Friday, March 28, 2014

Biblical Films and Civil Religion

I love waking up to radio stories that are directly related to what I've been teaching. Check it our for yourself: Biblical Films are Fruitful and Multiplying

Actually, it's kind of eerie. We just watched a clip from Cecil B. deMille's 1956 The Ten Commandments in Wednesday's class. I was talking about religion in the 1950s and we were placing the outpouring of Biblical epics from Hollywood in the context of the Cold War and considering this genre as appealing to this new idea of America as a Judeo-Christian nation.  Or, as sociologist Will Herberg put it in 1955, a nation composed of "Protestant-Catholic-Jew." (You can read a selection from Herberg here.)

Today we'll be talking more about Herberg's analysis of the "American way of life" and considering the degree to which Herberg's own inquiry was driven by a sense that something had been lost in this broad-based generic religiosity of the mid-20th century.
  Could Americans be both more religious and more secular?  To what degree was this more religious America one emptied of something deeper?  Had something that looked like what Robert Bellah would call "civil religion" replaced real religion? Or was this "American way of life" in which three broad religious communities came together in a religious secularism an overall constructive force in America? (I've been glancing at some recent scholarship on religion and the Cold War that suggests, in fact, that Herberg's study can be seen as an argument for the vital role of the religious in the secular, in contrast to "godless" Communism.)

P.S. If you're looking for a great read about American concepts of God and nation, Robert Bellah's 1967 essay "Civil Religion in America" is at the top of my list.  While we might quibble with some of his analysis, I think his arguments are still quite relevant to our national culture today.

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