Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism
224 pages, $23.95
American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century
America has never succeeded in building a wall of separation between church and state. It’s been more like a rusty, chain-link fence, poorly maintained and full of gaps.
And as anyone who has spent time with a certain kind of activist Christian knows, there is a viral theory going around that says the founders of American democracy never intended to put up a wall, or even a fence, between government and religion. All across the land, young Christians are taught in home schools, and in churches, and in activist-training programs that church-state separation is a myth. The founders were godly pilgrims who envisioned a Christian nation, not a secular society in which students are prohibited by court order from praying in school.
With the elevation of George W. Bush to the presidency and with a pliant Republican Congress in Washington, not to mention a federal judiciary being stacked with more and more conservative judges, there are good reasons to monitor the many breaches in our fence of separation. For journalist Michelle Goldberg, each incursion takes us closer to the transformation envisioned by a growing movement she aptly calls Christian nationalism. “The motivating dream of the movement is the restoration of an imagined Christian nation,” she writes in Kingdom Coming. The dream entails more than winning a few battles here and there against abortion and gay marriage, or for the right to say “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The ultimate goal, Goldberg reports, is dominion. “The movement is built on a theology that asserts the Christian right to rule. That doesn’t mean that nonbelievers will be forced to convert. They’ll just have to learn their place.”
Does theocracy in America seem improbable? Goldberg concedes that we are probably “not yet close.” And she is aware that by paying attention to the views of outright theocrats on the political fringe, a journalist runs the risk of sounding shrill or hyperbolic.
But the case she makes, which is never shrill and only occasionally hyperbolic, is that there are a lot of influential Christians involved in politics who do not believe in democracy as we have come to know it. On the margins are “Christian Reconstructionists” who believe they are called to establish a Bible-based republic that will rule in the name of Christ for a thousand years before the Second Coming. Only a fraction of American fundamentalists may share this theology, and yet not too many steps removed are the views of televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Another half-step, and you’ve got the Texas Republican Party, which famously declared in its 2004 platform that the United States “is a Christian nation.” And from the loins of the Texas Republican party sprang … the current Bush administration.
When the networks of affinity become as extensive as they have in recent years, the result is a government that begins to act as if the interests of Christian churches are the interests of us all. What’s good for the Southern Baptist Convention is good for America.
Goldberg looks at five key areas of Christian nationalist muscle-flexing: the mobilization of voters and activists, not just against gay rights, but against the scourge of homosexuality itself; the battles waged against local governments over evolution vs. “intelligent design”; the creation of a federal government “gravy train” for churches engaged in faith-based social services; the use of taxpayer funds toward ineffective “abstinence” programs rather than promoting contraception; and the campaign of right-wing activists against “judicial activism” as they seek a takeover of the court system in the name of conservative Christian principles.
Even for those who know, in broad outlines, that all this religious agitation is a fact of our current public life, Goldberg’s reporting can inspire more than a few “Jesus H. Christ!” moments. I balked when she referred to the diversion “of billions of taxpayer dollars” to “sectarian religious outfits” under the Bush administration. Billions? Well, yes. In March 2005, Goldberg notes, President Bush told a conference of religious leaders that the federal government had doled out $2 billion in grants to faith-based groups. The year before, it was $1.17 billion. Goldberg doesn’t deny that a lot of ministering to people in need is being done, some of it by groups like Catholic Charities that have historically taken a mostly secular approach to social services. But a good deal of the money also went, Goldberg contends, to “small religious organizations that put evangelism at the center of their work” and are allowed to openly discriminate against non-Christians in hiring. Some of it went, as well, to programs run by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. And a full accounting of all this spending is impossible to produce, Goldberg writes, because “the faith-based initiative is structured in a way that makes it incredibly difficult to track where all the funds are going.”
Of course, the true believers can always be counted on to say the damnedest things. Goldberg’s forays into the gatherings of religious-right activists led to conversations you just don’t get living the cloistered life of the urban sophisticate. Give the author credit for getting out there. Here she is meeting up with two members of a group that brought former Alabama Judge Roy Moore’s exiled Ten Commandments monument to a rally in front of the Texas Capitol. The founder of the group, Jim Cabaniss, complains that “People who call themselves Jews represent maybe 2 or 3 percent of our people. Christians represent a huge percent, and we don’t believe that a small percentage should destroy the values of the larger percentage.”
I asked Cabaniss, a thin, white-haired man who wore a suit with a red, white, and blue tie and a U.S. Army baseball cap, whether he was saying that American Jews have too much power. “It appears that way,” he replied. “They’re a driving force behind trying to take everything to do with Christianity out of our system. That’s the part that makes us very upset.”
Ed Hamilton, who’d come to the rally from San Antonio, interjected, “There are very wealthy Jews in high places, and they have significant control over a lot of financial matters and some political matters. They have a disproportionate amount of influence in our financial structure.”
Goldberg talks with people devoted to “destroying Darwinism” and listens to preachers who warn that same-sex marriage signals “the annihilation of a civilization.” She attends conferences with activists who bristle at the very notion of “safe sex.” (As one abstinence educator declared, “I will not teach my child that they can sin safely.”) It would be easy enough to play such material for laughs, but Goldberg isn’t interested in lampooning. Her book portrays a nation of interconnected churches, foundations, and activist groups—and of ambitious, charismatic preachers allied with Republican operatives. This is the rise of Christian nationalism, and it requires us to ask what kind of nation we will have if the movement keeps growing.
The question itself might seem a joyous one to those caught up in the rapture of it. What kind of nation? One blessed by God! A nation returned to the righteous path, rid of the evils of humanism, materialism, and sexual deviance. Even nonbelievers, surely, would enjoy the benefits of living in an upright, moral society. I can only imagine the perplexity with which such Christian utopians would regard poor Michelle Goldberg, a self-described “secular Jew and ardent urbanite” who admits she finds the whole thing terrifying. Goldberg keeps turning to Hannah Arendt’s 1951 work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Under the influence of Arendt, she finds “totalitarian elements” in the Christian nationalist movement, particularly in “its attacks on decadent internal enemies” and in statements like this one from best-selling author Tim LaHaye: “We must remove all humanists from public office and replace them with pro-moral political leaders.”
“America is full of good people,” Goldberg writes, “but something dark is loose.”
Kevin Phillips would not disagree. In his sprawling book American Theocracy, Phillips finds a lot of dark forces on the loose.
Reading Phillips, one can’t help but be struck by what a difference four decades makes.
When he began work in 1966 on the book that became The Emerging Republican Majority, it was only two years after Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. But Phillips looked into the future and saw that a backlash against civil rights legislation would lead Southern voters into a new Republican coalition. By the time the book was published in 1969, it was also clear that leftist revolutionaries in the streets would further alienate middle Americans from liberalism. Phillips was one of the architects of Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968, and when Nixon won re-election resoundingly in 1972, Phillips’ thesis of a new Republican majority in presidential politics looked prescient. When Republican strength was consolidated in the Reagan years, it was confirmed.
But once the Republican majority was firmly in place, Phillips didn’t much like what he saw. He decried the economics of the Reagan years in The Politics of Rich and Poor (1990) and assaulted the alliance of both presidents Bush with the corporate elite in Wealth and Democracy (2002), and American Dynasty (2004). Now, in American Theocracy, he surveys the effects of 40 years of mostly Republican rule. The question his book poses is whether the United States is heading for the fate of other empires that have crumbled in a heap of hubris. If so, he says, the GOP coalition he once championed “will share in the ignominy.”
This is really three books rolled into one, and only the middle third is about the influence of the religious right. Phillips sees three perils to American power in the 21st century: an energy economy and foreign policy that requires a doomed “petro-imperialism;” a rise in conservative Christian power that has turned the GOP into “America’s first religious party;” and the transition from a productive, manufacturing-based economy into one dominated by a “debt-and-credit industrial complex.” The author’s analysis turns time and again to the factors that caused the decline of imperial power in Rome, in 17th century Spain, in 18th century Netherlands, and in Great Britain after 1914. In each case, Phillips sees parallels—imperial overreach, fervent religion, and precarious debt go arm in arm with decline.
Despite the title, it isn’t really the specter of theocracy that worries Phillips. He says in his preface that a country as large and diverse as America “goes about as far in a theocratic direction as it can when it satisfies the unfortunate criteria on display in Washington circa 2005:
An elected leader who believes himself in some way to speak for God, a ruling political party that represents religious true believers and seeks to mobilize the churches, the conviction of many voters in that Republican Party that government should be guided by religion, and on top of it all, White House implementation of domestic and international political agendas that seem to be driven by religious motivations and biblical worldviews.
In his final chapter, Phillips suggests that “Evangelicalism under George W. Bush probably expanded to levels of adherence and belief that it will be unable to sustain much further into the twenty-first century.” Look what happened when the other great powers went through periods of religious fervor and then came to grips with not being God’s favored people. Spain, Holland, and Britain today are irreligious. “Organized religion did not profit from the great disillusionment when the various chosen peoples turned out not to be,” he writes. “It is not hard to imagine something similar happening in the United States by 2030 or 2040 as two or three decades of cynicism claim religious as well as economic and political victims.”
Most of the time it is hard to imagine America transformed into a land of tolerant, laid-back, nonbelievers. Instead of “the Texification of America,” as Phillips describes recent American politics, it would be the Eurofication of America. The United States would take its place as an equal to Britain, Spain, and the Netherlands. Dreams of dominion would have to be abandoned. But look on the bright side: We could still try democracy.
Dave Denison is a former editor of The Texas Observer.