BBC Documentary on Religion in the USA

The BBC recently ran a fascinating series of documentaries on the post-war USA, produced by Peter Molloy and entitled American Dream; unfortunately, they were not made available on the iPlayer for copyright reasons. The third part, directed and produced by Bill Treharne Jones, was called “One Nation Under God” and dealt with the subject of religion, covering various strands in Christianity and the 1960s counter-culture. The programme contained some fascinating footage, but its greatest value was in the interviews it contains.

Regarding Christianity, the programme begins with the evangelical revival of the 1950s and has input from Pat Boone. Boone talked about his cameo role in The Greatest Story Ever Told:

To portray the angel in the tomb, that spoke the words I consider the most important words ever uttered, I consider that moment a highlight of my whole life and career.

Boone has fond memories of the 1950s:

there was a sense of destiny and that that was because of the blessings of God on our society… we were committed to trying to be a – quote – “Christian nation”.

We are then shown archive material of a drive-in church service, and an extract from the film Salesman, which was a 1968 documentary about a pair of door-to-door Catholic Bible salesmen from Massachusetts working in New England and Florida; the BBC catches up with one of the film’s original subjects, James Baker, who recalled that he considered he was doing good, since the Bible taught “the children good morals”.

The programme also includes an interview with a craggy-faced Bob Richards (born 1926), “the vaulting vicar” who won a gold medal for pole vaulting at the 1952 Olympics. Richards is a devotee of Norman Vincent Peale, and his account is a near-perfect summary of a major strand in American Christianity:

I had three goals that I wanted to achieve. One was to win an Olympic gold medal. The second one was to get a PhD in religion or philosophy. And the third one was to own a big ranch in Texas, or anywhere… When you realise what God wants you to be, that’s power… You don’t understand the American psyche unless you realise that capitalism and religion are together. [Peale] related religion to success in building cars, in building corporations – US steel – he gave people motivation to become great. If you want a scripture for it, “Let your light so shine before men that they might see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven.” Well, that’s the scriptural basis, but its practical religion, practical religion.

Singing “I have joy, joy, joy, down in my heart” (1), Richards adds:

You’re happy, you’re peaceful, you’re right with God.

Following his Olympic success, Richards did adverts for a cereal called Wheaties.

Pentecostals also feature, and the programme-makers talk to Gary Pridemore, who as a child in the 1950s was filmed being healed of a degenerative hip disease by Oral Roberts. Says Pridemore:

I remember that a kind of an aura, a kind of like a light. It was not a bright light like a floodlight, it was kind of a soft cloudlike light, but it was bright.

We also see footage of Fannie Bell Chapman; she was an African-American gospel performer and healer, who would make a remarkable series of strange hand gestures as she healed the sick – she explained in an archive interview (from 1975) that this was untwisting disease in someone. Chapman’s daughter Doll Moody appears in the programme, as well as an associate of Chapman’s named Millie Witherspoon. Also representing Pentecostalism in the programme was Tim McCoy, a member of the serpent-handling Jolo Signs Following Church (I recall seeing McCoy chatting with Ruby Wax in a another programme on the church a few years ago). McCoy showed off his serpent bites, including one from a cottonmouth that had permanently frozen a joint in his finger. He explained that the first time he handled a serpent it “felt like velvet”, and that being bitten

made me stronger spiritually, it made me more of a believer in the word and in God. I was living the American dream back then. I was being able to go to the church of my choice.

The documentary also explores Christian Right activism: a chat show discussion between Boone and Hugh Hefner in which Boone defended the Puritans, and, when asked if he would allow his daughter to pose for Playboy, responded – to Hefner’s amusement – that he wouldn’t be able to prevent it but that she’d have “big red handmarks on her bottom”. Boone also talked about his anti-abortion activism, and there was a (mercifully) short clip of his song Let Me Live. Also discussed were Anita Bryant‘s campaigns against openly homosexual teachers; her “Save Our Children” campaign included the claim – now being echoed in Uganda – that children are “recruited by homosexuals”. Bryant discussed an incident in Des Moines, when an activist threw a cake in her face at a press conference: Bryant’s husband was there, and told the activist that they loved him and that they would pray for him. A be-caked Bryant began to pray, but choked up; she recalls, with some humour:

I just wasn’t in a mood to pray for anybody at that point. I think I was more angry with my husband than I was at anything…I think as a woman, as a wife, you want to be protected. You want to feel that someone has your blindside.

As an example of where the “American Dream” became the “American Nightmare” (an unhappy cliché), part of the programme covers the familiar story of Jonestown, with input from two survivors, Tim Carter and Leslie Wagner-Wilson.

The counter-culture part of the programme had interviews with various characters who now actually seem rather more dated than their evangelical rivals. First up was Michael McClure, a poet from North Beach who, Doctor Doolittle-like, created a “Beast language”; we are treated to some risible footage of him reciting poetry to some lions and roaring along with them. He recalls it was

One of the great and beautiful experiences of my life… it filled me with great joy.

What it filled the lions with is not discussed, although they were kept inside cages lest they be overly critical reviewers.

There’s also input from Virginia Gray Henry, who stayed with Timothy Leary at Millbrook; from Ken Babbs, whose “uncontrolled drug taking” definitely shows (LSD is a “can opener”, he explains); Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead (“we were having profound telepathic experiences every Saturday night”); the actor Peter Coyote; and two people involved with the Black Bear Ranch commune. One of these, Harriet Beinfield, explained that the commune was about holding the American dream up to what it was supposed to be, and we are treated to scenes of frolicking naked hippies. Coyote, who visited from time to time, judged it to be “simultaneously impressive, magnificent, and ridiculous”, although a man who spent his childhood there was less impressed. This was Aaron Marley, who smoked marijuana until the age 9 and who rebelled by getting a crew cut. He also repeatedly ran away, and he appears to have been traumatised by the experience; tearfully recalling one time he was adopted by travellers and abandoned, he judged that:

It’s neglect. Just plain simple neglect.

(1) Interestingly, Richards’ hymn has the same tune as a song about Tupperware which appears in another episode of the series, sung by Sylvia Boyd.

One Response

  1. I missed this series, unfortunately. It would have been very interesting to watch.

    Do you know if it is possible (for an honest, law-abiding, paying customer) to buy the series on DVD? I have looked for it in the usual places, but found nothing.

    Any ideas would be welcome. Thanks.

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