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PBS: Review: God in America

PBS puts American religion in its proper place

Read more: http://thephoenix...z11ord8h5u

For all our bragging about separating church and state, throughout our nation's history, religion has never been on the sidelines. If you're going to watch only six hours of serious TV this fall, spend it all on the joint Frontline and American Experience documentary God in America (WGBH Channel 2, October 11-13 from 9 to 11 pm), which traces the paths of America's religious, political, and social thinking since the 17th century. Sounds a little heavy, right? Fair point. This is a short, but never simplified, explanation of how democracy's ideals influenced belief, faith, and practice — and vice versa.

What makes the three-nighter a standout is that it explains this complex interrelationship without selling anything. The narration, dramatic re-enactments, and expert commentaries maintain an academic distance from questions of a given faith's validity, and by treating all denominations as equal players, they avoid the theological distractions that effectively censor most discussions of God's role in real life. Is God a primitive myth or a divine force? God in America doesn't care. Belief, revival, evangelicalism, salvation, and reform have been powerful factors shaping America, and the best perspective from which to understand that is disinterest.

The first two hours (the slowest-paced installment) look at Colonial America as the product of the European Reformation — the New World as a sanctuary and beta site for the radical Protestant notion that man and God can communicate without priests or other anointed intermediaries. GiA contends that this culturally ingrained anti-orthodoxy led to the Constitution's disinclination to establish an Old World–style official state religion. That in turn empowered laity to define their own beliefs. Such unprecedented freedom enabled the squabbles and schisms that created so many religious cults and denominations and, eventually, the evolution of the concept of a "personal" God of salvation into that of a God of Nations who had a "special relationship" — a "covenant" — with America.

Hour three, which examines how this God behaved when the nation was in civil war, is equally revealing but considerably more emotional. It makes the case that Lincoln's own emerging religious convictions and acceptance of the notion of personal andnational salvation was the catalyst for both Emancipation and the total-war campaigns that defeated the South. All our wars since have enjoyed Biblical sanction.

From there, GiA looks at how immigrant Jews, unable to accommodate Orthodox practice into modern America, developed reform editions that were easier to live with. Protestant groups subsequently did the same, exchanging the doctrine of a word-perfect sacrosanct Bible for beliefs more compatible with rational thought. And that provoked the Fundamentalist backlash that haunts current affairs to this day. (The final two hours bring things up to the present, but previews of the concluding installment were not available as of this writing.)

What's outlined above are some of the cause-and-effect events this remarkable series covers, but there's a lot more on offer. GiA also addresses the less tangible trajectory of Americans' perceptions of the God-man relationship — perceptions that, as much as politics and personalities, have influenced our past. In total, the programs do nothing less than explain how we got where we are today in an original and revealing light. Brilliantly researched and documented, God in America will make you a believer in the power of religious freedom. It's like being born again . . . intellectually.
Sounds interesting. I'll check my PBS station's schedule! Thanks.
Sounds like a great documentary 'Patia. I wonder if they'll discuss the US adoption of manifest destiny as a religious quest based on notions that this was a promised land similar to Israel.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana
Aaaaggghhh!! I can't believe I forgot this was going to be on! Well, I have been busy with a couple of projects I'm in a time crunch to get done, so that has a lot to do with it (in my defense). Still, why didn't I write myself a note, and add it to all the other sticky notes? (kick)

Anyhoo, I wondered if this series was going to be slanted one way or another, and then I read this tonight:


PBS Gets It Wrong On The Constitution and Religion

by Frederick Clarkson
Tue Oct 12, 2010 at 08:21:52 AM PDT

The six part PBS miniseries God in America that began on Monday features a glaring error that merits highlighting and correcting.

God in America seeks to present a fresh narrative of the story of religion in America, including how that story shaped the writing of the Constitution. While the first two chapters, presented back to back seem good, (albeit overly slanted towards the role of evangelical Christians), there is a glaring error (partly of omission, partly of commission) I want to highlight that goes to the heart of the story of religious freedom and the right of individual conscience. Getting this important element of our history right helps us to answer the Religious Right's theocratic aspirations as well as claims the various claims of Christian nationalism.

That this PBS documentary joins the Religious Right in eliding this important part of our history is disturbing.

So let's correct the record.

* Frederick Clarkson's diary :: ::

The film and the related web site contradicts itself each time the role of religion in the Constitution is mentioned:

The section on the drafting of the Constitution on the web site's "time line" of religious liberty is headlined: "U.S. Constitution drafted; no guarantee of religious liberty."

The discussion under this headline states:

God and religion are scarcely mentioned in the document. Wanting to create "a more perfect union," some of the Constitution's framers fear that statements on religion would be divisive.

While it is true that there was concern about how best to approach the matter of religion, in fact there was a major statement regarding religious liberty in the Constitution thus it was not "scarcely mentioned" nor can anyone fairly say that there was "no guarantee of religious liberty" when in fact, Article Six made an extraordinary and unprecedented first cut at doing just that. (The First Amendment came later.)

But even the dubious claim that religion is "scarcely mentioned" is more accurate than what is stated in the film itself.

NARRATOR: And when, a year later, the Constitution was being drafted in Philadelphia, Jefferson and the Baptists hoped that their hard-fought principle of separating church from state would be part of the country's founding document. But when the Constitution was presented in September 1787, in not one of the seven articles was there any guarantee of religious liberty or other individual rights.

But this is a semantic spin on the facts. Article Six of the Constitution declared:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

This was a real break between the theocratic norms of the colonial era and the democratic values of religious equality that stand at the center of the struggle of the American experiment to this day. It meant that for the first time in the history of the world, what one believed or didn't believe, or if one changed one's mind, would not be criteria for determining eligibility for public office. (And while it took a long time to make that principle real, and arguably we are still working on it, that only underscores how deeply radical Article Six really was.)

Understandably, it was a big issue at the time, since religious oaths had been standard (and perennially controversial) in most of the colonies. The abolition of "religious tests" set in motion the disestablishment of the state churches. (I wrote about the significance of Article Six in an essay, History is Powerful: Why the Christian Right Distorts History and Why it Matters in The Public Eye magazine in 2007.)

Indeed, a great deal of opposition to ratification of the Constitution centered on religion. While it is true, as the film emphasizes, many were concerned about the absence of any mention of God or Christianity in the text, many opponents were also opposed to the banning of religious tests for public office.

The Constitution was of course, ultimately ratified by a majority of the states, but part of the politics of getting there was a deal made with civil libertarians like Jefferson that they would support ratification for a document that they felt insufficiently guaranteed religious liberty, in exchange for the promise that the Constitution would be amended later. They did, and it was.

In an online debate at Religion Dispatches (an outgrowth of a panel at Netroots Nation in 2009), I added:

"Barring religious tests for public office in Article 6 also obviously meant that there would be no religious test for citizenship. (You can’t be elected to office if you are not a citizen.) Thus the framers were clearly not solely concerned with whether or not we had official federal or state churches, but first that the right of belief resided with individual citizens.

The plumb line of this principle is clear. When Thomas Jefferson first proposed the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1777, he stated that this right of individual conscience must be extended to everyone, including: "the Jew, the Mohametan, and the Hindoo." Jefferson was not arguing the demographics of majority and minority religions, but first principles. It took time to advance them, even then. James Madison as governor of Virginia managed to push Jefferson’s bill through the legislature in 1786—the year before the drafting the federal Constitution, of which Madison is credited with being the principal author—as well as the principal author of the First Amendment. Virginia had already disestablished the Anglican Church, the day after it joined the revolution in 1776. So there is no mistaking the meaning of formally extending religious liberty to all in the wake of disestablishment and as a famous forerunner to the Constitution itself.

In fairness, any story necessarily includes some facts and leaves out others in order to keep the narrative clear. But in this case, the result is a gross distortion of the history of religious liberty in the U.S.

[Crossposted from Talk to Action]

Update [2010-10-12 12:14:52 by Frederick Clarkson]: Commenter Prince Nekhlyudov makes an excellent point that underscores the unambiguous intentions of the framers with regards to the right of individual conscience in the Constitution consistent with the meaning of Article Six. He writes:

Another subtle indication of the separation of church and state in the original constitution can be found in Article Three, which specifically states that the President may "swear or affirm" upon taking office, and what we usually call the "oath of office" is actually an "oath or affirmation." Oaths had distinctively religious quality and many religious sects such as Quakers, as well as free-thinkers, strongly objected to any legal requirement of "swearing" to an "oath" so the constitution specifically provides for the option of an oath or affirmation (which is an usworn statement subject to penalty of perjury). This framing is carried forward in the Bill of Rights (i.e., the 4th Amendment says that search warrants must be based on "oath or affirmation" establishing probable cause).


On Ten Commandments bill, Christian Right has it wrong


Was the United States founded as a "Christian nation"? For many conservative Christians there is no question about it. In fact, this is one of the primary ideas animating and informing the Christian right in the US. We are likely to hear a great deal about it this election year - thanks to Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, who is at the center of a national campaign to alter the course of history. Depending on whom you talk to, Mr. Moore is alternately a hero, a crackpot, or a demagogue.

Whatever one's view, Moore, known to many as "the Ten Commandments judge," has come to personify a revisionist view of American history - one that, if it gains wide currency, threatens to erode the culture, and constitutional principle, of religious pluralism in the US.

Moore's story is already the stuff of legend. After being elected chief justice, he had a 5,280-pound monument to the Ten Commandments installed in the rotunda of Alabama's state judicial building in 2001. Moore insisted he had a First Amendment right to "acknowledge God" as the "moral foundation of law." The result of the inevitable lawsuit was US District Judge Myron Thompson's decision that Moore had violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment by creating "a religious sanctuary within the walls of a courthouse." When Moore refused to remove the rock, he was removed from office.

Judge Thompson got it right. But Moore and his allies see the decision as a defining moment in their campaign to "overthrow judicial tyranny." At stake over the long haul is the authority of the courts to protect individual civil rights against religious and political majoritarianism.

On one front, leaders on the Christian Right are organizing Ten Commandments rallies across the country. The charismatic Moore is often the headliner. A recent rally in Dallas drew 5,000 people. Meanwhile in Congress, US Rep. Robert Aderholt (R) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R), both of Alabama, have introduced a bill (written by Moore and his lawyer) that would remove jurisdiction from the federal courts over all matters involving the "acknowledgement of God" in the public arena, including school prayer, the pledge of allegiance, and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings. The Constitution Restoration Act would be retroactive, apparently to undo many federal and Supreme Court decisions - such as Moore's case.

While the bill is unlikely to pass this year, it does suggest the emerging contours of the debate.

Although Moore's movement has gained some political traction, its core premise has a fundamental flaw: It aims to "restore" a Christian constitution that never existed. And this presents challenges for Moore and his allies as they attempt to invoke the framers of the Constitution in support of their contemporary notions of a Biblically based society.

Last August, for example, James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, rallied with Moore in front of the Alabama state courthouse.

"I checked yesterday with my research team," Dr. Dobson announced. "There are only two references to religion in the Constitution." The first, from the preamble, he said, refers to securing "the blessings of liberty," which, he asserted, "came from God" (although there is nothing in the document to support that view.) The other was the First Amendment's establishment clause that, he said, "has given such occasion for mischief by the Supreme Court."

However, Dobson's researchers missed - or ignored - Article Six of the Constitution. That's the one barring religious tests for public office and set in motion disestablishment of the Christian churches that had served as arbiters of colonial citizenship and government for 150 years.

Mainstream historian Gary Wills writes that the framers' major innovation was "disestablishment."

"No other government in the history of the world," he writes, "had launched itself without the help of officially recognized gods and their state connected ministers."

Christian Right historian Gary North agrees. The ratification of the Constitution was a "judicial break with Christian America." Article Six provided a "legal barrier to Christian theocracy" leading "directly to the rise of religious pluralism," he declares in "Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism." Indeed, history shows that the framers of the Constitution sought to establish religious equality among citizens and in government. But, as Christian nationalists seek to eviscerate the capacity of federal courts to protect the religious freedom and equality of all Americans, we can expect that one of their main tactics and goals will continue to be the revision of history itself.

Has anyone watched the first two segments?
Edited by Hypatia on 10/12/2010 22:19
I was unable to watch any of it. Hopefully they'll be online in the near future.
"The world is my country, and do good is my religion." - Thomas Paine
I watched them both tonight. They were quite good. The misinformation concerning Article Six is duly noted and appreciated, but guaranteeing 'no religious test' for office isn't quite the same as a guarantee of complete religious freedom. Perhaps Jefferson wanted it more explicitly stated.
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