I write having seen the first installment of God in America, a three-part series produced by PBS that showed some promise. While there is much still to come, I can report that it is not as bad as it might have been. (Is anything?) But it is also much, much worse than it has any good reason to be.
The most egregious problem—and it is really no surprise given the rather large role played by Stephen Prothero in the commentary—is the astonishing insularity. To put it bluntly, America is presented as an exception, once again. More specifically, the more nuanced argument one gets, largely from Prothero, is: America is an exceptional case, religiously speaking, because Americans believed (and still do believe) that they have an exceptional relationship with God. That is, Prothero would never be caught saying Americans actually do have an exceptional relationship with God. He is scholarly enough to claim, rather, that Americans are exceptional in that they believe that they have an exceptional relationship with God. Hence, America’s “story” is the Exodus narrative, a migration out of slavery (that is, an established church) and into freedom (that is, religious pluralism). Get it? We are not exceptional because God made us so—we are exceptional because we believe God made us so.
Hogwash—all of it.
It just so happens that every human collectivity that came of age between 1648 (the end of the “Wars of Religion”) and 1848 (the end of the age of monarchies) believed that it was on a special path, and (usually) that it had a special relationship with divine forces. This is what is called “nationalism,” though the term does not once occur in the first episode of God in America. Certainly, revolutionary English Puritanism, the great and mostly overlooked precursor to American Puritanism, in this series, thought of itself as a tribe of Israel finally coming into its own Zion. But, with the exception of France (which, even so, maintained a strong “throne and altar” tradition among conservatives after its revolution), so did every nationalism after the English Revolution, from Spain and the Netherlands to republicanism throughout Latin America (see Jose Marti!) to the Italian Risorgimento to the most powerfully expressed Sonderweg of all: völkisch German Nazism. (Recall Fichte, early in the 1800s, who had absolutely no doubt about the divinely ordained status of the yet-to-be-born German nation!) Ask any Israeli today whether he or she thinks Israel has an exceptional relationship with God. America is not exceptional—how strange it seems to be re-arguing this point in 2010!—not even in the sense that we believe we are. A great many nations have believed at one time, or still do believe, that they have an exceptional divine dispensation. The English believed it. So did the Russians. So did the Spanish. So did the Boers in South Africa. So did Leopold of the Belgians. Modern Germans thought the American idea of a divinely sanctioned “Manifest Destiny” made lots of sense for them too—in Europe. Why is America an exception in any of this?
Indeed, the “First Great Awakening,” starring George Whitefield, that takes up so much of Episode One, was hardly the uniquely American phenomenon that God in America makes it out to be. There is, perhaps, one sentence (and one slide) acknowledging that Whitefield had a large following in England. And even here, the show makes it sound as if Whitefield left England to escape religious persecution and came to America to help build a new American sensibility.
Whitefield was immensely popular in England—up to 20,000 came to hear him preach. He was a loyal Anglican, even if many pulpits turned him away because of the extreme “enthusiasm” of his sermons. If he preached outside in places like Bristol, it was largely because no hall could be found big enough to contain the crowds. Whitefield was actually a bit of an entrepreneur—he came to Georgia to take over Wesley’s orphanage there, but also bought a fair amount of land. Slaves were needed to make both profitable. In fact, in a sin of omission that I find somewhat unforgivable in such a program, the show never even mentions that Whitefield almost single-handedly managed to get slavery reinstated in Georgia in the 1730s, after it had been abolished there. (How’s that for a lively Exodus story?!) It was actually the Wesleyan strain of Methodism—the one that had a greater, Arminian-based respect for the power of “free will” to reject sin—that supported abolitionism in the North (and founded Boston University, where Prothero now teaches), while Whitefield’s sterner Anglican/Calvinist emphasis on our utter helplessness without God’s grace took root in the South. Whitefield was a brilliant Evangelist. But Wesley is actually much closer to the American spirit of self-made men, self-help, self-fashioning, and individual liberty. Whitefield was also not all that “American”: he spent a total of nine years in America, during seven brief visits, and kept up his work in England the whole time.
At several points, Prothero makes you think that Whitefield was the inheritor of Anne Hutchinson’s inner soliloquys with God. Hogwash again. Hutchinson claimed to know things that could not be found in any text. Whitefield belonged to a long tradition of Anglican thought that believed that “reason” was necessary to interpret scripture—it wasn’t just all up for grabs, as Prothero implies. Whitefield would likely have sided with John Winthrop—the villain of colonial America—instead of Hutchinson. Moreover, even the seemingly peculiar irony of the combination of church establishments in the early American colonies (such as Winthrop’s in Massachusetts) that demanded great conformity with an underlying Protestant tradition emphasizing the individual’s duty to read and interpret scripture—an irony that Prothero emphasizes several times—was in no sense an American dilemma that eventually led to greater pluralism. In reality, the problem was deeply embedded already in English and European Protestantism: Jean Calvin succeeded for a time in establishing his own little theocracy in Geneva, and Oliver Cromwell—the closest thing to a Taliban tyrant England has ever seen—succeeded, for a while, in theocratizing England, and removing lots of Catholic saints’ noses in the process. Pluralism won out in both cases. Why is this sort of irony “American”?
In fact, Whitefield’s big innovation, the “rebirth” of of the convert in Christ, which God in America makes out to be an authentically American innovation, was anything but that. Whitefield, in England, got the idea from a century-long tradition of German Lutheran Pietism (also carried abroad by Moravians whom Wesley met) beginning in the 1630s: the Pietists spoke of a “new man,” one who appeared once the individual devoted his life completely to Christ.
Contrary to what Prothero and friends claim, the “First Great Awakening” was actually a world-wide event, beginning in the seventeenth century. It included German Pietism, out of which Wesley and Whitefield’s “Methodism” emerged in England. But there were also “awakenings” in France and in much of the rest of Europe. It is no doubt the case that the political effects on the not-yet-congealed United States in the 1730s were more pronounced than they were for a nation with an establised Church, such as England. But Germany was also only a dream in the eighteenth century, and Pietism had a huge influence on the political theology that developed there before unification.
For me, God in America does a horrible disservice for an audience that desperately needs clear thinking where religion in America is concerned. Instead, what it serves up, under the guidance of scholarly “experts,” is one long confirmation of just how wonderfully exceptional America’s religious history is, and (even worse) with all of the warts removed. Perhaps when we get to things like the Civil War, or twentieth-century nativism, things will become more balanced. But I am not holding my breath to find out.