Deg's Dispatches, Part VII

Dispatches from LeConte Hall 323 – Part VII
by Darren Grem

How has religion been used to define and defend an “American way of life?” We pursued this question via the most recent section of our “uncoverage” tour of American religious history, and, to start off, I had my students reflect on the marvelous collection of FSA/OWI photographs that Colleen McDannell has collected for her Material History of American Religion Project. I asked them to consider both the artistic elements of these photos, but also how each used religion and religious groups to relate certain ideas about “genuine American-ness” and the “genuine American.” What did these photos say about Catholics and American identity? About rural Baptists? About Jews in northern farming communities? About African-Americans? After addressing these questions, we considered what these photos don’t say about American religion in the 1930s-1940s. The lack of religious conflict portrayed, as well as the exclusion of other prominent religious groups, seemed to reflect the desire of federal officials to simplify religious scenes and groups into role models for individualism, collective sacrifice, and cultural harmony. We continued our inquiry by looking at another cultural product from the 1950s that taught similar lessons in the midst of the Cold War – The Ten Commandments. How did Cecil B. DeMille use the Moses story to teach American moviegoers about America’s role in the Cold War? What was he trying to say about the state, “freedom,” individualism, and the implications of this conflict? How was he trying to appeal to multiple audiences and how might those audiences – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, etc. – have responded to his efforts?

Since I thought both the photos and the film showed, visually, the constructed union between American religion and an “American way of life,” I also wanted my students to reflect on what various observers in the 1930s-1950s thought about this union. Selections from Will Herberg’s Protestant-Catholic-Jew reiterated many of the points made by the A/V selections, while selections from Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness and Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums complicated them. Could one retain a religious approach informed by, say, communist activism in an intensely anti-communist environment? If Protestant-Catholic-Jewish affiliations were acceptable, what did Americans think about other religious traditions, such as Kerouac’s quasi-Buddhist interests? Why or how did Day and Kerouac challenge – or perhaps affirm – the “American way of life” lauded by the FSA/OWI and DeMille? To firm up their answers to these questions, I finished off our inquiry into the immediate post-war period with a lecture on how American religions were affected by the broader social and political context of the Cold War. Through this lecture (and the week’s work), I wanted my students to reflect on how the Cold War could create a remarkable amount of religious awareness and consensus but, ironically, also encourage challenges to the religious status quo. As such, this section was as much a set-up for future weeks as anything else, preparing my students to see why later movements – whether led by civil rights activists, feminists, or others – used religion to affirm and reject certain elements of the “American way of life.”

Since I work on the post-war era, this section was more or less in my wheelhouse. The students, also, recognize much in the period, either from their own impressions about the 1930s-1950s, their parents’ and grandparents’ remembrances, or Tinseltown’s various portrayals. Given that, I also tried to remind them – as I’ve done throughout the term – that the past is a foreign country, the 1950s no less than the 1850s or 1750s. To be sure, its proximity to our own time makes it more recognizable, but that doesn’t mean that interpreting this period should rely on mere intuition. By making my students consider how both government and individuals united religious affections to national affirmation, I wanted them to detach themselves from easy interpretations about the naturalness of the period and its strange uniting of religion to an “American way of life.” In turn, I wanted them to understand how and why certain groups and individuals might be alienated or angered by such collusions, and why that might lead to political action. At this point, it’s hard to gauge how well this lesson took, but as we move to study the religious conflicts created by various liberation movements, I believe they’ll see how the “American way of life” could take on more religious meanings than they might expect.