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.

Complaints:

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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