Our Adult Education group is currently watching and discussing the PBS series “God in America” (you can watch all six episodes online here). This post will provide a place to continue the discussion – each episode will be added below with a link to its study guide. So if you’re unable to attend the sessions (3rd Sundays of the month at 9:45 am), you can still watch and participate – all are welcome!
The New World challenged and changed the religious faiths the first European settlers brought to it. In New Mexico, the spiritual rituals of the Pueblo Indians collided with the Catholic faith of the Spanish Franciscan friars who came to convert them, ultimately exploding in violent rebellion. In New England, Puritan leader John Winthrop faced off against religious dissenters from within his own ranks, and a new message of spiritual rebirth from evangelical preachers like George Whitefield swept through the American colonies, upending traditional religious authority and kindling a rebellious spirit that fused with the political upheaval of the American Revolution.
America’s experiment in religious liberty involved an unlikely political alliance between evangelical Baptists and Enlightenment figures such as Thomas Jefferson as they forged a new concept of religious freedom, first in Virginia and ultimately in the new nation, as written in the Bill of Rights. These new freedoms had a significant impact on the country as it pushed westward, creating a vibrant religious marketplace where new religions started to take root and new Protestant denominations began to overtake the old. But the definition of freedom was contested, and its meaning ignited political conflicts between Irish Catholic immigrants and the Protestant establishment in New York over the reading of the Bible in public schools.
How did religious beliefs shape the origins of the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s actions during the conflict? As Northern abolitionists and Southern slaveholders clashed over the question of slavery, each side turned to the Bible to argue its cause. Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist newspaper editor, despaired that people who called themselves Christians could defend the evils of slavery. Protestant denominations fractured, with each side declaring God was on its side. Meanwhile, Lincoln, who had put his faith in reason over revelation, confronted the mounting casualties of the war and the death of his young son. In his anguish, he began a spiritual journey that transformed his inner life and changed his ideas about God and the ultimate meaning of the Civil War.
During the 19th century, the forces of modernity challenged traditional faith and drove a wedge between liberal and conservative believers. Bohemian immigrant Isaac Mayer Wise embraced change and established Reform Judaism in America while his opponents adhered to Old World traditions. In New York, Presbyterian biblical scholar Charles Briggs sought to wed his evangelical faith with modern biblical scholarship, leading to his trial for heresy. In the 1925 Scopes evolution trial, Christian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan faced off against freethinker Clarence Darrow in a battle between scientific and religious truth.
In the post-World War II era, rising evangelist Billy Graham tried to inspire a religious revival that fused faith with patriotism in a Cold War battle with “godless communism.” As Americans flocked in record numbers to houses of worship, nonbelievers and religious minorities appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to test the constitutionality of religious expression in public schools, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as a modern-day prophet, calling upon the nation to honor both biblical teachings and the founders’ democratic ideals of equal justice.
The religious and political aspirations of evangelical conservatives found expression in a moral crusade over divisive social issues. They worried that the nation was adrift on a secular sea, unmoored from its Christian foundations, and they wanted to change the culture. Their ambitions were large, and they succeeded in transforming the religious and political landscape of the country. Their embrace of presidential politics, though, would ultimately end in disappointment and questions about the mixing of religion and politics. Across America, the religious marketplace expanded as new waves of immigrants from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America made the United States the most religiously diverse nation on earth. In the 2008 presidential election, the re-emergence of a religious voice in the Democratic Party brought the country to a new plateau in its struggle to reconcile faith with politics. God in America closes with reflections on the role of faith in the public life of the country, from the ongoing quest for religious liberty to the enduring idea of America as the “city on a hill” envisioned by the Puritans nearly 400 years ago.
The next session, a recap of the whole series, will be held on May 20, 2012 at 10:00 am.