We all know that at the very center of the cultural divide in America lies the fault line separating religious fundamentalism and secular modernity. With the release of Mel Gibson's 2004 bloodbath The Passion of the Christ and the increasingly harsh pronouncements of the so-called "New Atheists," people like Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, to name the most prominent, we are currently living in a time when religion and secular society seem to be at war with one another.
It would thus be quite important to recall a time when Hollywood was able to successfully integrate the contemporary demands of rational and scientific knowledge with the religious traditions of our great country.
Back in Hollywood's Golden Age, the name of the Scottish novelist A.J. Cronin was well-known, though today he might be obscure to many. But for those of us who have wearied of the constant battle that is being waged between the Religious Right and the Liberal Left, a battle that is exploited by Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter and the ubiquitous World Net Daily among others, an acquaintance with Cronin's stories of faith and social struggle would be a factor that could redraw the categories in which we think and operate.
Cronin's stories continually grapple with the idealistic integration of religious faith and the world of modern science and medicine. His protagonists enter a world that is often antagonistic to their faith, and where the division between different religions is sometimes acute. These protagonists aim to better the world they live in and to serve their fellow human beings with honor and dignity.
In the most famous of the Hollywood adaptations of Cronin's work, King Vidor's 1938 masterpiece The Citadel, a young doctor takes a job in a Welsh mining town where he is faced with appalling medical conditions and is forced to do battle with the powers-that-be in order to protect the health of the workers. The young doctor, played by the great Robert Donat, must clash with the status quo in order to have his medical-scientific ideas heard. After losing that battle, Donat and his wife, played by Rosalind Russell, go back to London where they face the lucrative, but perennially corrupt world of wealthy doctors who prefer to play golf and eat at fancy restaurants than actually practice serious medicine.
It should be remembered that the publication of The Citadel was an important factor in the establishment of a national health system in the UK.
The 1944 adaptation of Cronin's Keys of the Kingdom stars Gregory Peck as an idealistic Catholic priest who opens a mission in war-torn China. The young priest is faced not only with the depredations of war on the native population, but the difficulties within the Church itself relative to non-Western cultures and to modern medical science. His superior, played by Vincent Price, is initially skeptical of the priest's unconventional ways and his openness to both the indigenous Chinese culture as well as to non-believing scientists and doctors. But Peck continues to integrate his religious values into the local community, showing respect for the native traditions while maintaining his faith as a Catholic. The tale is a profoundly moving portrayal of religious tolerance and the need for social justice.
Perhaps the most autobiographical of Cronin's books was The Green Years, which tells the story of an Irish boy orphaned at a very young age and forced to return to his mother's family in a tiny Scottish village where his father's Catholicism becomes a problem for him. An impoverished orphan, the boy, played as a child by the wunderkind Dean Stockwell and as an adult by Tom Drake, is caught between the anti-Catholic prejudices of the majority Protestant culture and the poverty of his mother's family, headed by a parsimonious Hume Cronin. The boy shows an aptitude for science and must struggle to pull himself out of a life in the coal mines. He eventually succeeds in his efforts to keep his Catholic faith and his desire to become a doctor.
A.J. Cronin is an important figure for our times because his writing addresses many of the most critical issues we face as a culture. Cronin's Religious Humanism redraws for us the categories in which we can process social activism and religious belief.
His protagonists are forced to engage a world in which their religious faith is an irritant and where the values of rationalism and science are often corrupted by the greed and rapaciousness of a society that cares more about personal gain than the welfare of the masses.
Conversely, Cronin is not at all afraid to show us the prejudices of religious believers and the rough road that many social activists face in staying true to the complex values of Religious Humanism.
Hollywood's embrace of Cronin in the 1930s and 40s has left us with a rich library of films that remain accessible to the contemporary viewer. The three movies I have discussed are often screened on Turner Classic Movies and can provide the thoughtful viewer with profound examples of the way in which human beings deal with the wide array of choices that we face in our lives as social activists.
The place of religion in the context of progressive values is treated in Cronin's many works and highlighted in Hollywood's film adaptations of his books which continue to light the torch of social consciousness and religious belief, acting as an inspiration to those who have chosen the path of truth and social justice.
DVR Alert: The Keys of the Kingdom will be screened on Turner Classic Moves, Sunday, April 4th at 8:00 PM