by Andrea Elizabeth
One last post on God in America now that I think I’ve seen all the episodes. The first half of the fourth one, “A New Light”, dealt with the Americanization of traditional Judaism, mainly lead by Isaac Mayer Wise. I think this also happened to traditional Catholics and Orthodox. They wanted to look and sound like Americans, whom the show said were American Protestants. I have the idea that mainstream America, at least up to the end of the 19th Century, with a short revival in the ’50’s, was Protestant (which was pointed out in the fifth episode on Billy Graham). American Protestants can make their own rules as long as they believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. They mainly agree on the basics of the Trinity, capitalism, and the damnable sinfulness of certain sins, which the Puritans staunchly emphasized.
Towards the end of the 19th Century, liberal rationalistic thought (textual criticism) ensues. Charles Briggs gets it from Germany and brings it back to his American Presbyterian Church and was subsequently excommunicated, but the damage was done. The American Church has been split over this ever since. Those for a scientific interpretation have been classified as having liberal morals, and those for a literal interpretation seem closed off from the real world. I used to be in the latter camp, but now think the truth is harder to be found than either suppose. I will defend a literal interpretation, which is the American tradition, and the millenia-old traditions of the Jews and the Catholics and the Orthodox. Individual rationalization may be part of being in God’s image, and certain people, including Charles Briggs, may be individually divinely inspired, but the attitude that comes with promoting individual rationalization is arrogant and dangerous.
I think the series was surprisingly kind to conservative Christians in America. They took pains not to denigrate them and focused on educating people on their influence, which they said was significant, for better and worse. This is so refreshing after a lifetime of PBS excluding God from their programming. It was as if Christians didn’t exist in their super-scientific evolutionary explanations. I suppose they realized that Christians will contribute more if their beliefs are respected – it’s the American way of doing business after-all.