Friday, October 22, 2010

God in America

Watching all six hours of the recent “God in America” series on PBS (jointly produced by “Frontline” and “American Experience”) is a little like experiencing first-hand the old canard about a talking dog --- what the dog says is considerably less remarkable than the fact it speaks at all.

Not necessarily remarkable for PBS, the most willing of all the mass media to jump head-first into long, thoughtful and relatively objective consideration of religious and other issues. But remarkable for communicators to the masses in general. NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN and the rest of the wired media never would have tried it.

“Get Religion,” a blog with right-wing funding and tendencies that devotes itself to media criticism, is correct at least about its basic premise --- the media just don’t get religion in large part because they don't try. Too bad, since nearly every issue of social importance in the United States is entangled with faith to one degree or another.

There seemed to be a fairly solid example of not-getting-it in Sunday’s Des Moines Register, for example --- a story about Brian Terrell, a radical peace activist home-based in Maloy, a tiny town over west of here in Ringgold County down southwest of Mount Ayr.

Although the story was interesting and offered insights into Terrell’s personal philosophy, it cut him off almost entirely from what probably is the most important source of that philosophy --- a long and active involvement in the Catholic Worker movement ( pacifist, radically activist, founded in the 1930s by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, both devout Roman Catholics).

Because of that disconnect, the Register story creates the impression that Terrell, a radically peaceful man, has been dropped into southwest Iowa’s cornfields by a flying saucer. A little reporting about his long-term involvement with the Catholic Worker movement and how his faith-based commitment to pacifism developed would have exposed the logic of it all.


One of the difficulties with the PBS series is its over-reaching title. “God in America” really isn’t about God, nor is it exactly about America. It’s more narrowly focused --- on various ideas about how God would behave if we were He, expressed and developed in large part by white protestant males, and the interaction of those ideas with public life in what has become the United States of America.

The series begins logically with the Christian separatists who arrived in Massachusetts in the 1620s in search of freedom to practice their faith without government interference and then proceeded to impose their vision of God’s will just as decisively as their English oppressors had. With equal logic, it concludes with the fairly recent discovery by my beloved Democrats of God as a vote-winning marketing tool.

An over-arching theme from beginning to end is recurring idea among us that God somehow has established a new covenant with what now is the United States, that we are intended to be that biblical (Matthew 5:14) “city that is set on a hill.”

The series moves smoothly through the Revolution, the frontier explosion of revivalism that produced the denominational diversity that still prevails among protestants, the Civil War, the 1925 Scopes trial that pitted biblical literalism against Darwin, the generic 1950s religiosity that developed during the Eisenhower administration, the re-entry as active political players during the 1970s of protestants often called fundamentalists, to the present --- when both Republicans and Democrats feel free to declare that God is on their side but not really on the other.

Given only 6 hours and despite its overly ambitious title, the series does a good job of telling the story it set out to tell without becoming truly offensive toward anyone among the nearly four centuries worth of players it features. So it’s worth watching, which you can still do online by going to the “God in America” Web site, which is here.

It does, however, vastly understate the feminine factor in U.S. religion --- with the exception of Anne Hutchinson, booted from the Massachusetts Bay colony for challenging the newly established order. Even the great majority of talking heads --- experts on religious issues who pop up frequently --- are male. So in one sense “God in America” is a patriarchal presentation of the U.S. religious patriarchy.

Although an interesting sideroad during the series travels through development of the uniquely U.S. expression of Judaism called Reform, Roman Catholics are largely absent. Much is made of the United States as a vast, lively and evolving religious marketplace --- but that theme is never really explored.

There is no consideration of the native United States upon which European ideas of God were imposed violently and destructively. Nor is there any serious exploration of the black United States --- slavery is seen always through white eyes --- although there is an interesting essay about the black church online at the series Web site. And there certainly is no exploration of the queer United States, currently the most active challenger to Christian assumptions.

The God in America of “God in America” is unequivocally white, protestant, heterosexual and male. Hopefully, if we stay tuned, PBS will get around to exploring some of those other threads of our national religious experience, too.

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