Sunday, July 3, 2011

Good Reads: KINGDOM COMING by Michelle Goldberg

Salon political reporter Michelle Goldberg maps the landscape of the American Christian Right in her 2006 book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. Troubled by a sense that members of the American left and right did not just disagree over values, but occupied completely different and irreconcilable realities, Goldberg penned Kingdom Coming as an introduction to the political subculture of evangelical Christian nationalism.

Kingdom Coming introduces readers to Christian dominionism, an ideology that rejects government religious neutrality and believes that fundamentalist Christianity should govern private and public life. Such Christian nationalism, Goldberg argues, promotes the restoration of an imagined Christian America as its ideal. Modern Christian nationalism has roots not only John Birch Society, the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and the Council for National Policy, but in the ideas of Christian Reconstructionists such as R.J. Rushdoony and Gary North.

Goldberg discusses a gamut of prominent right-wing evangelical voices, including media mogul Pat Robertson, right-wing historian David Barton, and D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries. However, Kingdom Coming is not just a laundry list of fundamentalist leaders, but an analysis of the ideas and strategies that undergird the Religious Right. Kingdom Coming notes characteristics of Christian nationalist rhetoric -- siege mentality, totalitarian elements, distrust of Enlightenment ideas, and ultimately the construction of a distinct and separate worldview -- that make the Religious Right so worrisome to progressives and moderates.

The influence of Christian nationalism is not limited to ideas, but extends into policies and judicial decisions. Goldberg details the story of former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who was removed from his position in 2003 for refusing to remove a 10 Commandments monument from the Montgomery judicial building. She reminds readers about President George W. Bush's approval of taxpayer funding for faith-based programs, which can hire and fire employees on the basis of religion (a policy that has come under fire from lawmakers and religious leaders). She highlights controversial efforts to inject intelligent design into public school curricula, including the famous 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. Christian nationalism, she demonstrates, is a very real political force that seeks to shape America's political and cultural landscape.

Kingdom Coming devotes a chapter to the Religious Right's homophobia, highlighting its anti-LGBT advocacy. Anti-LGBT books such as The Pink Swastika and The Homosexual Agenda, so-called "reparative therapy" which seeks to change people's sexual orientation, and anti-gay rhetoric from fundamentalist church pulpits are but a few examples of such homophobia. Chillingly, Goldberg observes that the traits that Nazis projected onto Jews are now attributes to homosexuals: depravity, degeneracy, and an alleged subversive network seeking to undermine all that is good.

Sexuality and reproduction have always been hot topics for the Religious Right, and Goldberg spends a chapter discussing Christian nationalist approaches to both. Kingdom Coming captures snapshots of evangelical purity culture, highlighting voices such as Silver Ring Thing and the Abstinence Clearinghouse. She documents federal funding for abstinence-only educational programs, despite their proven lack of efficacy and sometimes dubious content. Some crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), in addition to actively discouraging women from seeking abortion, also promote abstinence to clients, churches, and schools, a fact that Kingdom Coming does not neglect.

Goldberg argues that abstinence culture, with its fixation on purity and heterosexual marriage, is not only a calculated attempt to change culture, but a sign of deeper worries. For people disgusted with America's porn-saturated culture, in which sex has become mechanized and hollow, purity culture may be their attempt at restoring love and romance. Divorce, which is a very real source of anxiety for many couples, leads some people to reimagine marriage as exalted and eternal. Unfortunately, this does not mitigate the serious problems associated with abstinence-only programs, such as discouragement of condom use and implicit or explicit religious overtones. The opposition of some Religious Right voices to the release of the HPV vaccine, which they alleged would encourage premarital sex, is but one example that Goldberg provides of abstinence culture's dangers.

While the chapters of Kingdom Coming were edifying and well-researched, I was riveted by its conclusion, in which Goldberg proved remarkably prescient about the problems facing 2011 America. In the face of unpopular war, for example, she predicted that some Republicans would likely resort to culture war issues to gain support. Women's rights would be curtailed, she predicted, which we now see with the recent explosion of anti-abortion legislation across the country. Christian nationalist ideas and symbols would pervade public life, she foresaw, which we are increasingly seeing with large-scale public rallies (see here and here) and media. Goldberg worried that future economic problems due to unsustainable debt, a burst in the housing bubble, etc. could fuel radical populist movements, a troubling thought in the midst of the U.S.' current economic woes.

American culture, she noted, is becoming increasingly polarized between those who want to maintain a pluralistic, secular society and those who do not. While many of the anxieties fueling Christian nationalism (i.e., fears of cultural decline and marital instability) are real and need to be addressed, the movement is still destructive and should be resisted rather than appeased, she argues. Goldberg suggests that restoring a culture of rationalism and returning to Enlightenment ideals is the means by which people can resist the machinations of Christian nationalism, Unfortunately, she admits that this is unlikely, give that Enlightenment values no longer resonate with many Americans, and rational politics cannot promise the heady restoration that many Americans seek. One of the things that makes Christian nationalism so attractive is its all-encompassing worldview and heady cosmic rhetoric, which the left is in a poor position to substitute.

Rather, Goldberg argues that those who want to resist Christian nationalism must develop a multifaceted, long-term strategy, including grassroots organizing, public awareness campaigns, and electoral reform, especially for urban areas. Progressive religious voices can provide a much-needed counterbalance to right-wing religious voices. Making reality mean something is key, she reminds readers.

In conclusion, Kingdom Coming does not disappoint. Far more than a catalog of Religious Right names and rhetoric, the book outlines the wider significance of Christian nationalism for the nation at large. Having introduced readers to the major issues at stake, Goldberg suggests a strategy for progressives and moderates to bring about reform. A must-read for anyone keeping a wary eye on the Religious Right!

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