21 December 2007

We ignore this book (and Christian nationalism) at our peril.

Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism
Michelle Goldberg
W.W. Norton, 2007

As someone who grew up in a home influenced by apocalyptic Christian fundamentalism, I admit right up front that I will not attempt an "objective" review of this book (whatever that might mean). I agreed with the premise Michelle Goldberg outlines (i.e., that there is a powerful strand of politicized Christianity in the US that holds the Constitution in contempt and that seeks absolute political control---Goldberg calls them "Christian nationalists") before she ever set fingers to keyboard. Frankly, I was amazed at the empathy and understanding with which Michelle Goldberg approached this material, and found that one of the strongest features of this book. Another of the strengths is in her willingness to let her subjects speak for themselves. Oftentimes the most damning comments come straight from the mouths of the Christian nationalists themselves, and Goldberg does a fine job of putting these quotes into an overall context that should chill anyone who still appreciates the ideals of the Enlightenment.

For example, Goldberg repeatedly exposes a Manichean worldview in which the American body politic is literally divided into black and white, good and evil, with the Christian nationalists on one side and the rest of us on the other. (I leave it for you to guess which side is "good.") "Thus every political issue--indeed, every disputed aspect of our national life--is a struggle between good and evil" (p. 4). She quotes Pastor Rod Parsley: "Everyone asks, `Why is it so close?' The light is getting lighter and the dark is getting darker. These two opponents are not just opponents. This is a values situation. This is lightness and darkness!" (p. 51). As Goldberg sagaciously notes, people have a perfect right to this Manichean worldview, "yet when the United States government works this way, it turns all nonevangelicals into "the other side." The nonreligious are no longer even part of the debate..." (152). I would also note that in this view, the "wrongly religious" (i.e., those who don't accept a particular collection of tenets about God, the Bible, etc.) are also left out of the debate.

Of course, though, this point is moot, because making the US an overtly Christian country, in which the nonreligious and "wrongly religious" are second-class citizens at best, is one aspect of the Christian nationalist agenda: "Among [evangelicals and born-again Christians] there is substantial support for amending the United States Constitution to make Christianity the country's official religion..." (9). Leaving us out of the debate makes sense to Christian Reconstructionist theologian R.J. Rushdoony, who denounced democracy as a "heresy and `the great love of the failures and cowards of life'" (38). Whereas many try to sugarcoat this agenda for wider consumption, the raw truth is available for the flock: "Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ--to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness. But it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice. It is dominion we are after. Not just influence. It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time. It is dominion we are after. World conquest. That's what Christ has commissioned us to accomplish" (p. 41, Goldberg quoting George Grant's The Changing of the Guard: Biblical Principles for Political Action.)

This antidemocratic, authoritarian philosophy can't stand up to the scrutiny of the contemporary world, though, and so, as Goldberg explores in the bulk of her book, the Christian nationalists have set to work building an alternate reality in which myth is science, fiction is history, and public policy is faith-based. From the continued intrusion of creationists in our public schools, to the campaign to refashion the Founding Fathers as Christian nationalists, to publicly funded abstinence-only sex education classes, there is a parallel reality alongside ours. "Originally, conservative Christian activists just wanted to keep Darwin and sex education out of schools. When that didn't work, they developed an alternative, quasi-scientific infrastructure that would legitimate their religious beliefs in secular terms, and which they hoped to use to replace the doctrines they objected to" (p. 138). "To the Christian nationalists...publicly funded religious social services auger nothing less than an epistemological revolution. They allow knowledge derived from the Bible to trump knowledge derived from studying the world. No longer would American policy and American civic life be based on facts available to all of us, on the kind of rationality that looks at `objective or even secular outcomes.' It would be based on faith" (p. 127). "What's lacking, though, isn't just truth--it's the entire social mechanism by which truth is distinguished from falsehood. Blunting Christian nationalism requires turning toward the Enlightenment and rebuilding a culture of rationalism. Unfortunately, multitudes of Americans no longer find Enlightenment values compelling" (p. 181).

That last sentence sums up what is possibly the biggest challenge posed by the theocratic right. Because they no longer find the Enlightenment values of empiricism and reason "compelling," they are assaulting the very criteria for establishing truth claims. Readers of this review may think this an exaggeration, but I can assure you from my experience as an undergraduate instructor that many students can no longer distinguish between fact and opinion, a consequence of twenty-plus years of a concentrated disinformation campaign. "This is a pattern that repeats itself again and again in the culture wars. When experts discredit some bit of fundamentalist orthodoxy, it's taken as further proof of the experts' bias. When religious conservatives are proven wrong, their faith in their righteousness only grows, along with their hatred of the conspiracy they see arrayed against them" (p. 78). "With no agreement on the most basic of facts or sources of authority, discussions between today's creationists and evolutionists seem particularly futile. Dialogue is impossible without some shared sense of reality" (p. 93). Lest the reader think this is merely an academic issue with no bearing on the real world, they need to remind themselves that this alternate reality is populated by pharmacists who confuse themselves with theologians and/or doctors: "A rash of Christian pharmacists have refused to fill prescriptions for both the morning-after pill and for ordinary oral contraceptives--180 such incidents were reported in one six-month period in 2004....In Denton, Texas, three pharmacists working at an Eckerd drug store refused to fill a rape victim's prescription for the morning-after pill" (p. 156). In other words, these ideas and beliefs have real consequences for people, especially for those who don't hold these ideas and beliefs.

Others have critiqued Goldberg for her comparisons to fascists, whom they usually equate unequivocally with Nazis. While comparisons to Nazis are always inflammatory and rarely helpful, we must remember that fascism has some definable characteristics and that most (if not all) of the movements Goldberg describes can be seen to share many of these characteristics. If it walks like duck, etc. Others have taken her to task for conflating Christian fundamentalists with Christian evangelicals with Christian nationalists with theocrats etc., implying that because the Christian nationalist movement is decentralized and diffuse that it is not real at all. These criticisms, all specious, are tactics employed by the theocratic right, along with a cynical use of "religious liberty," to pursue a pernicious agenda under the radar. We ignore Goldberg's book and the movements to which she alludes at our peril.

(This review was originally written on May 1, 2007.)

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