Nations define themselves by what they choose to remember. The growing complexity of the United States is suggested by the ever-expanding volume of her historical memories, the range of groups and events that are commemorated, often in the name of multiculturalism. Just look at the changing landscape of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with the stunning new National Museum of the American Indian. To secure a place in memory is also to stake a claim for power and resources in the modern world.
Actually, it is possible to exaggerate the damage done by multiculturalism. Anyone visiting the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will be deeply disappointed if they hope to be outraged by vapid or obsessive displays harping on “women and minorities” in every other caption. Generally, the museum is a fine and thoughtful display. So good is it, in fact, that it is all the more amazing when we realize what is being omitted. Even the most sensible of American historians and museum-keepers still miss a crucially large portion of the nation’s history, arguably its central vision. And once we understand that, we can appreciate most of our current rows over culture wars, Red and Blue America, and all the rest.
A national museum has to serve a dual function—to offer the canonical themes of American history but also to reflect changing historical visions. In the first category, we find displays about the presidency, the White House, and the first ladies. In the second, we can certainly see a powerful emphasis on social history, those issues of race and class that galvanize liberal academic historians. And so they should. All Americans should care about the history of labor and technology; of science and industry, of the movement from farm to factory; of the struggle between rival immigrant communities in the industrial towns of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The museum has something for everyone’s taste. In the bookstore, itself one of the minor glories of Washington, D.C., we find vast quantities of patriotic paraphernalia; celebrations of flag, nation, and even George W. Bush; not to mention huge offerings in military history. The musical offerings from every era of American history are magnificent.
Nothing in the museum should not be there, and that case can be made even for pop-culture ephemera: Julia Child’s kitchen, indeed! After a while, however, you begin to notice the critically significant absences. For me, the first alarm bell sounded while I was walking through an exhibit called “American Encounters”, about the diverse cultures that make up New Mexico. Throughout the exhibit, we find religious objects, chiefly from Latino cultures—santos, bultos, milagros, figures of the Virgin. Of course, they need to be here: How could you understand New Mexico without its religious past? And then the question dawns: Where are the equivalent religious materials elsewhere in the museum? Where is the sense of any religious presence or influence in American history?
As it stands, the question is too stark. You can indeed find photographs of churches and church communities, especially in galleries on African-American history or European-immigrant communities. You can even find religious references and texts—as if anything worthwhile could be said about African-American history without quoting that core tradition of prophetic-apocalyptic rhetoric so effectively deployed by Martin Luther King, Jr. In virtually every case, however, religion is cited as a cultural badge of minority traditions. Looking at the presentation of America’s religions, you often get the feeling of a ham-fisted anthropologist visiting a remote village and saying, “So, show me your quaint tribal customs.”
And all this in the national museum of a society founded absolutely on religious themes and ideas, in which, over the centuries, it is very difficult to trace a social or political movement that can really be described as secular. The Temperance movement, women’s movements, abolitionism, Progressive reform, educational reform, movements to reform food and diet: all were, to a greater or lesser extent, profoundly shaped by religious thought. Could the Civil War have been fought if a large segment of soldiers on both sides had not viewed themselves as warriors of God? Is it possible to understand the political rhetoric of the era without grasping its religious and often apocalyptic foundations?
And that is just one historical moment. If anyone ever objects to the notion of religion playing a role in politics, I usually ask them how they feel about that particular Great Awakening we call the Civil Rights Movement. In America, and not in most other countries, even movements that do not originally possess a religious context develop them. Witness how many of the battles of modern feminism have acquired religious and spiritual dimensions, with campaigns over women’s roles in churches and synagogues, and the emergence of woman-oriented mystical and esoteric sects. America is, and continues to be, a religious product.
So where, in this National Museum, are the exhibits devoted to (say) American Prophets? To Great Revivals? Of course, there should be exhibits on Electricity, American Maritime Enterprise, or the Information Age. But where are the materials on the quest for God and godly rule as a dominant motive through much of American history? And no, the promising gallery entitled Engines of Change turns out not to concern itself with the churches in American life.
Museum-keepers and historians may feel that religion is too controversial a topic to display adequately, though this consideration does not prevent them from offering strongly partisan accounts of issues dealing with race and sex. I think the underlying issue is much deeper and more alarming. Academic historians really, sincerely, do not see that religious forces have played such a key role in the nation’s past. Religion does not register with them, so, obviously, it could not affect anyone else.
Whatever the reasons, the effects are tragic. This is a museum of American history with God left out, leaving us to ask: Whose museum is this? What nation do they think they are living in?