PBS ‘God in America’ 2: Do we have a Divine purpose?

American cartoon by Grant Hamilton, 1896, on William Jennings Bryan’s ‘Cross of Gold’ speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which won Bryan the presidential nomination.Does America have a divine purpose? That’s the major theme running through tonight’s second evening of “God in America” on PBS, a series that runs October 11-13 from 9-11 p.m. each night. (NOTE: Please check local listings and remember that some PBS stations repeat episodes at alternate times.)

Why is this question of God’s will so crucial in American history? Because the excitement of the “new” that millions of Americans felt in our nation’s opening century, which was explored in Part 1 of the series, quickly turned into a firm conviction that God was on our side. In the 19th century, you’d be hard pressed to find an American who didn’t believe that our nation had a messianic mission ordained by God, one historian tells us tonight. What’s more, that conviction tended to be specifically Christian in the 19th century and rooted itself deeply in all assumptions about daily life: including the institution of slavery.

Once this firm belief in God’s will became attached to slavery, both abolitionists and Southern farmers were convinced that it was nothing less than a Divine mission to either end slavery—or preserve it. The result was an inevitable Civil War, if the Union was to be preserved.

Many popular books have been written about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, but you’ll probably find at least a few eye-opening insights into Lincoln and the religious convictions behind the Civl War tonight. In Part 3 of “God in America” tomorrow night, you’ll find even more fascinating historical research into the connections between faith and race. Clearly, racism remains a chasm that we have yet to bridge.

Take Our Quiz on America’s Evolving Attitudes Toward Race

Two years ago, we recommended a thought-provoking new book on race by Mark Aronson. As we reviewed the book, we also published a 10-question, multiple-choice trivia quiz on our evolving attitudes toward race and racism. Take the quiz and see how much you know.

America’s Clash with Modernism: Traditional Religion vs. Evolving Spirituality

Rabbi Isaac Mayer WiseWe all know about the “Scopes monkey trial”—or we think we do. But that dramatic trial actually was part of a far larger clash between religious tradiiton and modern scientific research and culture.

One story you’ll see during tonight’s two hours is a chapter of our history that most viewers have never encountered. Some religious leaders actively embraced modern American culture, including Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. His activism eventually led to the founding of Hebrew Union College, a major force in contemporary American religious life.

As you’ll learn tonight, that was hardly an easy accomplishment for this wise and prophetic religious activist. At one point, he was forcibly ejected from his congregation. At another point, he planned and hosted a controversial banquet in Cincinnati that encouraged Jewish leaders to deliberately dine on forbidden foods as a sign of breaking with traditions. Agree with his viewpoint—or not—he was part of a larger movement in American history.

William Jennings Bryan in his prime speaking to a crowd.There’s a direct connection between such progressive activism and the eventual Scopes trial, “God in America” argues this evening. Most Americans have some ideas associated with the famous court case—mostly memories from the movie version of “Inherit the Wind,” starring Spencer Tracy as Scopes-defender Clarence Darrow and Claude Rains as Bible-defender William Jennings Bryan. In both the play and the movie version of “Inherit the Wind,” Darrow comes across as the noble hero and Bryan as a tragic old buffoon.

Fans of “Inherit the Wind” likely will be surprised tonight to encounter a different version of Bryan. In fact, his political life and sense of mission sprang from his passion to help ordinary Americans who were being “crucified,” in Bryan’s political terms, by bankers and industrialists. By the time of the Scopes trial, Bryan had alligned himself with a populist movement that included an urgent desire to defend traditional understandings of biblical truth—as a way of preserving America’s Divine calling. Bryan seems less like a stubborn old bigot in this PBS overview of his life and more like a thoughtful leader struggling with some very tough issues.

Suddenly, we see tonight’s two-hour program making a full circle: From the Civil War to Scopes and beyond, millions of American lives have turned on this question of whether our country has a Divine purpose.

Our Science vs. Religion Resource Page

At ReadTheSpirit, we do not believe that the so-called Science vs. Religion Argument must be a war. In fact, there’s a great deal of creative research, dialogue, writing and filmmaking unfoldilng right now to help bridge the two sides in this historic clash. Our Science Vs. Religion Resource page contains a list of science and religion scholars, recommended books for all age ranges, websites and various helpful groups and projects.

Care to read or see more?

PURCHASE THE DVD: You can pre-order PBS’ “God in America” on DVD from Amazon now. .

VISIT THE PBS WEBSITE: PBS has an elaborate website for the series, which includes a preview clip and other background materials.

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