Review of Kingdom Coming (2007)
Review: Michelle Goldberg. 2006. Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. New York: W. W. Norton. 253 pp.
Soon after the U.S. entered the Second World War, the War Department commissioned prominent director Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) to do a propaganda film explaining and justifying America's participation in the conflict. He made Why We Fight, a classic of the genre. Eschewing maudlin appeals to patriotism or overwrought rhetoric, Capra had the brilliant idea of using the Axis leaders' own tools against them. German, Italian, and Japanese propaganda films provided him with his most luridly compelling images. Scenes of Hitler in his screeching, foaming rants and Mussolini posing and posturing were far more damning than any censure, however eloquent, Capra could have dished out.
Michelle Goldberg has mastered Capra's technique. She lets the leaders of America's growing Christo-fascist movement speak for themselves. We hear them proclaiming that doctors who perform abortions should be subject to the death penalty. Homosexuality would also be a death-penalty offense, though first-time offenders might be shown mercy and merely subjected to public humiliation. Strict Old Testament law in all of its ferocity is to be imposed. Goldberg quotes (p. 177) Michael Schwartz, chief of staff to U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (Republican, of course, from Oklahoma), saying of liberal judges "I don't want to impeach judges. I want to impale them!" Such views are expressions of "Christian reconstructionist" theology, a militantly theocratic creed propagated by ultrafundamentalist theologian the late R.J. Rushdoony. Hard-line reconstructionists constitute an American Taliban and openly advocate making the Bible the basis of a shari'a-type religious law that would trump all considerations of rights or personal liberty.
Strict reconstructionists are considered extreme even within the religious right, yet, as Goldberg documents, an offshoot of reconstructionist theology, dominionism, is a political philosophy that is rapidly gaining ground among "mainstream" right-wing Christians. Dominionism, or Christian Nationalism as Goldberg calls it, openly advocates theocracy--or "theonomy" as some of its proponents call it. That is, according to this creed, government at all levels and all of society's leading institutions should be under fundamentalist Christian control. Other religions will be "recognized," but Christianity will have official and approved status. Non-Christians will inevitably be reduced to second-class citizens. But, surely, aren't these views also considered extreme, and aren't they advocated only by a tiny, insignificant minority?
No longer. Many leading representatives of the religious right have been more or less open about their advocacy of theocracy. Statements issued by some individuals and organizations retain a fig leaf of vagueness, just enough wiggle room to permit plausible deniability if pinned down. For instance in its 2004 platform the Republican Party of Texas made theocratic noises, but managed to commit itself to nothing definite: "[T]he United States of America is a Christian nation, and the public acknowledgement of God is undeniable in our history. Our nation was founded on fundamental Judeo-Christian principles based on the Holy Bible (quoted, p. 27)." Others give full-throated voice to theocracy: "We must remove all humanists [i.e., nonfundamentalists] from public office and replace them with pro-moral [i.e., Christian fundamentalist] political leaders," says Tim LaHaye, coauthor of the Left Behind books (quoted, p. 39). George Grant, former executive director of D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries wrote:
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.... Thus, Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land--of men, families, institutions, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ (quoted, p. 41).
Grant's former boss, D. James Kennedy is even more ambitious; he wants to repeal the Enlightenment, reverse the Renaissance, and trash the classical heritage of Greece and Rome:
Clearly the Enlightenment in France was another expression of the Renaissance's bearing bitter fruit. Had they known their historical models, the men and women of the Enlightenment could have had a preview of the coming attractions by simply looking back at the fruits of secular ideology in ancient times. In Greece and Rome, as well as in the succession of wars and disasters ever after, they could have had a portrait of the ghastly results their vision has produced (quoted, p. 43).
Kennedy's model of good government is John Calvin's theocracy in 16th Century Geneva.
So, why have Christian fundamentalists ratcheted up their truculence and stridency to such a degree? One of their own has been president for the last six and a half years, and has funneled billions of dollars of taxpayer money to fundamentalist organizations through his "faith-based initiatives." The U.S. Senate is rife with characters like Senators Jim Inhofe, Tom Coburn, Jim DeMint, David Vitter, Larry Craig, Bill Frist, John Cornyn, and Sam Brownback, who either are fundamentalists or are fellow travelers eager to toe the line of organizations like Focus on the Family and the Eagle Forum. The House is even worse. The Supreme Court has the Roberts/Scalia/Alito/Thomas clique, one justice short of an automatic hard-right majority. Despite some setbacks in the 2006 election (true believers Rick Santorum and Tom DeLay were lost from Congress), haven't things been going their way for some time?
But even to pose such a question is to grossly underestimate the religious right's boundless self-pity and consuming sense of victimization. Two events in particular seem to have piqued its paranoia: The court-mandated eviction of "Roy's Rock," Judge Roy Moore's 2.6 ton Ten Commandments monument, from the Montgomery judicial building, and the court-ordered removal of Terry Schiavo's feeding tubes. These events precipitated an eruption of rage and invective from fundamentalists and reinforced their palpably absurd but passionate conviction that Christians are persecuted in this country, particularly at the hands of "liberal, activist judges."
Goldberg is an investigative journalist who spent a great deal of time getting to know some of the religious right activists and attending their conferences and gatherings. She found many of them to be personally affable and cordial, but, she notes, when she was a reporter assigned to the Middle East, she observed a similar phenomenon: People, all warmth and smiles, would invite you into their homes and serve you tea but the next day would cheerfully send a suicide bomber to blow up people like you. Likewise, when the cameras are rolling, Pat Robertson can turn on the good ol' boy charm and the "aw, shucks" grin that would make you think he was Andy Griffith. But, Goldberg makes clear, these are not nice people. Their easygoing demeanor masks deep and virulent hatreds and crusading zeal. They are self-righteous and confident to a degree that is possible only for those who have achieved the sublime certainty and clarity of the fanatic.
Although she spent a lot of time with her subjects, Goldberg admits that she never really understood them. Small wonder. To Goldberg, or to anyone who has absorbed the secular, liberal ideas and rational ideals derived from the Enlightenment, the fundamentalists will be largely incomprehensible. They live in a universe that they have created, a universe separate from and parallel to the one that the rest of us live in. The hippies' counterculture of the sixties was nothing compared to the fundamentalist counterculture of today. Megachurches have now become communities within the community, complete with coffee shops, gyms, bookstores, and boutiques. Public schools, those dens of iniquity where evolution and secular humanism are inculcated, can be avoided altogether, and children can be home-schooled with a curriculum based on "Christian" values. When they reach college age, there are institutions like Regent University and Patrick Henry College. When they finish college, they can marry another fundamentalist and settle into a sterile McMansion neighborhood populated by like-minded folk. In short, a fundamentalist can now go practically from cradle to grave without having to be exposed to conflicting ideas or having to learn to live with people different from themselves.
Goldberg details the particular obsessions of fundamentalists, like their fascination for abstinence and chastity programs, their continued evolution-bashing, and, of course, their particular bugaboo, gays and lesbians. I have a cartoon on my office door of a pompadoured, Bible-flailing character at the pulpit haranguing his flock about the "vile abomination" of two men clasped together in the "animal heat of unnatural lust." Out in the congregation, one pew-sitter whispers to another, "Yeah, you're right. He's definitely gay." You would think that after the Ted Haggard and Larry Craig episodes, there would be at least some self-consciousness about expressions of homophobia, but imperviousness to shame or irony is part of the zealot thing.
The religious right has had some notable political successes, as when, in 2004, numerous states passed propositions outlawing gay marriages and civil unions. But, as Goldberg notes, the immediate danger posed by fundamentalist activism is cultural, not political. Their impact on particular issues, like gay rights, abortion, or stem cell research, is less deleterious than the subversion of rationality itself, which has been achieved to an alarming extent. The difference I have observed in my own lifetime is remarkable: I entered school in the immediate post-Sputnik era and grew up in a society where respect for science was automatic. The majority of people might have had a hard time distinguishing between a proton and a protein, but there was a pervasive sense that when it came to matters of fact there was no higher authority than the consensus of scientific communities. Perhaps we were too deferential; some shady characters like Werner von Braun were practically idolized.
Today, by contrast, scientific conclusions, even the best established, are routinely undermined and derided. Even the mainstream media feel that they have to offer "balance" on scientific issues by giving equal time to cranks and crackpots. Antiscience propaganda, promulgated by the religious right through its mouthpieces in the right-wing punditocracy, has radically politicized scientific issues. Instead of deference, scientists whose research opposes right-wing dogma can now expect to be censored, denied funding, pilloried in the right-wing media, or subjected to Congressional investigation. Here in my neighborhood, at NASA, a Bush administration appointed lackey and scientific ignoramus at one time had the power to censor the wording of NASA scientists when they said things that he judged uncongenial to the Bush base. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently reported that Dr. Julie Gerberding, Director of the Centers for Disease Control, was called to testify before Congress on the health effects of global warming, but found her comments censored by the Office of Management and Budget, which is run by politically appointed "Brownies." (And they're doing a heckuva job!)
In the 1990s many academics, myself included, were worried about the attack on scientific rationality issuing from the postmodernist left. But the real danger to science comes from the right, as it always has. Of course, fundamentalist antipathy to evolution has been recognized for generations, but, as Chris Mooney showed in his 2005 book The Republican War on Science, and as Goldberg confirms, antievolutionism is only the tip of the iceberg. When the Food and Drug Administration's Reproductive Health Advisory Committee voted 23-4, on solid scientific grounds, to make the "morning after" pill available without a prescription, hysterical abstinence advocates shrieked that this would make adolescents have more sex. As Goldberg notes (p. 151), the FDA already had a host of independent studies denying that canard, but in another exercise of politics over science, the FDA shamefully rejected the panel's advice and refused to allow emergency contraception to be sold over the counter.
The Lancet, the leading British medical journal, just reported extensive studies of the incidence of abortion worldwide. The findings, by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute, show unequivocally that abortion rates are lowest in countries that have safe, legal abortion and where women have ready access to contraception. The evidence for the connection between the availability of reliable contraception and the incidence of abortions is simply undeniable, yet, of course, zealots will deny it. What do you do when the evidence shows that if you really want to decrease the number of abortions, you should make sure that abortion safe and legal, make family planning a routine practice, and make contraception widely and easily available? You do what you always do when reality mugs your dogma: You deny the evidence, vilify and disparage those who present it, and get your media pundits and think tanks to start churning out lies and disinformation. It also helps to troll the backwaters of academe to find bitter and marginalized or ideologically compromised scientists who will add their "scientific" credentials to your denial of the evidence.
Truth, of course, is the first casualty of war, and the Christian Nationalists most definitely think that they are at war with secular liberal elitists and their Enlightenment values. In the 1950s it was "Kill a Commie for Christ," now it is "Lie for the Love of the Lord." It is remarkable how many of these "good Christians" are incredibly cool and fluent liars, as, taking one example out of many, when they continue to spread the discredited allegation that having an abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. Maybe, though, they aren't really lying, but simply assuming a completely different conception of truth and how it is acquired. Sometimes comedians are more insightful than philosophers, and maybe Stephen Colbert is right when he says that the epistemic ideal of the far right is not truth, but "truthiness." Truthiness is not an objective representation of reality, but is what you believe when your heart or your gut tells you it must be so. It is a kind of belief that is felt with a level of conviction that mere logic and evidence can never impart.
It is never more evident that fundamentalists are living in a parallel reality where reason has no place than when they are indulging in their bizarre apocalyptic "left behind" fantasies. These beliefs are so very strange that outsiders may be excused if they are left wondering how any featherless biped could possibly be induced to hold them. Many Christian fundamentalists advocate an eschatology called "premillenial dispensationalism." According to this scenario, sometime in the near future (nobody knows exactly when, but soon) the "rapture" will occur and all "faithful" Christians (and innocent babies) will be removed from the world. There will follow the period of the "tribulation" when the Antichrist emerges, and apocalyptic war in Israel will result in the violent deaths of most of the world's Jews. Then Christ will return in glory, the Antichrist will be cast down, and there will be a thousand-year reign of peace and love. For the many millions of premillenialists this scenario is not metaphor; they really believe it. Further, it is not just harmless and silly fantasy, like New Agers going on about their past lives, but has issued in an aggressive "Christian Zionist" movement that is trying to influence Middle Eastern policy. My only criticism of Goldberg's book is that I wish she had included more about these alarming goings-on.
But are Goldberg's warnings alarming, or merely alarmist? Many sophisticated readers might concede that the Christian Nationalists are every bit as extreme and bizarre as Goldberg indicates, but then ask "So what?" Anyone who follows the news knows that the religious right is not having it all their way. The world is not their oyster. Most obviously, two of the movement's old lions, Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy, have recently "gone to their rewards." Goldberg herself in the epilogue to her book notes that many of the remaining fundamentalist icons have recently had hard falls. Tom DeLay is indicted and out of Congress. Roy Moore's run for governor of Alabama came to a sudden stop when he was clobbered in the GOP primary. Ralph Reed, former boy wonder of the Christian Coalition, was tarred in the Jack Abramoff scandal and couldn't even get elected lieutenant governor of Georgia. South Dakotans spanked the religious right hard when they rejected a ballot initiative that would have banned nearly all abortions. Mainstream Republicans may be turning against the religious extremists. Former House Majority Leader and hidebound conservative Dick Armey recently blasted James Dobson's Focus on the Family as "nasty bullies," and "a gang of thugs (quoted on p. 212)." Liberal columnist Ellen Goodman recently noted dissension in the ranks of conservative Christians and opined that the religious right, as a coherent political movement, is showing signs of rigor mortis. So, why get alarmed with a movement that is noisy and obnoxious but apparently going nowhere?
The death of the religious right has been proclaimed many times before. Like any political movement, it has its ups and downs. Temporary defeats do not dismay them. How could they be dismayed when the Lord is on their side? They are motivated, they are organized, they are well-funded, and they are absolutely certain that the future is theirs. They are not going away, and we ignore them at our peril. Goldberg has therefore done us the sort of service that Frank Capra did; she has given us a beautifully crafted statement of why we fight. Of course, in the Second World War the fascists were in Germany, Italy, and Japan. Now they may be just down the road at your local megachurch, but the battle is the same: the conflict between a vision of human society as open, tolerant, and guided by scientific rationality and one of a society that is dominated by an authoritarian, exclusionist, superstitious ideology.
Copyright ©2007 Keith Parsons. The electronic version is copyright ©2007 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Keith Parsons. All rights reserved.