The Rise of Christian Nationalism


What was a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn doing attending megachurches across the United States, going to creationist textbook fairs, and traveling with the Ten Commandments monument? Investigative journalist Michelle Goldberg tells us in the following article, adapted from her speech in acceptance of the 2007 Humanist Pioneer Award. Goldberg was so named by the American Humanist Association on May 22, 2007, at the Boulder International Humanist Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Thank you so much to the American Humanist Association. I’m really thrilled by the award and thrilled by your lobbying efforts to build a political presence for a group that is, unfortunately, the one group left in America that most people feel they can openly disparage and despise in public life.

There was a movie that came out a number of years ago called The Truman Show with Jim Carrey about a man brought up entirely inside of a reality television show. His whole world is completely fabricated, but so seamless and so all-encompassing that he has no way to know that he’s been placed in this world by an ego-maniacal television producer. I often compare the orchestrators of the movement that I’m writing about, the movement I call “Christian nationalism” to the producers in The Truman Show. They have created an alternative reality and they want all of us to live inside of it.

I think it’s very apt that Al Gore’s new book is titled The Assault on Reason because, fundamentally, even more than a debate over separation of church and state or a debate over the First Amendment, these conflicts often boil down to a debate about how we as a society apprehend truth and about whether or not truth, an empirical reality, is going to be subject to political pressure.

A telling quote comes from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind who’d interviewed an unnamed aide to George W. Bush. It’s apropos of the erosion of truth in our politics, whether it’s the widespread denial of human activity causing global warming or the still somewhat prevalent conviction that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. In an October 17, 2004, New York Times Magazine article Suskind recalls:

    The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about Enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality–judiciously, as you will–we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

With the indispensable help of the movement I’m talking about, the Right has created a climate in which the popular understanding of empirical reality is subject to political pressure, and in which the findings of science are trumped by ideology. The Right likes to rant on about postmodernism and relativism. But really, theirs is the ultimate relativistic movement, claiming that there is no reality, that nothing can be known, and that everything is a function of power.

In her seminal book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt writes:

    Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lives, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of the man who can fabricate it.

Although I’m certainly not comparing Christian nationalism or the current administration to the Nazis or to Stalin, they do share elements of totalitarian movements in their embryonic stages; the first step in the erosion of a liberal democracy is often this kind of subversion of truth combined with the creation of an alternative reality and an attempt to impose this alternative reality on everyone.

So this is the entire context for my book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (2006). In preparation for writing it I spent a year going to places few skeptics would ever dare visit. I went to Ted Haggard’s church. I went to Focus on the Family. I went to far more megachurches than most Jewish girls from Brooklyn will ever see. I went to creation seminars. I followed neo-confederates and Republican congressmen as they toured with Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments monument. I went to numerous conferences in Washington, DC, where I heard congressional aides joke about the murder of judges whose decisions had displeased them and saw Republican congressmen sharing the stage with unabashed theocrats.

This movement doesn’t call itself nationalistic; it calls itself Christian. But I think that a different phrase is called for, in part because I would never want to slander an entire religion with the label that belongs to a political movement that is working–sometimes stealthily, sometimes subtly–in a way that is cumulatively quite profound in order to undermine the foundations of, if not American democracy, then certainly the secular status quo that has allowed so many different people to feel as if they have a place in America.

I have often said that the Christian nationalist movement doesn’t want to force people to practice as they practice or to believe as they believe. They would be perfectly happy to let you practice your own faith or lack thereof. But they expect you to know your place, and that is a very different kind of United States than the one I was lucky enough to grow up taking for granted.

The United States is a very religious country where enormous suspicion hangs over people who don’t claim to believe in God or don’t identify with any religion. About 30 to 40 percent of Americans identify as evangelicals, and I’m not talking about all of them when I’m talking about Christian nationalists. I’m talking about a subset of that movement that subscribes to the ideology that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, that the founders never intended to separate church and state, and that this was a fraud perpetrated by secularists and leftists in the last hundred years which must be expunged so that America can return to some kind of mythical former glory.

While Christian nationalism can be called a minority movement (it represents at most 10 to 15 percent of the American population), in a kind of heroic feat of organizing it has built itself a perch within the Republican Party. Over the last thirty years, starting with the late Jerry Falwell and following through Pat Robertson and James Dobson, it has become increasingly decentralized and increasingly focused on taking over the Republican party precinct by precinct, school board by school board, and town council by town council in an attempt to Christianize all aspects of American life–from what is taught in biology and history classes, to what is understood by the Supreme Court to be authoritative, to that on which we base our science, our laws, and our culture.

I started my book before the 2004 election at a time when I was trying to convince people, especially where I live in New York, that this ideology was real and that a fair number of Americans really do believe we’re on the verge of the end times, that Bush’s policies in the Middle East are going to be some kind of portal to apocalyptic paradise, and that not only was Saddam Hussein behind the events of September 11, 2001, and not only is the earth 6,000 years old, there is also a homosexual conspiracy to steal the souls of our young people. That so many believed these were the most important issues facing a nation in the throes of war and economic dislocation was something people needed to take seriously.

Having written about the Bush administration for so long, over and over again I saw stories in which ideologues were replacing people who until then had just been career civil servants, bureaucrats. This practice has now become much clearer with revelations about the Justice Department, but at that time it was much more subtle. After all, nobody really pays attention to who the undersecretary of state for population is, or who is on the delegation to the United Nations Conference on the Rights of Women or the Rights of Children, or who is overseeing NASA reports and is going to be in a position to chastise a scientist for referring to the Big Bang.

And so, I started writing to explain how this movement worked. Again, while political patronage is certainly nothing that’s original to George W. Bush, it was the replacement of the legitimate institutions of American life with a parallel reality that was new and quite profound.

So, whereas the real world has history books and those history books describe the founding of the United States and the deistic Enlightenment convictions of many of the founders, you can read a whole library of Christian nationalist history books that will tell you an entirely different story. These books footnote each other and so comprise an entirely convincing whole as long as you stay within the bubble of this reality.

The same is true with science books. I attended an enormous homeschooling textbook fair in Denver, Colorado, filled with every kind of instruction manual or graduate course textbook on topics ranging from creationism to astrophysics. I felt like I was a character in a Kafka novel who wandered into an entire library of lies. And of course, it isn’t just books. I visited the recently opened, state-of-the-art Creation Museum outside of Cincinnati. It looks very much like the museums I used to go to on field trips when I was in school. There is a fantastic diorama of animatronic dinosaurs standing in a rain forest setting with some small children, and a planetarium where you can lie back to look at the heavens and see how starlight took 6,000 years to reach the earth.

When I was doing my research, I discovered a trend, starting in the late 1980s, of stories about the end of the religious right. They started with televangelist scandals; This movement can now consign itself to the dustbin of history, they said. The stories continued when Bill Clinton was elected and then reelected; Clearly, this movement can no longer elect presidents, they said. There were more articles in 1999, when people like evangelical politician Gary Bauer were quite lukewarm about their presidential choices.

Although the current Christian nationalist movement isn’t a juggernaut and has clearly lost some momentum, its control of the Republican Party remains solid as evidenced by everything from the Bush administration’s continuing placement of people from its ranks to cases like Senator John McCain (R-AZ) bending over backwards to laud someone like Jerry Falwell. (McCain had tried at one point to distance himself from Falwell and then realized who had the power in the party he hoped to lead, and quickly backtracked.) It’s all an enormous distance from the days John F. Kennedy felt the need to affirm his utter commitment to separation of church and state in order to be electable in the United States. Now we’re finding that church-state separation itself has become a principle so controversial that few candidates on either side want to embrace it. The Republican Party platform of Texas even explicitly denounces “the myth of church-state separation.”

We must consider that this alternative reality has penetrated institutions of U.S. government in a way that isn’t going to be that easy to undo, even if the backlash against it leads to the election of a democrat in 2008. One of the clearest examples of this came recently in the decision of the Supreme Court in Gonzales v. Carhart, which upheld the partial-birth abortion ban.

In addition to other dubious pseudo-scientific theories created by the Christian nationalist movement–among them, intelligent design and reparative therapy to turn gay people straight–is post-abortion syndrome. The theory is that women suffer disproportionate psychological harm from abortion (compared, one assumes, to the psychological damage of carrying unwanted pregnancies to term).

In fact, during his presidency, Ronald Reagan commissioned a report on post-abortion syndrome from C. Everett Koop, an anti-abortion stalwart. Koop looked at the evidence and then refused to release the report because he saw there was nothing there. Nevertheless, this movement has consistently tried to create the imaginary syndrome, and in the decision in Gonzales v. Carhart, Justice Anthony Kennedy actually cites post-abortion syndrome in discussing the regret women feel over their abortions. So suddenly this mythical condition is now becoming a basis for the highest jurisprudence in the land.

What’s even more disturbing is that we are now exporting this type of thinking all over the world. I was recently in Poland for the World Congress of Families, an international right-wing gathering featuring seminars on post-abortion syndrome and other topics such as the “homosexual agenda” and the threat it poses around the world. I attended another recent conference, this one at the United Nations, where the fictitious abortion-breast cancer link was presented. One of the things the Bush administration has done has been to obtain official NGO status for a number of far-right outfits, which gives them the ability to put on presentations at the Church Center right next door to the UN. So here was a presentation on this supposed link, which again doesn’t exist except in the lore of the anti-abortion movement. People from all over the world–Nigeria, Korea, Poland, Mexico–were hearing what seemed to be an official presentation and saying, “I never knew this. I can’t wait to take this back to my country.” And so, increasingly, the kind of misinformation that characterizes our politics is being picked up all over the world where it comes with the imprimatur of being the work of American scientists.

Beyond the legal realm, we are seeing a change in the culture with aggressive attacks on secularists and increasing demand from the religious right for religious freedom that includes the right to proselytize.

I’ll conclude with a quick story about an event that I spoke at in New York where the civil rights director of the Anti-Defamation League talked about how they’re hearing from a lot of people who are facing heavy-handed proselytizing or pressure to join in Bible studies or prayer groups at the workplace or in schools. This is and should be legal–people have the right of free association; students have the right to distribute all kinds of material. But it is something that people find disturbing, especially in the workplace. Nobody wants to announce themselves as somebody who doesn’t share the majority disposition. After the talk a woman came up to me and said, “You know my daughter works in a place like that.” “That’s terrible,” I responded, “where does she work?” Her reply? “At the Justice Department.”

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