Tuesday, October 12, 2010

God In America, Part One: An Exercise in the Evangelical Whig View of Early American Religious History

I just got done watching Part 1 of the PBS series "God in America." I know I am behind (Part 2 aired tonight), but such is the life of a blogger, professor, and a new department chair.

The series begins with the Franciscan attempts to convert the Pueblo Indians to Christianity in the 17th century.  This, of course, is a sad chapter in American history.  The Spanish friars were militant.  Their evangelistic zeal led to the destruction of Pueblo sacred sites and all sorts of brutality.  The high point of this story is the Pueblo revolt of 1680, the Indian rebellion that put an end to the Spanish presence in the west and proved that Christianity would not come to America unchanged.

This is a nice way to begin, but it has absolutely no connection to the rest of Part One's narrative.  One gets the impression that this was just tacked on to the beginning of the program because SOMETHING needed to be said about native Americans.  The story line of the native Americans, and the Spanish for that matter, are quickly dropped in favor of what I call in the title of this post the "evangelical Whig view" of American history.  This script could have been written by George Bancroft.

And where is slave religion?  (Let's hope it is discussed later in the series).

The Puritans are next. Steven Prothero of Boston University establishes himself as our guide through this history, but we also hear from a star-studded lineup of historians that include Michael Winship, Frank Lambert, Mary Beth Norton, Stephen Marini

Much time is spent on Anne Hutchinson. Too much time.  Prothero is very good at showing the Protestant individualism of the Puritans and how Hutchinson, in some ways, seemed more Protestant than the Puritans.  Hutchinson is clearly the star.  There is more time spent on her story than on the Puritans who removed her from the colony.  Was the Hutchinson trial really the most important moment in 17th century New England history? Would the people living in Puritan New England have seen it this way?  Absolutely not. The Halfway Covenant, King Philips War, the Salem Witch Trials, and a host of other events would have been more important to the Puritan "city on a hill," but these events do not fit easily into the Whig narrative.

The portrayal of the Hutchinson trial is well-acted and the trial transcript is used as the script.  Winship claims that during this trial Hutchinson "rips him (John Winthrop) to shreds."  Norton celebrates the rebellious spirit of Hutchinson.  Prothero concludes that Hutchinson is the future of America--she represents liberty of conscience and religious freedom. 

The documentary then jumps to George Whitefield. Marini stresses the individualism of evangelical religion. (By the way, I would love to take a class with Marini--so much passion and energy!)  Harry Stout mentions Whitefield's appeal to the emotions and the imagination.  Lambert connects Whitefield's evangelical, individualistic Protestantism to that of Hutchinson.  A clear intellectual and spiritual genealogy is developing here.

The discussion of the First Great Awakening does a great job of explaining evangelicalism as a real and powerful religious movement that impacted people's lives.  The documentary uses a host of quotes from the diaries of Whitefield converts to make this point.  Very well done.

But overall the treatment of the Great Awakening is blatantly Whig. One is left with the impression that the Great Awakening was more of a political movement than it was a religious movement. Stout talks about the way Whitefield's evangelicalism challenged "the old aristocratic order" and even suggests that the Great Awakening led to the popular idea that "we are the people."  Then Daniel Driesbach talks about the way that the Great Awakening brought the colonies together.  One clearly gets the impression that these historians are setting us up for the American Revolution.  I tell my students that the Great Awakening created a transatlantic religious network that made the colonies more British and Protestant.  "God in America" would prefer to see it as the seedbed of individual liberty, revolution, and American identity.

And then, in the last three minutes of Part One, we get the triumph of the evangelical Whig narrative or, what Jon Butler has called "Born Again History." 

The narrator states that people began to insist that it was their right to worship in the church of their choice.  Evangelical religion is said to have provided the American Revolution with a sense of "moral" urgency. Prothero says that following the First Great Awakening, the Revolution was "inevitable" and "perfectly logical."

In the end, the story of "God in America"--at least early America-- is best told by following a direct line between Hutchinson and Whitefield, culminating in the American Revolution.  At times I thought I was sitting in a lecture at Glenn Beck University.