my own priorities in teaching (which include highlighting the experiences of religious minorities as necessary for understanding how power operates in American society).

There’s a fairly clear, if not quite explicit, framing in this episode of: Graham’s fusing of religion and politics is bad because he becomes an insider to the political establishment and tends to equate  national interests with God’s interests, whereas King’s fusing of religion and politics is good because he remains an outsider to the establishment and condemns messianic notions of America’s chosen status among nations. Also–this is quite explicit at the end, at least in how picture is matched to text–Graham represents a religion focused on personal salvation, while King represents a social gospel.

Ehh… Whatever. It’s an overly simplistic framing, of course, which wouldn’t necessarily be a mark against it if I thought it were useful. But what’s the use of it, except for promoting a particular kind of normative vision for how religion and politics ought to interact in America? I don’t do that in my classroom, thank you; and yes, I’m snooty about it because if you’re serious about wanting to teach your students to think critically, then you really shouldn’t be trying to propagandize them, even if you’re acting on the side of the angels.

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But they’re not “Muslim Muslim”

This bit ran on the Daily Show last night. It was perfect for my course on American religious minorities, for which the driving theme is religion and ethnicity. So we watched the clip in class and discussed the question: What commentary is being made about the presumed intersection of Muslim identity and ethnic identity?

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“Boston Bombing Muslim”

I’m teaching a class this semester that covers various religious minorities in the United States. We just recently finished a unit on American Muslims. This morning, as I was waiting for class to start, I went to the classroom computer, brought up the Internet on the projector, and Googled “Boston bombing Muslim” to see what would come up.

We then briefly discussed the following news stories. Well, more precisely, I did a little extemporaneous summary and analysis of what we were seeing. When I invited student comment, no one took up the invite. I guess I felt more of a compulsive need to talk about this than they did.

“Please don’t be Muslims” had been my exact response as well when I heard about the bombings.

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God in America: A New Light

v07739acrasA continuing review of the Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America. This post looks at part 4, “A New Light.”

Summary: This episode narrates conflicts between tradition and modernity in Judaism and Protestantism. Act I: Isaac Mayer Wise popularizes Reform Judaism, which appeals to Jews who want an Americanized and modernized form of Jewish identity. Although he hopes to unify American Jews under the banner of Reform, opposition to his reforms precipitates a split in American Judaism. Act II: Charles Augustus Briggs encounters Darwin and historical criticism of the Bible; goes public in calling American Christians to–as with Wise–unify under the banner of modernism; is tried for heresy. The modernist-fundamentalist controversy expands through American Protestantism. Act III: William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow square off in the Scopes trial. Whereas in the 19th century the great religious divide in America was over slavery, from henceforth Americans will be divided between conservatives and liberals.

Likes: I could definitely use this entire episode in my own introductory survey to American religious history; the (admittedly simplified) narrative it tells is basically the narrative I’ve been using. There’s fun, student-friendly drama here: the treyfa banquet, the Scopes trial. With the Scopes trial, we have the advantage of period footage, which shows how nakedly partisan and patronizing the national media’s descriptions of fundamentalism were. (The film doesn’t point critically to that, but it gives me material to.)

I especially like the transnational dimension to this story: In both Wise’s and Briggs’s narratives, the connection to modernizing movements in Germany is highlighted. (Briggs’s story, in fact, begins by locating him visually in Berlin.)

The Scopes segment made a point of framing the issue not as religion vs. science (the latter understood as “secular”) but as conservative Christians vs. liberal Christians. Before getting to Scopes, the documentary introduces us to Bryan as an important politician, a defender of the working classes; that’s good because it prevents him from being reduced to what he became in media coverage of Scopes.

Nice touches of social history, i.e., figures for immigration. (We got the same in episode 2, on Catholic immigration during the antebellum era.)

Dislikes: While I’m willing to use this episode in class (unlike most of episode 3), there are some things that make me grit my teeth a little. It irked me that during the treyfa banquet sequence–which is presented in the documentary as a Jewish equivalent to the Briggs heresy trial or the Scopes trial, i.e., a showdown moment between modernizers and traditionalists–the score was cutesy, whereas when Protestants are grappling over how to make sense of the Bible in relation to the new science, the score is serious and intense. So… when Christians are grappling with modernity, we’re supposed to share their sense of crisis; but when Jews grapple with modernity, that’s funny, cause, you know, it’s about whether or not to eat shrimp, which isn’t really a serious question.

The talking heads’ examples of the problems in the Bible that drove modernists to their conclusions are so simplistic that I have to think an evangelical student watching that part of the documentary would think, “But that’s so easy to answer. What’s the problem?”

Along a similar line, the dramatized confrontation between Bryan and Darrow during the Scopes trial wasn’t quite fair to Bryan, I felt; the filmmakers wanted to make clear why he lost in “public opinion” (meaning: the Northern media), so he had to be played as more inept than he might have been. On the other hand, Bryan does get the last word in a nice little speech that drives home what he saw as the stakes for American society. It’s a poignant moment, but not as compelling as it might have been because it’s understated: I sense the filmmakers don’t want us sympathizing too much with him.

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God in America: A Nation Reborn

v07739acrasA continuing review of the Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America. This post looks at part 3, “A Nation Reborn.”

Summary: This is the Civil War episode, as you may have immediately guessed from the title. In past episodes, there have been typically been three major characters, or episodes; here the big three are James Osgood Andrew, the Southern Methodist bishop who was at the center of a slavery controversy that split the Methodists in the 1840s; Frederick Douglass; and Abraham Lincoln. (Alas for the actor playing Lincoln, comparisons to Daniel Day-Lewis are now unavoidable.)

This episode doesn’t divide into “acts” as easily as the first two episodes did. But basically, the storyline is this: Debates over slavery in the antebellum years polarize American Christians, as anti-slavery Northerners and pro-slavery Southerners each become convinced that their cause is God’s cause. The conflict erupts into a civil war which partisans understand as a holy war, an apocalyptic confrontation. Lincoln tries at first to steer a moderating course that will transcend the religious divide; but as the war progresses, he too begins to understand the war in religious terms as an awe-ful and largely inscrutable work of Providence. He decides God does want slaves freed–ergo, the Emancipation Proclamation–but in the Second Inaugural, he laments the fact that both sides invoked the same God, and he maintains that neither side’s prayers have been fully answered. God is above the fray. The episode ends with Lincoln’s death and apotheosis.

Likes: The first third, maybe, of this episode goes along very nicely with what I’ve been doing in my introductory survey to American religious history on the topics of the slavery debate and the Civil War. The documentary explains how the Methodist split over slavery–and similar, subsequent splits among Presbyterians and Baptists–pave the way for the split of the Union by intensifying the polarization. (I would add: And helped to reinforce the sense–articulated by both abolitionists and secessionists–that slavery demanded separation. Parties not agreed on this question could not walk together.)

The documentary lets pro- and anti-slavery Christians present their arguments on screen. It lets both sides in the war explain why God was on their side. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is highlighted for that purpose, a text I use in my course.

Dislikes: I would use the first third of this film in class–the part on the antebellum period and on the civil war as a holy war. I wouldn’t use the rest, which narrates the Civil War through the lens of Lincoln’s own existential crisis and emerging understanding of Providence. I found that part both boring and hagiographic. Earlier episodes, I thought, had done a good job of using individuals or specific historical events as ways to illustrate larger developments in social and cultural history. This episode became centrally about Lincoln and his own religiosity–and yes, obviously, Lincoln’s religiosity translated into executive policies that had larger consequence; but I didn’t feel this episode did much to illuminate broader trends in American religion.

The film seemed to paint the war as the result of obnoxious religious zealotry in both North and South. By contrast, Lincoln is portrayed, positively, as a political and religious moderate, someone who is less convinced that he knows the will of God and who resists aligning God with one side or the other. That humility is central to Lincoln’s saintliness in this particular hagiography, which makes the documentary itself a cultural artifact that reveals something about how contemporary Americans–the makers of PBS documentaries, anyway–understand “good” versus “bad” religion.

The film’s hagiographic impulse requires it to tiptoe around the political calculations involved in Lincoln’s emancipating slaves in Confederate states but not in slave-holding Union states. That awkwardness gets skirted in favor of uncomplicated bell-ringing jubilation that Lincoln has decided God wants slaves to go free.  I also became increasingly annoyed at the way filmmakers seemed to credit Lincoln for inventing religious positions that the filmmakers had already presented to us as positions of the abolitionists–except that when the abolitionists said these things, they were radical and divisive and therefore bad. So we’re told in reverent tones that in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln changed the aim of the war, and gave it a holy quality, by defining the war as seeking to redefine human freedom. Um… Have you forgotten your own film’s discussion of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”? Ditto for the film’s praising the Second Inaugural Address because Lincoln eschewed Northern triumphalism in favor of a somber declaration that the war was divine punishment for the whole nation’s complicity in slavery. But… that’s not a novel “third way” position presented by a president seeking to transcend the conflict. That’s Lincoln absorbing the rhetoric of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Angelina Grimke.

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God in America: A New Eden

v07739acrasI just watched part 2 of the Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America: “A New Eden.” Here’s a quick summary and comments.

Storyline: Act I: Thomas Jefferson and Virginia Baptists help make religious liberty a founding principle of the new American nation. Act II: The absence of a state church creates a religious vacuum at the center of public life that generates a sense of moral danger, leading to the Second Great Awakening [though the film doesn’t use that term] as an effort to Christianize the nation. Methodist circuit rider and reformer James Finley is the main character of this section. Act III: Catholic bishop John Hughes than calls Protestant America back to its principle of religious liberty as he fights Protestant dominance of New York’s public schools.

Likes: I think this material would be quite helpful at explaining some major points I aim to get across in this phase of my introductory survey of American religious history:

  • The struggle for disestablishment in the new Republic–though I would want to add the nuance that the First Amendment did not end state establishments.
  • A Butlerian angle (that’s Jon Butler, not Judith) on the early 19th-century revivals and reform movements as an effort to establish Protestant cultural hegemony. The film doesn’t put that hard an edge on it, but I can sharpen what they give me.
  • Protestant-Catholic tensions as the most dramatic “dark side” of Protestant hegemony in the young Republic.

Some great talking heads here, including Lauren Winner, Catherine Breckus, John McGreevy, and Mark Massa.


I finally shouted at the screen: “Stop calling them evangelicals!” I do not use that term in my course until we get to the late 20th century (and even then, I prefer “conservative Protestant”): before the 20th century, “Protestant” is good enough. I don’t have room here to lay out my whole argument against using evangelical to describe pre-20th century Protestants: but basically, I object to how that usage reinforces late 20th-century evangelicals’ self-image as the true heirs of America’s Protestant heritage. Using the term gives the impression there’s a coherent thing called “evangelicalism” whose history can be traced across centuries (again, the self-serving self-image of late 20th-century evangelicals); but what we really have is a power word–“evangelical”–that’s been claimed by different people at different times for somewhat different reasons. I’m pissy enough about this that it might convince me not to use the “Second Great Awakening” segment of the film in the classroom.

We’re clearly supposed to be rooting for John Hughes: he’s calling Americans back to religious liberty. But in order to make that framing work–and to keep the Protestants unambiguously unsympathetic–the filmmakers have to avoid letting Protestant voices articulate a very important feature of how they perceived the public schools debate. When Hughes appealed to religious liberty, Protestants countered by appealing to church-state separation. I would want to add that layer of complexity for students: both sides in this debate were appealing to potent American ideals about religion and the state.

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God in America: A New Adam

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be watching the six-part Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America. I’m trying to figure out whether and in what ways this might be useful for teaching. I’ll blog my reactions.

Here are some thoughts in response to part 1, “A New Adam.”

v07739acrasThesis of the program: In the New World, European religions have to change. This is how America really becomes the New World, not the Old World in a new place. (That turn of phrase is courtesy of Stephen Prothero, who has a lot of talking-head time. He has a nice knack for explaining things like Calvinist ideas about regeneration.) A key transformation is an emphasis on the authority of individual religious experience over established churches/the state.

Kudos to the filmmaker for starting in the Southwest, not in New England. The story begins with Franciscans and Po’pay’s revolt. Then we shift to the Puritans: John Winthrop vs. Anne Hutchinson. That’s followed by George Whitefield and the First Great Awakening [though they don’t use that term, interestingly] as a prelude to the Revolution. Whitefield’s emphasis on a new birth experience is presented as an analogy to Hutchinson’s antinomianism [another term they don’t use]. In both cases, individual religious experience is being asserted against a religious establishment that fears social disorder. Part 1 ends on the eve of the Revolution. Quite a cliffhanger! Prothero does his line about America is really becoming the New World, not the Old World in a new place. But what will this new thing be . . . ? To be continued.

The story unfolds at a basic level, but has the virtue of being accessible (i.e., appropriate as a starting point for a 100-level course, though I’d then want to nuance the narrative for those same students). It’s interesting, well acted. The Winthrop-Hutchinson square-off is especially good drama.


Although we start with a Spanish-Pueblo encounter, Native Americans promptly disappear from the narrative. Visually, the film reinforces the myth of America as an empty wilderness: we get repeated shots of individuals walking alone through unpopulated landscapes. I understand that such shots are an exigency in a historical film when you don’t want to hire and costume lots of extras or recreate colonial towns; but they have an unfortunate ideological effect that I would want to call students’ attention to.

The party line adopted in the film is that Pueblos never really converted to Christianity: the friars simply misunderstood the Pueblos’ pluralistic religious attitude, their willingness to add Christian elements to their religion without repudiating their native traditions. I smell oversimplification. I know for a fact that 17th-century Hopi communities were divided between Christian and traditionalist factions, with the Christians trying (at least according to traditionalist accounts) to help the friars stamp out native religious practices.

The film’s claim that the First Great Awakening helped pave the way for the Revolution is an oft-made claim. I think this claim tends to be overstated by American religious historians; I have yet to see strong textual evidence for it. In fact, as we were watching the film, my husband remarked about precisely this claim, which he had not heard before: “Eh, that connection’s kind of vague.” Agreed. This is a point I would want to nuance with my class. After all, establishment Congregationalists and even many Anglicans–people who opposed revivalism, as this film drives home–nevertheless felt amply justified in joining the Revolution. It may be true, as the film puts it, that revivalism gave the Revolution a new moral force; but the Revolution had other moral foundations, and at least in the primary texts I use when I teach religion and the Revolution, revivalism does not loom large.

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Pass-over the Holi Easter!

An artifact of pluralist discourse from my campus: I’m reblogging something a student posted last week to the university’s student life blog. The post is a brief report on/announcement of three religious holidays being celebrated by campus groups at the end of March 2013: Holi, Passover, and Easter. I’m quoting below the first and last paragraphs. Note that what these holidays are said to celebrate are not “religions” but “cultures.”

By: Melissa Goldberg

Now I know the spring isn’t the most typical time to think of the holidays, but there are actually several holidays in the month of March. From Holi to Passover to Easter, the month of March is quite a festive time of the year here at Miami [. . .]

December better watch out with all the holidays in March because students are actually in session to celebrate! These are all great ways to get students who typically celebrate their respective holidays to get their friends involved as well. With all these holidays this month, it is a great time to celebrate different cultures and remind us Miami University’s students are diverse.

[Read more]



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