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A Separate Reality

 

By John Dicker

Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism

By Michelle Goldberg

Norton, 210 pages, $23.95

In the introduction to her very readable primer on conservative Christianity in America, journalist Michelle Goldberg quotes an ex-George W. Bush speechwriter turned Christian youth activist named Josh Ryun. Even if he’s yet to push for a ban on kite flying or ice cream (see: Omar, Mullah; Taliban, the), Ryun’s about as theocratic as America makes ’em. Maybe because he’s a product in our sputtering democracy, the boy does not want for savvy.

As Ryun explains to the author, the majority of Americans won’t accept “Because the Bible says so” as an explanation for government policy decisions. So he’s found that “you have to use terms and facts that the other side accepts as reasonable.”

Examples of this semantically contrived Christian public-relations campaign abound in the greater American culture wars. Just look at the phrase “intelligent design.” It’s no accident that it’s the preferred term for Christian activists instead of, say, “anti-evolutionism.” Like Orwell’s newspeak, such language masks a political intent that’s not palatable to the mainstream. Then there’s “abstinence” sex education. It’s certainly not posited as a means of infusing young teens with a fear-based, biblical sexual-morality, but rather as the only way of fending off unwanted pregnancy and STDs. Even the blanket term “people of faith” is deployed by people who, by and large, are really of just one specific faith.

Kingdom Coming grew out of Goldberg’s fear and fascination with the far-right’s political-religious machine, one she witnessed from her Brooklyn perch as seeming hostile to cosmopolitanism in particular and democracy in general. “Christian nationalists” is the label she pins on a large swath of Christers who are united in their belief in an absolute biblically correct worldview that should govern the affairs of state and self.

Others have labeled this political strain “dominionism”—a blend of biblical literalism and extreme nationalism that, in Goldberg’s words, “assert[s] the Christian right to rule.” One of its bedrock principles is that the American founders were, in fact, committed to governing from a Christian perspective as opposed to, say, creating a government that privileges no faith or creed.

Most of the major culture-war battlefronts are encapsulated and assessed in this book: abortion, gay marriage, intelligent design, etc. More interesting, though, is its survey of the different strains under the big banner of Christian nationalists: the differences between, say, Christian reconstructionism (if you build the Kingdom, He will come), premillenialism (kick back, wait for Rapture), and a host of other movements.

At its worst—and it’s not that bad—Kingdom Coming crafts a snide Christian freak show. One doesn’t need a graduate seminar in close reading to find passages that might as well have “These folks are CUCKOO for CHRIST-O-PUFFS” emblazoned in the parenthesis. Goldberg is particularly fond of closing a passage with a quote from some impossibly gullible Christian nationalist and letting him hang from a scaffold of his own words. One particularly memorable episode involves a man who echoes his pastor’s warning that, if elected, John Kerry would impose a $25,000 fine for preaching against gay marriage and that the money “would go to lesbians.”

While snide journalism can grow irritating, it’s almost (kinda) understandable in this context. For how exactly do you avoid locking into any other frame but entrenchment when faced with a powerful movement determined to tattoo a cross on the stars and stripes? And it’s not like Christian-fed canards haven’t affected the world of politics. Recall the widely circulated Republican pamphlet that told West Virginia voters that Democrats planned on banning the bible.

Evangelicals have not suffered for lack of media attention in recent years, especially with their wildly overstated role in reelecting George W. Bush. This is partly because despite their sects and schisms, evangelicals, and many conservative Catholics, have become an effective part of the Republican political machine: an AFL-CIO for the “moral values” crowd. Beyond that, though, part of the media fascination with the fundies, of which Goldberg’s book is surely part, has to do with the fact that Christian nationalists are ideological exotics.

Sounds ridiculous, but think about it: They speak the same language, use the same malls, and eat the same food but, as Goldberg rightly argues, they don’t agree with most of America on the fundamental nature of reality. Unlike so many mainstream pundits (David Brooks and Nicholas Kristoff, I’m talking to you!) who claim arrogant liberals are out of touch with the Christian common man, and that the prescription is some sort of “Take Your Fundie to Work Day,” Goldberg has the guts to admit that such dialogue is pointless.

Liberals are often accused of rejecting moral absolutes in favor of a squishy cultural relativism. This sort of thinking was surely challenged on Sept. 11, 2001: Many might contend the lesson still hasn’t sunk in; that many on the left, to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, still think Karl Rove is more dangerous than Al Qaeda. Whether our own mullahs can teach a larger political lesson remains to be seen. Kingdom Coming is a good start.


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