Is America a “Christian” nation? Or is it a secular nation, subject to Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state?
For many Americans, these are the central questions about the role of religion in public life. But the assumptions behind both questions reveal a certain ignorance. The story of America is not some fantasy of a nation founded in Jesus’ name. Nor is it a nation created entirely out of secular principles. The essence of the American experiment lies instead in the tensions between secular and sacred, in the paradox of a nation defined by both its Enlightenment principles and the religious yearnings of its people.
These tensions are explored to great effect in “God in America,” a new documentary that aired on October 11, 12 and 13 on the Public Broadcasting Service. A co-production of Frontline and American Experience, the documentary is sort of what you’d expect from PBS: the religious history of America told with historical footage, re-enactments and talking-head interviews. If, at times, the re-enactments are cheesy (too many historical figures saying something profound into the camera, then turning to stare intensely into the middle distance), “God in America” is absorbing and informative.
At six hours long, it’s certainly comprehensive: It starts with the 17th-century Spanish attempts to convert the Pueblo Indians, ends with the religious pluralism of our day and explores the fascinating, messy and often violent collision of religion and politics that marked the centuries in between.
The sheer length of “God in America” allows for the viewer to follow a number of threads, one being the almost constant influence of evangelical Christianity. Obviously, evangelicals have been enormously influential in recent decades, and the sixth episode, “Of God and Caesar,” covers their rise to prominence in the 1980s. But “God in America” also demonstrates how the doctrines of spiritual rebirth and a direct connection to God (as opposed to the more sober Protestant traditions of self-regulation and study) have been unsettling the status quo since Anne Hutchinson was exiled by her Puritan governors in 1638. “God in America” even suggests that the individualist tendencies of evangelicals played an important part in the revolution against Britain.
Another theme is how frequently Americans have used (or abused) the Bible to grant themselves a sense of divine mission. The Exodus story was invoked by the Puritans, Revolutionary-era preachers, the Mormons and (most appropriately, to my mind) by the civil rights movement. As the slavery debate raged in the 19th century, both apologists and abolitionists trotted out scripture.
More telling of our national self-regard is the consistent rhetoric of divine election, from the Puritans who hoped to create a “New Israel” to the divine providence implied by Manifest Destiny. In the mid-20th century, the rhetoric of “godless communism” and American uniqueness can be seen as part of the long tradition of Americans viewing themselves as a chosen people.
“God in America” also reminds us that religion can be connected to our better impulses. Shortly after drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson defended the right of Baptists to preach in Virginia, in defiance of the Anglican aristocracy. In the 1840s, “Dagger John” Hughes, a Catholic bishop, fought the anti-Catholic bias endemic in New York’s public schools. And Martin Luther King Jr. helped to shame America into remembering its promises by using nonviolence.
Overall, with its breadth and detail, “God in America” is an impressive achievement. But it isn’t perfect. One problem is that it takes the religious impulse entirely at face value. Over the centuries, Americans have used scripture to justify a number of conflicts that, like the Civil War, clearly had economic causes. One wonders, then, how much of this Bible thumping was brought about by sincere religious feeling, and how much by Americans looking for a divine excuse to protect their pocketbooks. Episode three, “A Nation Reborn,” has a long segment on the egregious contradiction between slaveholding and Christianity. But aside from this obvious target, “God in America” glosses over the possibility of religious hypocrisy.
The filmmakers also make some puzzling choices. The story of Isaac Mayer Wise and Reform Judaism is told in the fourth episode, “A New Light,” whose theme is the conflict between traditionalism and modernity. Naturally we can’t talk about religion in America without mentioning Jews. But while the segment on Wise is informative enough, I’m not sure how central his story is to American Jewish life, let alone to the grand narrative of American religious life — especially considering that in a six-hour documentary, Mormonism is barely mentioned.
Still, the inclusion of Reform Judaism allows Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Columbia University’s Barnard College, to make a crucial point: “There’s something about the American context that seems to encourage particular expressions of the faith rather than any one unified expression of the faith.”
That “something,” I think, is our individualism. The final episode of “God in America” points out that one in six Americans is unaffiliated. The statistic is given as evidence of our waning religiosity; nevertheless, five in six are affiliated. (Even American Jews, who are famously irreligious, still seek out rabbis for weddings and funerals.) So Americans still need religion, and the aforementioned particularism indicates that we don’t like to be told how to worship. Which makes us rather like our forebears.
I might conclude as “God in America” does, by pointing out the American tendency toward religious pluralism. Protestants, for the most part, no longer view Catholics and Jews as alien; soon, one hopes, Americans will do the same for Hindus and Muslims. But if the religions change, the essence remains the same. America will be defined not by our religiosity or our secularism, but by the open question of how best to navigate between them.
Gordon Haber is a frequent contributor to the Forward.