"Only duty and honor are real, Mischa. Isn't that what we were told?"
Irina in The Americans
This summer has been a whirlwind. I spent a week studying theology with a bunch of high school students, enjoyed a weekend thinking about the American church & public life with a bunch of pastors, visited my alma mater, and remodeled a 1950s bungalow. AND of course I watched Wonder Woman. Amidst the chaos, I managed to write a bit and get some research done. But I am way, way behind on t.v. watching and recommending! Mea culpa.
This spring I'll be teaching American Church history, and to prepare for it, today's post is about one of my recent favorites: The Americans.
At first glance, The Americans - a show about deep-cover Soviet spies in the 1980s who try to undermine the U.S. government while living under cover as a "normal" American nuclear family in Washington, DC - might seem like a strange choice for class about Christianity in America. But The Americans offers watchers an opportunity to think about Civil Religion, a key concept in American religious studies, from a distinct point of view.
The term American civil religion describe the rituals, holidays, cultural events/places/spaces drawn from our national history that create a religion of America. This religion has key beliefs ("all men are created equal," citizens are guaranteed "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) that amount to a kind of orthodoxy, and key practices (saluting the flag, standing for the national anthem, observing Independence Day, etc.) that are a kind of orthopraxy. The idea is that to be American, one must participate in the beliefs and practices of American civil religion.
The Americans offers us a chance to observe American civil religion from the perspective of those who believe that this religion is unorthodox and in fact a great evil that must be fought at any cost.... or is it? Through the eyes of "Elizabeth" (aka Nadezhda, played by Keri Russell), we see someone who works to maintain a purist vision of the Communist Party, and who is and disgusted by the materialism, comfort, and social injustice that surrounds her. Her partner/husband "Phillip" (aka Mischa/Mikhail, played by Matthew Rhys), on the other hand is not so sure. He finds that he actually enjoys American culture and he is reluctant to leave the life he has built there. After all, what's so bad about Coca Cola & McDonald's (this is the 80s - people don't hate these institutions yet)?
The Americans is about intrigue and global political strife, and it stands up very well as a political thriller. But it is most interesting when it parses out the tensions between Elizabeth and Phillip as they wrestle with whether or not they have been fully baptized into American civil religion. Elizabeth believes that her convictions (coupled with her brutal ability to extinguish human life on behalf of the Soviet Union) are enough to create a distinction between herself, her children, and American civil religion. The equally ruthless Philip wonders if the practice of being American has made him, and indeed their entire family, true believers.
What does it mean to be religious? Is religion about beliefs? Or practices? And what does it mean to be American? Is it enough to have citizenship, or must one convert? These questions and more are at the heart of one of my favorite summer binges.