The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Theocracy in Three Volumes

I posted earlier about the political influence of the “Rapture Ready” crowd, and prior to that about their specific influence on foreign policy based on their particular interpretation of the book of Revelations. But, CUFI and the Apostolic Congress notwithstanding, some people think that the current talk of theocracy potentially looming on the horizon amounts to paranoia. But, when I look at some recent news items and developments, I think some level of paranoia is justified. I’m talking about:

I could go on, believe me, but I’ll stop lest I come off as paranoid. I’ll just add that it was items like the laundry list above that inspired me to add Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us, and American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century to my reading list earlier this year, with the thought that I’d read them as a means of gaining some insight into the people, policies, and propaganda behind all of the above.

After reaching a critical mass (really, after the Dobrich and Smalkowski stories) I decided not to wait for the paperback editions, bought the books one by one, and read them to see what they could tell me that I didn’t already know. The answer? Plenty. Afterwards thought that I might eventually post a review of all three. So, here goes.

For Kingdom Coming, Michelle Goldberg did something I’m not sure I’d have had the stomach to do. She immersed herself in her subject, interviewing people and attending movement conferences that would probably have made my head explode. (Actually, I would probably have just burst into flames upon entering just about any of the events and conferences she attends as part of her research.) And plumbing the depths yields interesting, alarming, and useful tidbits to ponder after the “peek behind the curtain” is over and the book it closed. I’ve cited her book and her interviews here a few times, already, and will probably return to the book again. It’s that useful.

Actually, what makes Kingdom Coming such a great resource is precisely the research required of Goldberg. The youngest of the three authors, Goldberg’s research was a necessity for her and, it seems, something of an education. It ends up being the same for a reader who perhaps knows less about the subject than even Goldberg did when she began. In fact, it’s a nearly perfect introduction for anyone who’s never heard of the people Goldberg names, interviews, or reports on in the book; like the guy who’s responsible for creating the concept of “compassionate conservatism”, for example, or the father of christian reconstructionism in the U.S. (Famous for saying “Christianity and Democracy are inevitably enemies.” )They’re not names that will be known to the great majority of Americans who are observing from the outside the religious/political movement Goldberg writes of after a brief sojourn inside.

Rabbi James Rudin draws on his personal experience growing up Jewish in Virginia, and as a religious and ecumenical leader in adulthood, for The Baptizing of America. So, in a sense, the kind of immersion Goldberg’s work required wasn’t necessary for him, as he’s been face to face with the same phenomenon for most of his life. The most striking vignettes in the book are his childhood memory of having to leave the classroom and stand in the hall when the teacher lead the class in prayer, and the behind-closed-doors debate among various religious leaders over the dedication of the chapel at David and the design of the stained glass windows during Bush Sr.’s administration.

While pondering how these incidents might end differently today (the teacher who tossed him out of the classroom was reprimanded by the principal, and after much debate the stained glass windows were redesigned to reflect religious diversity instead of overtly christian themes), Rudin walks the reader through the various “rooms” of the American “house” — Bedroom, Hospital Room, School Room, Newsroom, Library, Public Room, Work Room —and details how the people he calls “Christocrats” intend on redecorating (or demolishing) each room. Think of it as a new spin on the Hell House concept.

Of the three, Kevin Phillips probably brings the broadest scope and the most gravitas to his American Theocracy. After all, this is the guy who predicted all this when he wrote The emerging Republican majority years ago, and followed up with volumes like American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush. (And he references many of his previous books while making his points in American Theocracy.) As a result, he pulls back for the 10,000 foot view of what Goldberg and Rudin covered up close and personal, in a historical content reaching back several centuries for each of his three topics (oil dependency, religious fundamentalism, and finance chicanery). Now an Independent (formerly a registered Republican), Phillips has this to say about why he wrote the book.

My underlying thesis in American Theocracy is that these are the three major perils of the United States in the early 21st century. First, radical religion – this encompasses everything from the Pat Robertson-Jerry Falwell types to the attacks on medicine and science and the Left Behind books with their End Times and Armageddon scenarios. Second, oil dependence – oil was essential to 20th century U.S. hegemony, and its growing scarcity and cost could play havoc. And third, debt is becoming a national weakness – indeed, the “borrowing” industry in the U.S. has grown so rapidly that finance has displaced manufacturing as the leading U.S. sector.

… The excesses of the Religious Right in the Bush years represent a particular danger.. Some 45% of U.S. Christians believe in the End Times and Armageddon, and Tim LaHaye’s lurid Left Behind series helped mobilize them and shape Washington awareness of their importance. Centrist religious leaders believe it’s a gross distortion of the Bible, but there’s no doubt that a large percentage of the Bush electorate believes that war and chaos in the holy lands (including Iraq) heralds the Second Coming.

… The Republicans have profited from a weak opposition. Bluntly put, since the 1960s the Democrats have been the vehicle for the growth of secularism and irreligion among perhaps a third of the U.S. population. Strong churchgoers now vote Republican for president by roughly 3:1. As of 2005-2006, the new chance for the Democrats is to compete for the people in the middle – in particular, merely occasional religious attendees and moderates – who think that the liberals went too far in the 1960s and 1970s but that the Religious Right and the would-be theocrats are the danger now. That is certainly my anslysis, and it is developed at great length in American Theocracv.

… Fear is likely to remain a Bush tactic. His people have tried to polarize voters into seeing a fight between good and evil, stoking fear and a sense of global chaos. The doomsday preachers are on the same side.

The majority of Americans are not in their camp, but there is a large minority – certainly 25%, probably not 40% – that want more Bible and less science, abstinence rather than contraception, fewer drugs and more faith (faith-healing) and uphold confidence in fuel supplies and resources because God will provide.

In his post about the book Phillips hints at possible solutions to what he, Goldberg and Rudin obviously see as an important challenge that can’t be ignored without detrimental consequences for America and the world. That’s also where the differences between the three books become most apparent. Goldberg, at the end of Kingdom offers a solution similar to the one Phillips offers above when he says that Democrats have to “compete for the people in the middle.”

Those who want to fight Christian nationalism will need a long-term and multifaceted strategy. I see it as having three parts—electoral reform to give urban areas fair representation in the federal government, grassroots organizing to help people fight Christian nationalism on the ground and a media campaign to raise public awareness about the movement’s real agenda.

My ideas are not about reconciliation or healing. It would be good if a leader stepped forward who could recognize the grievances of both sides, broker some sort of truce, and mend America’s ragged divides. The anxieties that underlay Christian nationalism’s appeal—fears about social breakdown, marital instability and cultural decline—are real. They should be acknowledged and, whenever possible, addressed. But as long as the movement aims at the destruction of secular society and the political enforcement of its theology, it has to be battled, not comforted and appeased.

… When it comes to the public relations fight against Christian nationalism, nothing is trickier than battles concerning public religious symbolism. Fights over crèches in public squares or Christmas hymns sung by school choirs are really about which aspects of the First Amendment should prevail—its protection of free speech or its ban on the establishment of religion. In general, I think it’s best to err on the side of freedom of expression. As in most First Amendment disputes, the answer to speech (or, in this case, symbolism) that makes religious minorities feel excluded or alienated is more speech—menorahs, Buddhas, Diwali lights, symbols celebrating America’s polyglot spiritualism.

There are no neat lines, no way to suck the venom out of these issues without capitulating completely. But one obvious step civil libertarians should take is a much more vocal stance in defense of evangelicals’ free speech rights when they are unfairly curtailed. Although far less common than the Christian nationalists pretend, on a few occasions lawsuit-fearing officials have gone overboard in defending church/state separation, silencing religious speech that is protected by the First Amendment. (In one 2005 incident that got tremendous play in the right-wing press, a principal in Tennessee wouldn’t allow a ten-year-old student to hold a Bible study during recess.) Such infringements should be fought for reasons both principled, because Christians have the same right to free speech as everyone else, and political, because these abuses generate a backlash that ultimately harms the cause of church/state separation.

The ACLU already does this, but few hear about it, because secularists lack the right’s propaganda apparatus. Liberals need to create their own echo chamber to refute these kind of distortions while loudly supporting everyone’s freedom of speech. Committed Christian nationalists won’t be won over, but some of their would-be sympathizers might be inoculated against the claim that progressives want to extirpate their faith, making it harder for the right to frame every political dispute as part of a war against Jesus.

Goldberg goes on to suggest that, among other things, progressives take on the Electoral College and the Senate structur, which she sees as favoring evangelist strongholds because it allows the least populated states (mostly red, and remember “acres don’t vote”) disproportionate control of Congress and presidential elections. As far fetched as it might seem (Goldberg calls is a “Herculean task”), at least one state legislature — California — is already contemplating a change in how it handles its electoral votes, giving them to the winner of the national popular vote instead of whomever carried the state. While it’s unlikely to pass, it’s perhaps an example of just the kind of thinking Goldberg recommends.

Phillips, for his part, spends more time reviewing what he sees as the inevitable decline if (a) the Republicans don’t wrest control of the party away from Radical evangelicals and (b) the Democrats don’t figure out how to effectively challenge the Republicans in the realm of faith & politics. Only Rudin disappoints when it comes to some ideas as to what to do. He ends with a chapter on “Christocratic” agendas in the American workplace, which gives the impression that the book is unfinished as it lacks any kind of summary or final thesis.

One more thing for all three books. After reading them, and I admit I have my own bias here (as do the authors, since all of them make it clear that they oppose the movement they’re reporting on), but I can only guess that the Amazon reviewers and others who accuse all three authors of tarring all christians or even all evangelicals with the same brush haven’t actually read them.

Actually, to varying degrees, all three go to great lengths to differentiate between American christians and the specific movements they’re writing about. Rudin and Phillips do so most effectively. Rudin includes personal examples from his interactions of christians and evangelicans who don’t march to the “Christocratic” drumbeat. And Phillips goes to great lengths to differentiate the same movement from the larger population of religious Americans, by tracing the history and development of the movement — theologically, geographically, economically, etc. — referring to his own and numerous other works, to make the point that the people his talking about are a minority of American christians, but a powerful minority within the Republican party (as much as 30% to 40% of its voter base), and thus deserving of scrutiny because of the implications for American and global politics.

Anyway, I recommend all three, but with a warning that it might whet the appetite for more. My own reading has shifted to the eschatological beliefs of the people Goldberg, Rudin, and Phillips have written of. I just wrapped up Pocket Guide To The Apocalypse: The Official Field Manual For The End Of The World, which I recommend as a brief, humorous primer for anyone unfamiliar with the minutiae of “end-times” belief and the implications for foreign policy. I’m also a couple of chapters into Skipping Towards Armageddon: The Politics and Propaganda of the Left Behind Novels and the LaHaye Empire, which so far strikes me as probably the next best thing to actually reading the Left Behind series. (I might read them if I didn’t have to buy them, and thus fund LaHaye’s political agenda. And sitting on my nightstand waiting to be read isA History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization, which includes the full text of Revelations for easy reference.

After that, I’m gonna quit. I swear.

Maybe.

3 Comments

  1. Terrance, great review – makes me want to spend the mortgage money and buy these books so that I can compare and contrast. Also thank you for the link re my recent post on GLBT candidates in Maryland. Best wishes for continued success – Bruce Godfrey, http://www.crablaw.com.

  2. That’s a nice roundup, and I greatly enjoy your blog. Might I add the fact that most ( if not all ) of the “Faith Based” initiative funds disbursed under the Bush Administration’s “Faith Based Initiative” have gone to Christian organizations that are predominantly on the Christian right ? Esther Kaplan, writing of visiting former FBA head Jim Towey’s office, states that she was unable to find any grant that have gone to non-Christian organizations. In

    There’s a petition on the Dobrich incident that’s being promoted by a coalition of groups and blogs. See:

    http://citizenspeak.org/node/919

    One the “Left Behind : Eternal Forces” video game, you might want to read Jonathan Hutson’s 8 part Talk To Action series on the game – which has received so far at least 300,000 site visits :

    http://www.talk2action.org/story/2006/5/29/195855/959

    On Kevin Phillips – it’s good that he has hopped on the bandwagon but Frederick Clarkson, Joe Conason, and a few others were writing on the growing threat of the Christian right over a decade ago. Not that it’s bad Phillips has written “American Theocracy” – it’s very good indeed. Given that you’re becoming concerned about the religious right and the Christian right, the densest collection of inveterate Christian-right investigators, writers, and bloggers is almost certainly at Talk To Action ( http://www.talk2action.org ).

    Also, you might enjoy “Christian Right Wrong On Gay Marriage In Massachusetts” ( http://www.talk2action.org/story/2006/7/13/14120/4811 ) given that you enjoy ( I do too ) comparing and contrasting Christian right claims on social issues with statistical data.

    Best, BW

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