Last week Craig and I watched “God in America,” the PBS special co-produced by Frontline and “American Experience, which traces the ongoing effects of religion (specifically Evangelical Christianity) on American cultural and political life. I was amazed and gratified to find that this ambitious undertaking, though not without some omissions, gave a fairly even-handed treatment to what by all accounts could have been a polarizing theme.
Having grown up in the Evangelical tradition, I found the sixth part of the series most thought-provoking in terms of understanding how my own world-view has been shaped. In part six of the series, we look at the lives of men like Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr., Pat Robertson … men who walked a fine line between working for “the Kingdom” and being instruments of influence in secular society.
There were some surprises — I was not aware, for example, of the meeting in Switzerland that Billy Graham had with other evangelical pastors to prevent the election of John F. Kennedy because of his Catholic beliefs. I was also not aware of the fact that it was the author/philosopher Francis Schaeffer who brought the Evangelical community (beginning with Jerry Falwell) to the forefront of the pro-life movement (that up until that time it was perceived to be a “Catholic issue”). From here, this hot-button issue became a way for the Republicans to capture the hearts and votes of the Evangelical community. (Much to the chagrine of John Kerry, who admitted that his defeat in the presidential election was largely attributable to his having “gotten it wrong” with his fellow Catholics.)
What fascinates me most about “God in America” is that it is possible to see in one six-hour, panoramic sweep the very real consequences of “religious retreat” — that is abdicating our place in society out of a misguided belief that our little light can do nothing to turn back the darkness. This series amply demonstrates that, to the extent that people of faith identify and rally around a common cause (or common enemy), we can make and HAVE made a difference.
However, if we are to continue to argue effectively for change, we must be able to translate the tenets of our particular faith tradition into “global virtues” that are readily understood by those of other faiths — or none at all. The final twenty minutes of the program sums this up rather nicely. In the words of President Obama:
“Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. … The majority of the great reformers in American history were not only motivated by faith but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their personal beliefs into public policy is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of our morality, much of which is grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition ….” And yet, as the president pointed out, our ability to pass legislature based on the religious principles of a particular faith tradition will depend on being able to persuade others of the objective value of those faith-based principles.
Why? The future of God in America is … marked with diversity. As religious options multiply, and as those in positions of influence become increasingly estranged from established religious institutions, the ability of people of faith to infuse society with objective principles of truth will depend upon our ability to find common threads of morality — global virtues, if you will.
Yes, God is still alive and well, here in America. And we — the thousand points of light, as envisioned by President Bush, Sr. — have cause for hope.
I am often less hopeful. I teach college literature and find, that even here in the heart of the bible belt, my students know less and less about the religious foundation that this country was built upon. It impacts their ability to cope within the class, certainly, but it speaks to a bigger issue of not understanding their place in society and I find that both dangerous and depressing. Yet you are hopeful — what did the series reveal to give you that hope?
I was heartened by the end of the series, in which Barack Obama acknowledges the fact that people of faith cannot and should not be expected to “leave faith at the door” before entering the public square.
Our young people need to have that foundation of faith, and it is up to us to provide it for them. Not “catechesis by rote” within a tightly constricted “ghetto” of huddling with like-minded individuals. The day for that is gone. The faith that is going to “stick” is one that is based on BOTH intellectual training and daily, lived experience among people who challenge our assumptions, forcing us to understand more deeply exactly what it is we believe. It’s good for our kids … and it’s good for us.
Young people are faced with many more options than we had — and they can see how the moral and ethical compromises of previous generations (in everything from war to environmental conservation) are impacting their own lives. This creates an environment in which you can introduce the idea that individual “rights” need to be subordinate to the common good. This is something lacking in our generation … and something the next one can get right, if we present the challenge correctly.