Why are the sheep glorified and the thinkers ignored or minimized?
When I saw the promos for “God in America” I had the same reaction as one of our members, who e-mailed me, “Why doesn’t PBS do a series called ‘Godless in America’?”
Dan and I dutifully sat down to watch “A New Adam,” the first of a six-part segment which aired on PBS last night, while yearningly eyeing our Netflix mailer — the last thing either of us wanted after an 11-hour workday was to be confronted with more state/church problems!
Yet we hoped for the best. Alas, the best was not to be. “God in America” is filmed and edited in slow motion. Actors slowly kneel in prayer, sit in contemplation or literally look up slowly and soulfully to “the heavens.” Actors in costumes are awkwardly juxtaposed with cheerleading interviews of annoying real-life professors. There are endless cutaways of slow surf, slowly waving tree tops and slowly panning views of mountains. But aside from the pretentious filmmaking is the real problem: The filmmaker David Belton, who wrote, produced and directed “God in America,” unfortunately appears to literally see everything through the lens of “God.”
And that’s no surprise, given the title. Chief editorial consultant Dr. Stephen Prothero, from Boston University, told Huffington Post the point of the TV series is “to educate on the role God has played in American history.”
This is an embarrassing admission. Folks, there is no god. Believers and belief in a god have played a major role in history (not always admirable), but “God” hasn’t. Wouldn’t this be a little like producing a film called “Zeus in Ancient Greece” or “Thor in Pre-Christian Norway” which is predicated on the real existence of Zeus or Thor?
Here is a sample of what we “learned” from the first segment of “God in America”:
• Just about everybody who came to this land “yearned” (or still yearns) for God. And when I say “yearn,” I mean they really feel it. We are told by Stephen Prothero “There’s this wrestling match between you and God. And are you going to keep fighting God? Are you going to collapse into the arms of God?”
• It was the born-again ministers — not freethinker Thomas Paine and his ilk — who really fomented the American Revolution. Thomas Paine does not exist in the world of “God in America” — his name wasn’t even uttered! This is rewriting history.
• Despite the land being utterly steeped in religion, according to the filmmaker, we needed even more religion and so we had the Great Awakening, filmed in a deadly dull manner that made it seem like the Great Stupefication. (Or was that the Great Stupification?) One minister’s conversion experience during a forest revival takes at least 20 slow-paced minutes to depict! Then we get to watch him slowly … so slowly … wade into a river and look soulful as he splashes water on himself. During the portrayal of evangelist George Whitefield (the actor recited his real words from sermons), I finally turned to Dan and remarked: “This is one of the reasons why I’m not religious! Religion is so painfully boring!”
The so-called Great Awakening was a big deal, but why is it described in the miniseries uncritically, devotionally? Why were the dissenters left out? People like Emily Dickinson, who cringed at the coercion? People like Frances Wright, an infidel and abolitionist who was the first woman to speak publicly before male and women audiences in the United States (1828), in lectures against the clergy specifically meant to counter religious revivals and spare women from religious bondage? Why are the sheep glorified and the thinkers ignored or minimized?
• It was the Baptists who really deserve the credit for the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, not so much Thomas Jefferson. While this point of view is not strictly inaccurate, it still represents quite a “spin” of history. We are treated to a few of those lovely lines from the Statute, such as that no one “shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.” But the filmmaker leaves out all the Jeffersonian indictments on religion (particularly but not limited to religion in government), from his letters and his book, Notes on Virginia. In a series about “God in America,” isn’t it relevant that our 3rd president had counseled his nephew, Peter Carr, to “Question with boldness even the existence of a God”?
In Notes on Virginia, in part the chronicle of the sorry history of church/state unions, Jefferson points out: “Millions of innocent men, women and children since the introduction of Christianity have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned. Yet have we not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth . . . ”
There’s nominal reference to Jefferson cutting up the bible to produce his famous “Jefferson Bible” and delete the miracles, but an interviewed “expert” still maintains Jefferson kept the “divine” parts. This is academic treason. Jefferson specifically believed the non-divine Jesus “ascribed to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other” (Letter to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803).
Frederick Clarkson in Daily Kos has already helpfully pointed out a major boo-boo, when the miniseries claims “in not one of the seven articles [of the original Constitution] was there any guarantee of religious liberty or other individual rights.”
How could the filmmaker overlook Article 6, Section 3 ensuring there can be no religious test for public office? It would have been far more accurate to note there is no god in the Constitution, pre- and post-Bill of Rights.
But the bogus claim that makes me indignant is the miniseries’ assertion that once “Awakened,” these born-again Christians promptly turned not just to charity, reforming prisons and feeding the hungry, but began to work for abolition, women’s rights and educational reform!
Not so! The word “infidel” was so tied to the early abolition cause that the word “abolitionist” was considered synonymous with it! It was Thomas Paine, who wrote the Age of Reason renouncing the bible, who was one of the first to publicly call for abolition. At most, early abolitionists were religious dissenters such as Quakers. Even then, Quakers silenced and shunned their women activists, caring more about women “keeping in silence” than in helping to free the enslaved. The mainstream churches and religionists were Johnny-come-latelies in the abolition movement, because in fact the bible sanctifies slavery.
And it was women dissenters who called for women’s rights, not conforming Christians. It was the hysterical ministers and seminarians who mobbed the women’s rights conventions, and the religious press that hurled invectives against such early reformers as Wright. It was infidel Elizabeth Cady Stanton who was the first to call for women’s right to vote (1848). She recalled in The History of Woman Suffrage how “the bible was hurled at us from every side.” The organized patriarchal religions were the primary opponents of women’s rights, as they still are worldwide today.
To be fair, there is of course valid history in “God in America.” It opens with a sympathetic portrayal of Pueblo Indians who revolted against Catholic conquistadors and their priests. It portrays Anne Hutchinson (while greatly diminishing her suffering and failing to mention her short-lived colony, which was the first to separate government from sect).
But my confidence in this miniseries has been lost with its patently dishonest perpetuation of the myth that it is religion that has reformed society. The truth is that it is the heretics who have (somewhat) reformed religion, primarily by our work to keep religion out of government.