God in America

God in America

God in America (Directors: David Belton and Sarah Colt): America has always rep­res­en­ted a place where almost any­thing is pos­sible, where people can start over and from where new ideas, philo­sophies and move­ments emerge. This six-part series from PBS explores the ways in which reli­gious faith has flour­ished in the United States, even as it has been shaped by other power­ful forces.

Beginning with the Spanish con­quista­dors’ con­tact with the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest, it was clear that European mani­fest­a­tions of faith and reli­gious prac­tice could not con­tinue unchanged. When the Catholic priests began “con­vert­ing” the Pueblos, they were under the impres­sion that the nat­ives had embraced Christianity’s exclus­ive mes­sage, and rejec­ted their own pan­the­istic reli­gious ideas. This was not the case, and when the Spanish began ban­ning nat­ive reli­gious prac­tices and pun­ish­ing trans­gressors, it didn’t take long before the Pueblos res­isted. When 2,000 war­ri­ors des­cen­ded upon the Spanish in 1680, slaughter­ing half of the Catholic priests, the Europeans fled New Mexico. Their Old World reli­gion would not be able to sur­vive unchanged in the New World.

This is a fact that the Puritans who landed on the East Coast in 1630 were count­ing on. Escaping reli­gious per­se­cu­tion in Europe, they saw them­selves as God’s Chosen People and this new land as the Promised Land. The fact that there were already people liv­ing in it seemed to bother them as little as it did the Israelites before them. Fleeing a Europe they felt was mor­ally cor­rupt, they were eager to start over and cre­ate a new soci­ety, based on the bib­lical prin­ciples prom­ised by the Reformation but com­prom­ised by cen­tur­ies of exist­ing polit­ical and reli­gious struggles. But the non-con­form­ist prin­ciple that was behind the Reformation quickly came into con­flict with the need for a dis­cip­lined and united com­munity try­ing to sur­vive in a hos­tile envir­on­ment. And it didn’t take long for new strains of belief to break out and for the ori­ginal com­munity to become as rigid and cal­ci­fied as the European Catholic hier­archy they had left behind.

Just in the first epis­ode, the series sets up the para­dox at the heart of America. If every­one is free to do his or her thing, how do you develop a coher­ent soci­ety? America provided the answer by devel­op­ing its own myth­o­logy. That shared myth is what binds Americans together now, not the Puritan Christianity that united the first set­tlers. It’s no sur­prise that the earli­est reli­gious con­flicts, between the inter­i­or­ity of faith and belief, and the com­munal insti­tu­tions of reli­gion and polit­ics, are still at the heart of American soci­ety today.

I am very much look­ing for­ward to watch­ing the entire series, and even based on the first epis­ode, can recom­mend this to any­one (not just Americans!) inter­ested in the way our per­sonal beliefs and val­ues affect our com­munit­ies and our soci­ety.

You can watch the whole series online or order the DVDs from the excel­lent web­site that PBS has cre­ated for the series. It also con­tains a wealth of back­ground inform­a­tion and sup­port­ing mater­ial, includ­ing some fas­cin­at­ing his­tor­ical doc­u­ments.

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