God in America: Of God and Caesar

v07739acrasLast spring, I began posting reviews of the 6-episode Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America. I realized recently that I never reviewed episode 6, “Of God and Caesar.” So let’s do it:

Summary: Unlike most other episodes, this one doesn’t divide neatly into “acts.” But the general storyline is this: In the wake of the 1960s, conservative evangelicals become politically mobilized: Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, George W. Bush. At the same time, though, the religious landscape is becoming more diverse: Hindus, Muslims, Latinos–both Catholic and evangelical. More Americans are religiously unaffiliated or “spiritual, not religious.” A new generation of evangelicals is paying more attention to the environment, AIDS, and poverty. There’s disillusion in the evangelical right–did we sell our souls for political gain? Meanwhile, Democrats are discovering God and reaching out to values voters, which brings us up to Obama.

Over a hopeful soundtrack, the documentary wraps everything up with Stephen Prothero saying that Americans continue to value the notion that they’re a special people with a special connection to God, but what that means and who’s included are still subjects of ongoing debate.

Likes: This episode covers topics that I include in the final, post-1960s, unit of my introductory American religious history survey: Hindus and Buddhists, Muslims, Latinos, and the culture wars. Since my life is contemporary with the emergence and development of the religious right, I suspect that I assume students know more about that movement and its history than they do; this episode gives a reasonably nuanced overview. The documentary-makers had plenty of footage to work with, of course, including clips of Francis Schaeffer’s films, which I’ve read about but never seen–that was interesting. Players in the religious right appear as talking heads: Pat Robertson, Ed Dobson, Frank Schaeffer, Richard Cizik.

Dislikes: Apart from a nod to Catholics as the originators of American anti-abortion activism and the final presentation of Obama as reaching out to some nebulous group called “values voters,” religion in politics is portrayed in this episode as basically synonymous with evangelical activism, as represented by Francis Schaeffer, Moral Majority, and the Christian Coalition more specifically. Granted that the evangelical right stands at the center of “culture war” conservatism. Nevertheless, I favor in my teaching Robert Wuthnow’s model of a conservative-liberal divide that cuts across the entire religious landscape, resulting in the formation of new interreligious coalitions on both sides of the line–and pressing some religious groups to awkwardly straddle the faultline. Examples: Catholics pursuing a politics based on the “seamless web of life,” which doesn’t transpose well into the categories of “liberal” and “conservative” as conventionally used in American politics today; or socially conservative Muslims who agree with conservative evangelicals on many issues but are alienated by “Christian America” rhetoric and evangelical Islamophobia.

Basically, I want students to understand that “conservative-liberal” has become a very important axis for understanding American religion today, but I don’t want them thinking just “evangelical” when they think “conservative,” a tendency that this documentary would reinforce.

In the final moments of the documentary, Prothero says: This moment in American religious life is about pluralism. We’re making the space bigger, extending the sacred canopy over more people. But we don’t have a narrative for this yet. Will we come up with one? What’s the story going to be? To Prothero and the makers of this documentary, I would say: Certainly God in America doesn’t give us that new, pluralistic story; it’s good that you appear to recognize that. May I (bitchily) suggest that part of the reason we don’t have a new narrative yet is that documentaries like this one continue to place Protestants at the center of the story, with other religious groups, when they appear, orbiting around the Protestants? If you want a narrative about religious pluralism in America, then a more radical decentering is needed than anyone involved in this project was evidently willing to hazard or creative enough to imagine.

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