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October 20, 2006

Filed under: culture»religion»books

An Unholy Trinity

With David Kuo's new book, Tempting Faith, explaining how the Bush administration took advantage of religious conservatives for political gain (who could have thought they were capable?) and Mark Foley stretching the limits of tolerance in the Bible Values crowd, it's worth the effort to examine the phenomenon of Christian Nationalism. This trend, also known as dominionism, is something that I find myself increasingly worried about as I consider the American political scene. Perhaps living in Northern Virginia simply accentuates the trend--stay around Arlington, where I live, and it's as blue as can be, but travel 40 miles West and you'll find yourself in deeply Republican territory.

Having gone to high school out in that area, what degenerates like George Allen call "Real America," I figured I had a pretty good idea of the problem--and more seriously, the disconnect that (as far as I can tell) many Democratic leaders simply don't understand. These really are two Americas, although not in the simple economic sense that John Edwards means. They're two separate cultures, one grounded in Biblical fundamentalism, and the other in a kind of casual secularism. But to get a perspective on what this might mean in the long term if my theories are right, I've been doing some reading.

Kingdom Coming, by Michelle Goldberg

Goldberg subtitles her book "The Rise of Christian Nationalism," and it works best as a primer to the dominionist movement. It's organized by issues, with separate chapters for evolution, sex education, and homophobia in turn. It's not a terribly long book, and Goldberg is an unobtrusive writer, so it's a fairly quick read.

Kingdom Coming was apparently inspired after Goldberg had done a series of pieces for Salon about Christian and Far Right meetings. She apparently had a knack for getting into conferences and seminars, where she would deliver neutral-sounding but ultimately terrifyingly honest reports--the fanatical and apocalyptic language of extremists behind closed doors. After those articles, or perhaps because the Religious Right's rhetoric has become more open, Kingdom Coming is a little disappointing. It's a pretty high-level, wide-angle view of the movement.

Which is not to say that there aren't good insights here. Goldberg presents the dominionists as not just a movement, but a political machine, and links it together as a whole. Her solutions to this problem are sadly vague, perhaps because she herself has little hope for the future. "From what I've witnessed while researching this book, I'm convinced that Christian nationalist symbolism and ideology will increasingly pervade public life," Goldberg writes in her final chapter, titled "Exiles in Jesusland."

Righteous, by Lauren Sandler

If Kingdom Coming is the big picture, Righteous is a more personal view from the bottom of the movement up. Focused on a growing Evangelical youth culture, Sandler works more with interviews and events. Righteous also examines creationism and home-schooling, but not from the leaders of the movement, but from its footsoldiers. This gives it an entirely different feel--to me, it comes across as more urgent. It's easy to dismiss Kingdom Coming as cynical politics, but Righteous reminds us that there are real people behind the fundamentalist movement.

Sandler is also a Salon editor, although it could be argued that she's a more interesting writer than Goldberg. The book is filled with anecdotes that would be comical if they weren't a little chilling: Stephen Baldwin's rise as the face of hip youth Christianity, for example. A common theme throughout the events and communities Sandler visits is the "sneaky deep." That's the hook used to attract youth to Evangelical movements--hiding overt Jesus-freak appeals behind skateboarding videos, fake scientific language, and rock music. It's the idea that people come for the entertainment, but they stay for the Christianity.

The ability to weave pop culture into conservative Christian faith is not only attractive for new members, who don't have to give up "fun" when they join, but Sandler also points out that it tends to reinforce their most regressive tendencies. At the Mars Hill church community (read an excerpt at Salon), members may have a hip priest who quotes rappers and preaches to a background of rock music, but women are relegated to the roles of mobile womb and housewife only. The communities are fiercely anti-intellectual, and their "pop culture" is restricted to Christian facsimiles as soon as a religious version can be crafted.

Although it's been mentioned before, especially when that excerpt was published, it deserves to be noted again: these movements are not only a draw because they offer security in a changing world, but also because for the young men that invariably drive and lead them, they are not actually giving up very much for the Lord. Sandler's profiles are of Christians who can find Jesus and keep their music, their tattoos, and their skateboards. Women who join the movements, however, either because they're in a relationship with a convert or through evangelism, give up much more. They lose their freedom, their independence, and (to some extent) their futures. Female graduates of Patrick Henry College work for four years building contacts and learning deep political savvy, only to reject those abilities completely once they get their degree. Despite the surface appearance of modernity, the youth Christian culture is one that's deeply regressive, and blatantly aimed at preserving the power of white males.

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

After those two books, it's nice to kick back with Dawkins' unrelenting atheism. Anyone who's read his other books, such as The Blind Watchmaker or The Selfish Gene will be unsurprised by the clear prose and sly sense of humor in The God Delusion. In fact, it's a generally unsurprising book, which is not entirely a bad thing.

While Sagan's Demon-Haunted World and other pro-science writing have made a soft case for atheism, Dawkin's book is a lot more assertive. In fact, the closest comparison might be Sam Harris's End of Faith, which was refreshingly blunt but also disturbingly sidetracked into defenses of torture and ravings against the Islamic threat, as well as a bizarre defense of Buddhism and mysticism. Dawkins is more restrained: The God Delusion walks through the myth of a Christian America, disproves the belief of figures like Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein, and explains why religious claims shouldn't be protected from scientific criticism.

In the end, it's not really something that you couldn't read on a well-written atheist blog. But maybe I'm just thrilled to have a book explicitly written in support of atheism without resorting to the crazy extremes of The End of Faith. The God Delusion is a solid effort. On the other hand, current atheists might not have problems waiting for the paperback edition.

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