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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