Catherine Brekus is Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard Divinity School and in the Department of American Studies.
It’s in the supplemental material to the PBS series God in America, six 60-minute documentaries that aired in 2010; executive producer, Michael Sullivan. Interview was conducted June 23, 2009. Name of interviewer not given. Blurb on webpage at https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/godinamerica/ identifies theme of the series like this:
As God in America unfolds, it reveals the deep roots of American religious identity in the universal quest for liberty and individualism — ideas that played out in the unlikely political union between Thomas Jefferson and defiant Baptists to oppose the established church in Virginia and that were later embraced by free-wheeling Methodists and maverick Presbyterians. Catholic and Jewish immigrants battled for religious liberty and expanded its meaning. In their quest for social reform, movements as different as civil rights and the religious right found authority and energy in their religious faith. The fight to define religious liberty fueled struggles between America’s secular and religious cultures on issues from evolution to school prayer, and American individualism and the country’s experiment in religious liberty were the engine that made America the most religiously diverse nation on earth.
Transcripts of the six segments are available on the website. Looks like an excellent resource overall. Also an interview with Jeffrey Gurock, professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University, on Sabbath observance that might make an interesting comparison with Paul Andersen in Chicago in 1849-50 …
Catherine Brekus, interview transcript, God in America, Public Broadcasting System, Oct. 11, 2010 https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/godinamerica-interview-brekus/.
An awful lot to study here. One excerpt:
Conversions increase. Why does this matter for America at that moment?
The revivals, in some ways, end up being what the ministers want them to be, which is a kind of glue that links people together at a time where huge numbers of immigrants are arriving, where people are going out West. I think it’s [Notre Dame professor] Mark Noll who has argued that there are more ministers in the early republic than there are postal workers. There are huge numbers of ministers who are knitting the nation together in some ways.
Now, this fabric, it’s going to turn out not to be enduring. Ministers can’t seem to stitch together the North and the South, so they aren’t able to create a coherent national culture that really endures. But for a period of time, up until the Civil War, there’s a kind of Protestant ethic that shapes American culture.
I think we’re all familiar in the United States today with ideas of America as a kind of redeemer nation or a “city on a hill.” These are ideas that are really fomented by evangelicals in the 19th century. They stretch back all the way to the Puritans, but evangelicals in the 19th century feel strongly that America has a special Protestant destiny. And in fact, when some of the early historians in the 19th century write about the founding of America, they claim that it was no coincidence that America is discovered around the same time as the Reformation takes place. So Robert Baird, who is a historian writing in 1844, claims that God had destined America to be a Protestant nation and to be an example for the rest of the world.
Was the politics less important than the religion in how America felt about itself?
I think all of these things are intertwined. Religion and politics are certainly linked. A lot of the political ideas about America as a nation-state had Protestant foundations. You can trace, for example, later-19th-century imperialism to some of these ideas about America’s chosenness and America’s identity as a city on a hill, as a model for other nations. You could trace that all the way into the 20th century, with the conflicts that have erupted more recently. So there’s certainly a political dimension to these revivals.
The revivals really reshape American life in a lot of ways. They also give a great impetus to social reform movements. There are temperance organizations that are founded out of the revivals. Also there is a lot of anti-slavery activism that’s linked to this kind of religious fervor. Some historians, I think, have exaggerated the connection between evangelicalism and anti-slavery. There are many liberal Protestants — for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe — who grew up in an evangelical family but ended up rejecting that faith. There are liberals who are strongly committed to anti-slavery, and they’re much more radical than evangelicals. So the link between the revivals and social reform is there, but there are also social reformers who are not involved in the revivals.
Catherine Brekus, “Examining the Roots of American ‘Chosenness’,” Harvard Gazette, July 2, 2015, rpt. Harvard Divinity School, June 30, 2016 https://hds.harvard.edu/news/2015/07/02/examining-roots-american-chosenness.
Perhaps no biblical story was more inspirational for American patriots than Exodus, the story of the enslavement of the Israelites and their journey to freedom. Drawing on a long Puritan tradition of identifying New England as “God’s New Israel,” many New England ministers argued that there were striking similarities between the plight of eighteenth-century Americans and the plight of the Israelites in Egypt.
When the Puritans had settled in Massachusetts Bay, they had described themselves as a “city on a hill” with a special divine destiny, and during the Revolution, this belief in American “chosenness” only grew stronger.
Patriotic ministers often recounted the story of Pharaoh, the evil king of Egypt, who had enslaved and oppressed the Israelites until Moses led them to freedom, parting the Red Sea with his staff. Placing Americans within this sacred history, ministers would often describe King George III as Pharaoh and the colonists as the oppressed Israelites.
Rather than highlighting the biblical passages calling for peace, patriots insisted that a violent God did not hesitate to wreak vengeance on his foes. Revolutionary patriots argued that even Jesus should be understood as a warrior.
On one hand, they acknowledged that Jesus had urged his disciples to love their enemies, to bless those who cursed them, and to turn the other cheek. On the other hand, they were particularly struck by the description of the avenging Jesus found in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 19:15): “And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.”
By insisting that the central message of the Bible is freedom, ministers transformed the way that ordinary people understood the Bible, and their intense identification of the Bible with American nationalism and political liberty led to a new understanding of the Bible as a deeply patriotic text.
This democratic, nationalistic understanding of the Bible proved to be long lasting, and we can still hear its echoes today. Consider, for example, the American Patriot’s Bible, a bible published in 2009 that prints the full text of the Bible with glossy inserts celebrating the history of American freedom.
Like the Christian patriots during the Revolution who tried to write themselves into the Bible by identifying themselves as the New Israel, the American Patriot’s Bible highlights the parallels between the Book of Exodus and American history, and its central message is that God has called Americans to fight for liberty.
The book has reportedly sold more than 125,000 copies. Despite widespread criticism by Christian leaders that the American Patriot’s Bible is misguided and even idolatrous in its nationalism, it is clear that many American Christians today are the heirs of the Revolutionary patriots who argued on behalf of American chosenness.
Catherine Brekus is Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard Divinity School and in the Department of American Studies. … Her research focuses on the relationship between religion and American culture, with particular emphasis on the history of women, gender, Christianity, and the evangelical movement. Her current interests include the religious history of American exceptionalism and the relationship of Christianity, capitalism, and consumerism in the United States.