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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