We here at anamericanatheist.org are always interested in learning more about religion, especially where we live. To that end, I would like you to watch a 6-part documentary miniseries that the PBS show “Frontline” is airing called “God in America.” You should check your local listings, but where I live, the first two parts were shown last night, the next two tonight, and the final two tomorrow night. Last night’s show covered the early American period, including the great awakening. Tonight’s show promises to be interesting as it will chronicle the religious arguments for slavery during the civil war and the rise of African American churches.
We may not agree on the significance of every point raised in the show, but I think it promises to raise some interesting discussion points. I got 15 out of 15 on the recent Pew forum’s religion quiz (thanks for the refresher on Jonathan Edwards, Robin!), but I can’t say I knew much about George Whitefield, Anne Hutchinson or John Hughes (not that John Hughes, although he is pretty cool!) before watching the show. However, I would like to make an observation why America is so religious.
It seems that the ideas behind the first amendment sprung from the deep religious divides that existed in early America. This immediately makes me think of the competition among religious groups as analogous to the competition among species to survive in nature, and among actors in an economy to compete for scarce resources. Religion can survive and propagate both by reproduction and marketing. Religion in America seems to thrive because we don’t have a state church, the way many countries in Western Europe do. Most of these countries with an official state church are far more secular than America. Last night’s show demonstrated the effect of the free market for religion, by showing the explosion of minority denominations like Methodists, Baptists and Catholics during a times when Anglicanism was the “default religion” among the English speaking world.
I would also like to point out that the show did seem to overlook Article VI of the constitution which states, in part “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” You can see a longer discussion of this topic here. I think it is rather interesting that 9 states (Arkansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina and Texas) have language in their state constitutions that in some way bars atheists from having the right to either serve in public office or serve on jury duty (is avoiding jury duty a good thing? I kid, I kid…). These state constitutional provisions would be unenforceable as the US Supreme Court in Torcaso v. Watkins, has explicitly said that such a provision is unconstitutional. However, the law is generally a public message about what a society values, and I definitely think that these archaic provisions should not exist in state constitutions.
Feel free to post you comments about your impressions of the “God in America” show on this page. I look forward to hearing your opinions.