'God in America:' A House Divided Twice (VIDEO)

10/11/2010 09:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Marilyn Mellowes Veteran of public affairs programming at WGBH; Series Producer, 'God in America'

By the mid-nineteenth century, America's Protestant identity conferred national unity. But religion fractured that unity. The Civil War drove the first wedge, as North and South turned to the Bible to find warrant for their opposing stands on the issue of slavery. No sooner had the nation begun to heal the wounds of war when Protestantism itself divided in response to modernity, splitting into liberal and conservative camps. The fight over modernity eventually gave rise to the fundamentalist movement, which emerged from the broad evangelical stream that had originated in the 1730s. Night Two of God in America explores these divisions and the impact that they continue to have in our own time.

What is modernity? The term is elastic and expansive, freighted with multiple meanings. In this context, we use it to denote a broad cultural phenomenon that included three key developments: Darwinian theory, biblical criticism and awareness of religions outside the Christian tradition.

Americans were too preoccupied with the Civil War to pay much attention to a book by the English naturalist Charles Darwin, first published in 1859. But by the 1880s, The Origin of Species had created a sensation, first in England and then in America. Darwin's theory directly challenged the biblical account of creation: the world was not made in six days, but evolved over millennia. Human beings were not created from Adam's rib, but evolved from lower life forms. The forebears of the human race were not the residents of the Garden of Eden, but earlier primates. At a deeper and more unsettling level, Darwin challenged the familiar story of human kind's history and the traditional biblical narrative of the relation between man and God. Human life was no longer the glory of divine creation, but the product of accidents and incidents, chance and circumstance.

In America, Darwin's theories created confusion, anger and disarray within the Protestant establishment. But something else was driving fissures within the Protestant tradition: biblical criticism. Originating in German academic circles, higher criticism did not approach the Bible as revered Scripture, but as literature to be analyzed. Applying the tools of literary analysis, scholars examined texts to determine the times, places and cultures in which they were composed. They also evaluated the theological agendas of the different authors of these texts, and concluded that the Bible did not contain a unified divine message. Their findings shattered familiar assumptions and advanced new hypotheses: Moses had not written the first five books of the Bible; the book of Genesis contained two different accounts of creation and was likely composed by two different authors; David did not write all the psalms attributed to him. Higher critics examined the New Testament as well as the Hebrew Scriptures. Searching for the so-called "historical Jesus," they discovered that the man from Nazareth differed significantly from Jesus the Christ presented by the authors of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Many of the assumptions, values and beliefs in the Bible, higher critics concluded, had gradually become outmoded.

By the 1870s, the battle over modernism reached a fever pitch. When I was developing God in America, this conflict intrigued and puzzled me. What was the real difference between liberal and conservative Protestants? Eric Baldwin, a very talented young scholar who worked as the sernior researcher on the series, explains it this way: At the core of the conflict was the nature of the Bible, the idea of God and concepts of the truth. Conservative Protestants imagined that God is outside of human history and the natural world, distinct and transcendent, although God does intervene in human history and communicate with human beings. For liberals, God is present in and through the natural world and human history; history represents the working out of God's purpose. For conservatives, the Bible is the direct, immediate revelation of God; it is what God said to and through human beings. For liberals, the books of the Bible record a progressive evolution of the human religious sensibility over time. These differences spill over into competing ideas about the truth. For conservatives, truth is fixed, immutable and eternal. For liberals, truth evolves and changes as history unfolds.

World War I exacerbated these theological divisions. As the war dragged on, the carnage, killing and wanton loss of life created a crisis for liberals who embraced modernism. For them, the progress of Christianity and the progress of culture were intimately bound. But, as historian George Marsden has pointed out, the war challenged "faith in the progress of culture and kingdom." Liberal optimism about the perfectibility of man and progress toward the Kingdom of God crumbled in the face of war's relentless savagery.

Religious conservatives were also transformed by the war. For 50 years, the trend in culture and society had been the exaltation of man, not God. Darwinism epitomized this trend. It was not simply a biological theory, but a theory that could be exploited to explain, justify and exalt the triumph of the fittest of the human race. In Germany, the 'might is right' theories of Darwin coupled with the philosophy of Nietzsche to create a malignant offspring: German militarism. American society was vulnerable, conservatives believed, to a similar fate. Anti-German patriotic rhetoric, evolution and modernism thus became joined together and understood not simply as a religious threat, but one that endangered American culture and the future welfare of the country.

Theological debate, Germany's superman philosophy and the perceived cultural crisis all combined to coalesce the once loose coalition of religious conservatives and forge them into a movement with a clear target: Darwinism. The fight to remove the teaching of Darwinism from the public schools became their holy grail. As anti-evolutionism swept into the South and rural areas, fundamentalists acquired a militancy that set them apart from their evangelical brethren. As George Marsden has famously observed, "A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something."

The conflict between conservative and liberal Protestants came to a head in the Scopes trial of 1925, a face-off between self-proclaimed agnostic Clarence Darrow and progressive politician and fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan. Bryan won the legal battle (although the decision was later reversed on a technicality) but lost in the court of public opinion. The big-city press portrayed Bryan as a fool. The critic H.L Mencken called him an "old buzzard" and a "tinpot pope," and labeled his followers "yokels," "morons," "hillbillies" and "gaping primates of the upland valleys." When Bryan died just days after the trial, Mencken crowed, "We killed the son of a bitch."

In the aftermath of the trial, the popular understanding of fundamentalism changed. As historian George Marsden points out, it had been predominately an urban movement, with its strength in the northern and eastern sections of the country. But now "fundamentalism" became applied "to almost every aspect of America rural or small-town Protestantism." To their critics, their decline seemed inevitable. The Christian Century, a liberal magazine, stated with satisfaction: "Anybody should be able to see [that] the whole fundamentalist movement was hollow and artificial ... it is henceforth to be a disappearing quantity in American religious life, while our churches go on to larger issues."

Time would prove the critics wrong.

WATCH the trailer for Part 2 of "God in America" below: