From the Underside of the Millennium: My Take on God in America

Paul Harvey

Today's Religion Dispatches features a few of my thoughts on the God in America series which premiered last week: "The Brutality of the American Eden: From the Underside of the Millennium." As the post makes clear, I enjoyed and appreciated the series, but wanted to raise some questions about freedom and authority in American history:

But I do want to ask what this series would look like if we also understand American religious history to be about coercion and authority? Most of God in America is about the white Protestant majority in American history. In a series on religion and public life, that is fair enough; they have dominated religion and public life. But what if we make coercion,establishment, and repression as central to our narrative as freedom, disestablishment, and expression? What if this is a show in which Americans’ self-understanding as derived from Exodus is more critically examined than celebrated?

Read the full post here, and I'd love to hear your thoughts either at Religion Dispatches or here.

Oh, and while you're at it, catch Matt Sutton's take on the series here, also at Religion Dispatches. Matt defends the series against professorial carping, praises its success in reaching a broader public, and points out how much we all engage in our own forms of condensation and simplifying to get across a few basic points.


Luke Harlow said…
Paul--Great post over at RD. I agree with your argument and I especially think a move toward emphasizing themes like "coercion, establishment, and repression" (I think here of David Sehat's series of fascinating posts over at US Intellectual History, which makes me eager for his forthcoming book), especially as connected to white Protestant privilege in American history could turn on its head some of the evangelical Whiggism John Fea recently blogged about in God in America. Framed differently, but using roughly the same details, I think it is quite possible that this documentary might have been received differently by scholars. From this view, it might have been less a problem of evidence than interpretation. (Though some of the chronological and evidentiary leaps in God in America would still boggle the mind.)
Paul, great post.

I just finished reading Mark Silk's Unsecular Media where he describes media understandings of religion as:

"Applause for good work. Embrace of tolerance. Contempt for hypocrisy. Rejection of false prophets. Inclusion of worthy religious others. Appreciation of faith in things unseen. Concern about religious decline."

He calls this a "disposition of establishmentarianism." So, if this is the sort of religion folks get through the news media it seems to be the form of religion that sits best with an audience--media needs to reach the broadest possible audience after all. It makes sense then, that establishmentarianism would find its way into the PBS special. But now I'm just repeating Sutton, I guess.

The comparison between PBS religion and news religion is interesting though.
foxofbama said…

Great piece. Have already brought it to the attention of some Baptists at Duke and a former chair of Trustees at the UMC affiiated Wofford, in Spartanburg, SC where Billy Graham's Membership is now at FBC Church there.
I think some of your reservations about the documentary were amply countered by the followup piece at yesterday.
That said Provocative piece I continue to think about.
It has been linked in a discussion blog of Fundamentalist Southern Baptists
You may want to follow the discussion there. Would be grand if you weighed in with a few comments.
Matt Sutton said…
I should add (and clarify) that I don't see my piece and Paul's as mutually exclusive. I think there is a difference between Paul's (and Fea's)smart critique of the particular meta-narrative chosen in this series and the less sophisticated, more common criticism of PBS for choosing a meta-narrative approach over a tokenist get-as-much-as-we-can into 360 minutes, which is implied in some of the other critiques.
January said…
For me, it all depends on whether we get some follow-through. If this one big splash sold the farm, that is disappointing. If it is a prelude to a consideration of some of the complications conveniently missing, because "one can only do so much within limits," then adopting a more focused examination may be more satisfying.

I see lots of possibilities in further exploration of Lincoln's alternative to the standard hope that "God is on our side" held by warring factions. That remains the cry of warriors to this day.

You may have seen the bumper sticker in rebuke of "God bless America," which reads "God bless the whole world." A pittance to be sure but excessively neglected.

Popular Posts