Glee is a guilty pleasure. Lately the show has become more schizophrenic and at the same time ideologically subtle than usual. One week high school cheerleaders are debasing themselves in hallucinogenic Britney Spears covers; the next, members of the glee club are discussing belief through a variety of “spiritual” popular songs. The second of these two trends is a perfect representation of the religiously based secularism that has become American civil religion and, not surprisingly, popular culture.
I recently reviewed Tracy Fessenden’s Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (Princeton, 2007). Fessenden traces the development of secular American democratic ideals from their roots in Puritanism through their various cultural and literary permutations. Slowly, Protestantism took over as the de facto religio-political ideology of the United States. Along with Native Americans, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and others were viewed as dangerous to a healthy democracy. The Bible wars of the nineteenth century helped to draw the limits of dissent, and, instead of promoting toleration, the U.S. forced outsiders to assimilate under the guise of religious and ethnic diversity. But this diversity was mobilized in numerous ways to promote a single, unified culture. She investigates these themes in the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Kathryn Lofton, in her review of Culture and Redemption in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, says that one of the book’s weaknesses is that it “fails to resolve the reality of pluralism, focusing on the Protestant picture frame more than the wildly successful pastiche of rituals, practices, and theologies engendered within that frame.”1 Nonetheless, the take-home lesson of Fessenden’s book is that to misunderstand the role of religion in the creation of American secular culture is to misunderstand American history, past and present: “What such outsiders to the American religious consensus at various points in our history might tell us today is that the model we seek to export in the name of American values, one that attempts to ensure religious freedom and eradicate conflict by confining religion to a privatized sphere, does not even describe the dynamics of our own history. Worse still, it hides the violence and coercion that have attended the formation of American democratic space in the guise of the neutrality and universality of the secular” (217).
Now, what does all this have to do with Glee? The “Grilled Cheesus” episode is a delightful dialogue on religion in the public sphere. It opens with the question, is any discussion of religion or spirituality appropriate in a high school glee club? The picture of acceptable religions is much more inclusive than the one that existed in the nineteenth century or even the early twentieth: atheism and Judaism are portrayed as acceptable belief paths. Catholicism gets a vague nod with “Only the Good Die Young.” Many of the dominant speakers, however, are all some sort of nondenominational Christian.
The Glee club conductor Will Shuester is forced to defend his student’s outburst of religious piety by placing it within a “lesson on spirituality.” Sue Sylvester, the indefatigable cheerleading coach, is the democratic monitor of the separation of church and state, “which,” she states, “happens to be the pillar of a functioning civil society”; “this country is not a monarchy.” Now, Sue’s no religious historian so perhaps she should not be held responsible for Fessenden’s thesis, but she obviously misunderstands the significance of religion in defining the public sphere and democratic values. The principal makes the same blunder when he replies, “The children should be allowed to profess whatever faith they choose.” But is this really true? Would all faiths be permitted within this “democratic” space?
Another main dialogue of the episode is between belief and nonbelief, exemplified by Kurt Hummel’s rational empiricism and atheism as he deals with his father’s heart attack and by his classmates as they attempt to comfort him. While some students stand a prayerful vigil in Burt Hummel’s hospital room, Kurt comes in with an acupuncturist. Finn pipes up, “Why didn’t you just tell us you wanted to pray in Muslim?” Disdainfully, the woman says, “I’m not Muslim. I’m a Sikh.” This joke could just be to show Finn’s general ignorance, but I think it actually represents the boundary of free religious expression within this episode. Islam is not yet cool in public dialogue, thus Muslims are casually made fun of in the name of ignorance, while Eastern religions are acceptable.
Although the punchline of the whole episode seems straight from Regina Spektor, “Laughing With,” the episode does a fine job of acknowledging that religion plays a meaningful role in people’s lives. It is still theologically generic, though (we don’t get a true sense of Judaism’s difference, just that it is okay under the Protestant democratic banner of “inclusiveness”; likewise, the Sikh is not prized for her spiritual tradition but for her medical utility). The songs chosen are mostly spiritually themed pop songs or praise anthems with no deep theological content–Joan Osborne “If God Was One of Us,” Whitney Houston’s “I Look to You,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” a la Aretha Franklin.
Through such watery theology we see not a true model of religious pluralism but the dominance of an American Protestant democratic ideal. In other words, the attempt at defining a broader palette of religions to choose from, the creators of Glee have marked the margins of acceptability within the blandly democratic “freedom of religion” and separation of “certain” churches–still on the fringe, still perhaps dangerous to democracy, still being eliminated from the broader narrative of religion in the U.S.–from a Protestant state, or school. While “Grilled Cheesus” fails as a true model of religious pluralism, it succeeds as a portrait of American religiously formed secularism at work in the public sphere.
1. American Academy of Religion. Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Chico: Mar 2008. Vol. 76, Iss. 1; 219.