One point, perhaps the main theme, of the PBS documentary, God in America, is the emergence of the preeminence of a person’s personal experience with God in validating if they were a Christian or not. As much as the Pilgrims’ goal was for religious freedom, it was still the freedom to rule the church as “the few” saw fit. Anne Hutchinson started the shift by claiming that God spoke to her. She lead private meetings to instruct others in a more personal religious life, which threatened the established Church leadership. George Whitefield can be credited with the populous movement away from the church and into the field. He challenged the people to consider that if a church minister could not relate a personal encounter with God, that he was not a Christian.
Growing up with the message of the independent personal salvation experience, until I was received into the Orthodox Church, I found the idea of the necessity of church membership an external, superficial, authoritarian power play. Who was the Church, or rather the individuals in power positions, to validate or invalidate my relationship with God? To what effect is a Church leader’s baptism or any other sacrament when it is just done to you? Living a good life was also part of established Church membership. But that was another “external”. Isn’t it what’s on the inside that counts?
I now see that this is a gnostic religion that separates a person’s soul from their body and from the Body of Christ, and relies on emotionalism and possibly deluded conclusions about experiences. It has lead to chaos inside and outside churches in America.
I also saw the episode on the emergence of the religious right into politics. They said it began with the Scopes trial where William Jennings Bryan preached against teaching evolution in school.
At the 1925 Scopes trial, Bryan faced off against the self-proclaimed agnostic attorney Clarence Darrow. Bryan took the lead. Darrow appeared defeated. He then hit upon a clever tactic: he called Bryan to the stand to defend the Bible [whether Genesis 1 should be taken literally or not]. Under intense questioning in the summer heat, Bryan faltered. His fundamentalist beliefs could not stand up to Darrow’s withering inquiry.
Days after the trial ended, Bryan died in his sleep. Shortly before, he wrote: “Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can be perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of machinery. … If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene.”
Evangelicals went underground with this intellectual defeat.
Martin Luther King and Jerry Falwell brought them back out, the latter through President Ronald Reagan. This set the stage for the election of the first Evangelical president, George W. Bush. At last the religious right believed that America could be purged of the evils of abortion, homosexuality, and evolution education. Unbelievably, this did not happen. Let down and disillusioned, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson withdrew from the political sphere.
In another documentary, Hubert H. Humphrey: The Art of the Possible, LBJ’s Vice President’s social morality, publicly unframed by Christian affiliation, and political savvy confused me, a social conservative. I did not realize he was so influential, essential really, in the civil rights movement. I also agree with his stance on Vietnam, though LBJ squelched it. He brought forth many of the social programs we have today which I have very mixed feelings about. I just looked up his religious affiliation and he was a Congregationalist, which is what the New England Puritans originally evolved into. Interesting.
I have not been following the Tea Party movement very closely as I am disillusioned about the mixing of politics and religion too. Besides, it seems less about religion and more about the morality of certain conservative economics, which doesn’t really interest me that much. Render to Caesar and all that. At the same time, Hubert Humphrey makes me feel a bit less dismissive of governmental involvement in morality.