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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