God In America: Vignettes Of Christian Evolution

God In America: Vignettes Of Christian Evolution October 12, 2010

PBS has a new series called “God In America” that features Stephen Prothero, author of our current Patheos Book Club selection “God Is Not One.” I didn’t really know what to expect and what I found was interesting and uninspiring.

I’m a religion geek and I find all things religious rather fascinating, yet I’m also a Pagan who finds the expressions of Christianity somewhat tedious. Watching each well-told story of the evolution of Christianity in the United States is interesting. If I were Christian I might think it fascinating. However, the whole first section of the series leaves me cold.

Early America was far more diverse than simply one group of Protestants in contention with another. The Indigenous faiths were diverse and fascinating, and the surviving indigenous beliefs still are amazing. The Africans carried Yoruba and Islam with them. There were Jews among the early settlers. The rolls of soldiers in the Revolutionary War contain Muslim names and an imam served a community of about 80 Muslim slaves on Sapelo Island, Georgia.

Religion is a broad subject and if you cannot be comprehensive then you must be subjective. I suppose PBS has done a fine job of telling stories about the most interesting turning points in American Protestantism. They sprinkled in some Catholicism and vaguely mention Pueblo faith for diversity, but the rest of the show is about white people worrying over the right and proper way to relate to Jesus Christ.

Which is a shame, because the history of religion, and of religious diversity, in America is a bright, vibrant contentious story. The Deists, the Freemasons, the Atheists, the Enlightenment, the Muslims, the Jews, the Indigenous faiths, the importation of African religions all contribute to the fascinating relationship with religion in America. Colonial America wasn’t as religious as we are today. All of these riches were at PBS’ disposal and they chose not to use them.

I’m probably nit-picking. The name of the series is “God In America”, not “The Gods Of America”. This is the story of Yahweh in America, a God foreign to this land, driven by dominance and jealousy, and this is the story that PBS tells. It’s interesting if you find the intricacies of the Christian faith curious. If you find religion interesting but have a commitment to diversity, this is dry stuff. It’s like going to Baskin-Robbins and all they have is vanilla.

It has been a long time since I have become this irritated with something dominated by the Christian faith. It truly annoys me that my tax money is being used to fund a program that states the norm is Christianity, preferably Protestantism, and if you’re not worried about the intricacies of this faith then you are irrelevant to the tapestry of religious expression in America.

I suppose I should be thankful they didn’t capitalize on the annual October interest in the Salem Witch Trials but I’m just annoyed. I wasn’t this annoyed last night, but watching the series again this morning raised my hackles. What hope have I of my religion being recognized for it’s contributions if even the Muslims and Jews are still being ignored?

I’ll be joining in the live chat with the producers this afternoon at 3PM EST/1 PM MT.


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  • I don’t think you’re nitpicking. I think that the evidence of religious diversity and plurality in America from its earliest settlements (not to mention the indigenous people’s who were here long before the white man!) is important. I think as we battle the rise of fundamentalism today, we need to keep driving this point home: that American religious life is complex, rich, and above all else, immensely diverse and has been from teh beginning of our time on this soil.

  • Matt Gerlach

    One thing that I find fascinating about American History is the fact that there was such a great variation in orientation to religious freedom in the original colonies. Some wanted to set up Protestant States (Particularly the Puritans wanted to create a diversity-free Puritan paradise.), while others set up their colonies to specifically accommodate religious pluralism in the colony.

    The African Diasporic Traditions and their influence on African American Christianity and culture (and folk magic) also seem to be a shameful little secret that people would prefer to sweep under the rug, which is a shame.

  • Wes Isley

    I often feel the same as you do when i see so much on Christianity, as if it were the only religion or faith around. But I also understand it is the majority religion of this country, and by default, it’s what gets talked about. Yes, there are many other stories to tell, and yes, it is a shame we don’t hear them enough. I dig PBS, but I’m sure this was created to appeal to the biggest donor base possible, there again, mostly Christians.

  • I’m with you, doesn’t seem nit-picky, considering they’re only really focusing on just one kind of Christianity. Galina, as an interesting side note, there is archeological evidence that Europeans were here in the Americas before the Native Americans we know about. I don’t know how you feel about that, but it brings me joy to know that the children of Asgard were here long ago, and in a way we are returning to their lands and carrying their spirit.

  • Kerry W.

    I often feel as though there are several different Christian gods, as the manifestations of him are so divergent. Reading Frederick Douglas on the topic is particularly interesting (there’s an appendix to the Narrative of the Life on the topic). And then there’s the saints and other cloaked gods and goddesses — it often looks polytheistic to me.

    But to get back to Frederick Douglass: I’m wondering how much non-Christian religions were part of the public dialogue surrounding the civil war. This is an earnest question. It prompts a few other questions: how much are non-Christian religions part of the public dialogue *now*? (and that begs the question of what is “public”? This blog is, in one way, but does it enter in the public dialogue? For that matter, does any venue enter in the public dialogue if it’s not *answered*?)