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Culture, Entertainment, and Religion in America

Throughout American history, religion and entertainment have influenced each other and have intersected in fascinating ways. Native American rituals and games entertained and inspired. Early white settlers like the Puritans, though defining their faith over and against profane pastimes, engaged in sport, play, and elaborate storytelling. Still, stark contrasts appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries when it came to how Catholics and Protestants in the New World thought of the theater, music, and performance. The evangelical surge in the 18th century brought with it a lively and riveting preaching style—represented by celebrity ministers like George Whitfield and Gilbert Tennent—that faced the ire of their more traditional foes for using “vulgar” methods to reach the masses.

In the 19th century, African Americans, in slavery and freedom, expressed their faith in ways that combined religious systems, dancing, and music traditions from Africa and the Americas. Evangelical churches and prominent figures used entertainment to proselytize, illustrate the drama of salvation and damnation, and to enliven services. Temperance, anti-slavery, and other reformist groups employed music, novels, and theater to spread their earnest message.

Pentecostals and other evangelicals took up new forms in the 20th century. They eagerly made use of radio, film, and later, television. The well-known evangelist Billy Graham was a skillful pioneer of new media. In the 20th century, Hollywood films drew on Jewish and Catholic themes, as Jewish and Catholic writers, directors, and actors put their stamp on the silver screen. Late 20th and early 21st century combinations of religion and entertainment included Muslim rap music, Christian rock, Jewish folk music, and much more.

A great deal of this innovation coincided with the rise of the performance-driven megachurch and the proliferation of religious organizations that catered to athletes and drew on sports imagery and symbols for the cause. In the long sweep of American history, the devout have found new, elaborate ways to draw on popular culture and to entertain as well as enlighten the faithful.

Religion and Entertainment in American History

The average woman or man on the street might not automatically associate religion and entertainment. The latter might seem to be secular by design or default. The former lends itself to words like sacred, holy, worship, ritual, and maybe even humorless. America’s arch-gadfly, H. L. Mencken may have best expressed this thinking with his witticism about Anglo-America’s founding faith. “Puritanism,” he quipped, could be summed up as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”1

Similar critics over the ages have acknowledged that religion pairs with entertainment only in the most sordid or crass fashion. A variety of examples come to mind: the televangelist as electronic huckster; the flashy, vacuous self-help guru; Jim Bakker selling buckets of food for the impending apocalypse on cable TV as gospel songs play in the background; or the kitschy torch songs of 1980s evangelical soft rock groups. In this sense, in 2015 the Washington Post, reported on the antics of late night satirist John Oliver.2 The British comedian dubbed himself “Megareverend” and “CEO of Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption.” He established his ostentatious church “to test the legal and financial limits of what religious entities are able to do.” It is not surprising that so many Americans seem to think that the mix of religion and entertainment …[ ]

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