AlterNet  [Printer-friendly version]
May 30, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: An article about Christian nationalism may
seem far afield from "environmental health." That is, until you
realize that the U.S. is now controlled by a political party that
derives its electoral strength from an unlikely coalition of
Christian nationalists and plutocrats (the wealthiest 2% of
Americans). As Republican Kevin Phillips points out in his new book,
American Theocracy, about 55% of Republicans who voted in the last
presidential election believe the world is going to end soon in a
bloody conflagration -- and if that's the case, why spend time
worrying about the natural environment or human health?]

By Michelle Goldberg

Whenever I talk about the growing power of the evangelical right with
friends, they always ask the same question: What can we do? Usually I
reply with a joke: Keep a bag packed and your passport current.

I don't really mean it, but my anxiety is genuine. It's one thing to
have a government that shows contempt for civil liberties; America has
survived such men before. It's quite another to have a mass movement
-- the largest and most powerful mass movement in the nation -- rise
up in opposition to the rights of its fellow citizens. The
Constitution protects minorities, but that protection is not absolute;
with a sufficiently sympathetic or apathetic majority, a tightly
organized faction can get around it.

The mass movement I've described aims to supplant Enlightenment
rationalism with what it calls the "Christian worldview." The phrase
is based on the conviction that true Christianity must govern every
aspect of public and private life, and that all -- government,
science, history and culture -- must be understood according to the
dictates of scripture. There are biblically correct positions on every
issue, from gay marriage to income tax rates, and only those with the
right worldview can discern them. This is Christianity as a total
ideology -- I call it Christian nationalism. It's an ideology adhered
to by millions of Americans, some of whom are very powerful. It's what
drives a great many of the fights over religion, science, sex and
pluralism now dividing communities all over the country.

I am not suggesting that religious tyranny is imminent in the United
States. Our democracy is eroding and some of our rights are
disappearing, but for most people, including those most opposed to the
Christian nationalist agenda, life will most likely go on pretty much
as normal for the foreseeable future. Thus for those who value secular
society, apprehending the threat of Christian nationalism is tricky.
It's like being a lobster in a pot, with the water heating up so
slowly that you don't notice the moment at which it starts to kill

If current trends continue, we will see ever-increasing division and
acrimony in our politics. That's partly because, as Christian
nationalism spreads, secularism is spreading as well, while moderate
Christianity is in decline. According to the City University of New
York Graduate Center's comprehensive American religious identification
survey, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christians has
actually fallen in recent years, from 86 percent in 1990 to 77 percent
in 2001. The survey found that the largest growth, in both absolute
and percentage terms, was among those who don't subscribe to any
religion. Their numbers more than doubled, from 14.3 million in 1990,
when they constituted 8 percent of the population, to 29.4 million in
2001, when they made up 14 percent.

"The top three 'gainers' in America's vast religious marketplace
appear to be Evangelical Christians, those describing themselves as
Non-Denominational Christians and those who profess no religion," the
survey found. (The percentage of other religious minorities remained
small, totaling less than 4 percent of the population).

This is a recipe for polarization. As Christian nationalism becomes
more militant, secularists and religious minorities will mobilize in
opposition, ratcheting up the hostility. Thus we're likely to see a
shrinking middle ground, with both camps increasingly viewing each
other across a chasm of mutual incomprehension and contempt.

In the coming years, we will probably see the curtailment of the civil
rights that gay people, women and religious minorities have won in the
last few decades. With two Bush appointees on the Supreme Court,
abortion rights will be narrowed; if the president gets a third, it
could mean the end of Roe v. Wade. Expect increasing drives to ban gay
people from being adoptive or foster parents, as well as attempts to
fire gay schoolteachers. Evangelical leaders are encouraging their
flocks to be alert to signs of homosexuality in their kids, which will
lead to a growing number of gay teenagers forced into "reparative
therapy" designed to turn them straight. (Focus on the Family urges
parents to consider seeking help for boys as young as five if they
show a "tendency to cry easily, be less athletic, and dislike the
roughhousing that other boys enjoy.")

Christian nationalist symbolism and ideology will increasingly pervade
public life. In addition to the war on evolution, there will be
campaigns to teach Christian nationalist history in public schools. An
elective course developed by the National Council on Bible Curriculum
in Public Schools, a right-wing evangelical group, is already being
offered by more than 300 school districts in 36 states. The influence
of Christian nationalism in public schools, colleges, courts, social
services and doctors' offices will deform American life, rendering it
ever more pinched, mean, and divided.

There's still a long way, though, between this damaged version of
democracy and real theocracy. Tremendous crises would have to shred
what's left of the American consensus before religious fascism becomes
a possibility. That means that secularists and liberals shouldn't get
hysterical, but they also shouldn't be complacent.

Christian nationalism is still constrained by the Constitution, the
courts, and by a passionate democratic (and occasionally Democratic)
opposition. It's also limited by capitalism. Many corporations are
happy to see their political allies harness the rage and passion of
the Christian right's foot soldiers, but the culture industry is
averse to government censorship. Nor is homophobia good for business,
since many companies need to both recruit qualified gay employees and
market to gay customers. Biotech firms are not going to want to hire
graduates without a thorough understanding of evolution, so economic
pressure will militate against creationism's invading a critical mass
of the public schools.

Taking the land

It would take a national disaster, or several of them, for all these
bulwarks to crumble and for Christian nationalists to truly "take the
land," as Michael Farris, president of the evangelical Patrick Henry
College, put it. Historically, totalitarian movements have been able
to seize state power only when existing authorities prove unable to
deal with catastrophic challenges -- economic meltdown, security
failures, military defeat -- and people lose their faith in the
legitimacy of the system.

Such calamities are certainly conceivable in America -- Hurricane
Katrina's aftermath offered a terrifying glimpse of how quickly order
can collapse. If terrorists successfully strike again, we'd probably
see significant curtailment of liberal dissenters' free speech rights,
coupled with mounting right-wing belligerence, both religious and

The breakdown in the system could also be subtler. Many experts have
warned that America's debt is unsustainable and that economic crisis
could be on the horizon. If there is a hard landing -- due to an oil
shock, a burst housing bubble, a sharp decline in the value of the
dollar, or some other crisis -- interest rates would shoot up, leaving
many people unable to pay their floating-rate mortgages and credit
card bills. Repossessions and bankruptcies would follow. The resulting
anger could fuel radical populist movements of either the left or the
right -- more likely the right, since it has a far stronger
ideological infrastructure in place in most of America.

Military disaster may also exacerbate such disaffection. America's war
in Iraq seems nearly certain to come to an ignominious end. The real
victims of failure there will be Iraqi, but many Americans will feel
embittered, humiliated and sympathetic to the stab-in-the-back
rhetoric peddled by the right to explain how Bush's venture has gone
so horribly wrong. It was the defeat in World War I, after all, that
created the conditions for fascism to grow in Germany.

Perhaps America will be lucky, however, and muddle through its looming
problems. In that case, Christian nationalism will continue to be a
powerful and growing influence in American politics, although its
expansion will happen more fitfully and gradually.

The country's demographics are on the movement's side. Megachurch
culture is spreading. The exurbs where religious conservatism thrives
are the fastest growing parts of America; in 2004, 97 of the country's
100 fastest-growing counties voted Republican. The disconnection of
the exurbs is a large part of what makes the spread of Christian
nationalism's fictitious reality possible, because there is very
little to conflict with it.

A movement that constitutes its members' entire social world has a
grip that's hard to break. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah
Arendt put it this way: "Social atomization and extreme
individualization preceded the mass movements which, much more easily
and earlier than they did the sociable, non-individualistic members of
the traditional parties, attracted the completely unorganized, the
typical 'nonjoiners' who for individualistic reasons always had
refused to recognize social links or obligations."

America's ragged divides

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.

And while I support liberal struggles for economic justice -- higher
wages, universal health care, affordable education, and retirement
security -- I don't think economic populism will do much to neutralize
the religious right. Cultural interests are real interests, and many
drives are stronger than material ones. As Arendt pointed out,
totalitarian movements have always confounded observers who try to
analyze them in terms of class.

Ultimately, a fight against Christian nationalist rule has to be a
fight against the anti-urban bias built into the structure of our
democracy. Because each state has two senators, the 7 percent of the
population that live in the 17 least-populous states control more than
a third of Congress's upper house. Conservative states are also
overrepresented in the Electoral College.

According to Steven Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy, the
combined populations of Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, North and South
Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Alaska
equal that of New York and Massachusetts, but the former states have a
total of nine more votes in the Electoral College (as well as over
five times the votes in the Senate). In America, conservatives
literally count for more.

Liberals should work to abolish the Electoral College and to even out
the composition of the Senate, perhaps by splitting some of the
country's larger states.(A campaign for statehood for New York City
might be a place to start.) It will be a grueling, Herculean job. With
conservatives already indulging in fantasies of victimization at the
hands of a maniacal Northeastern elite, it will take a monumental
movement to wrest power away from them. Such a movement will come into
being only when enough people in the blue states stop internalizing
right-wing jeers about how out of touch they are with "real Americans"
and start getting angry at being ruled by reactionaries who are out of
touch with them.

After all, the heartland has no claim to moral authority. The states
whose voters are most obsessed with "moral values" have the highest
divorce and teen pregnancy rates. The country's highest murder rates
are in the South and the lowest are in New England. The five states
with the best-ranked public schools in the country -- Massachusetts,
Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey and Wisconsin -- are all progressive
redoubts. The five states with the worst -- New Mexico, Nevada,
Arizona, Mississippi and Louisiana -- all went for Bush.

The canard that the culture wars are a fight between "elites" versus
"regular Americans" belies a profound split between different kinds of
ordinary Americans, all feeling threatened by the others' baffling and
alien values. Ironically, however, by buying into right-wing elite-
baiting, liberals start thinking like out-of-touch elites. Rather than
reflecting on what kind of policies would make their own lives better,
what kind of country they want to live in, and who they want to
represent them -- and then figuring out how to win others to their
vision -- progressives flail about for ideas and symbols that they
hope will appeal to some imaginary heartland rube. That is

Focus on the local

One way for progressives to build a movement and fight Christian
nationalism at the same time is to focus on local politics. For
guidance, they need only look to the Christian Coalition: It wasn't
until after Bill Clinton's election exiled the evangelical right from
power in Washington that the Christian Coalition really developed its
nationwide electoral apparatus.

The Christian right developed a talent for crafting state laws and
amendments to serve as wedge issues, rallying their base, and forcing
the other side to defend seemingly extreme positions. Campaigns to
require parental consent for minors' abortions, for example, get
overwhelming public support and put the pro-choice movement on the
defensive while giving pro-lifers valuable political experience.

Liberals can use this strategy too. They can find issues to exploit
the other side's radicalism, winning a few political victories and,
just as important, marginalizing Christian nationalists in the eyes of
their fellow citizens. Progressives could work to pass local and state
laws, by ballot initiative wherever possible, denying public funds to
any organization that discriminates on the basis of religion. Because
so much faith-based funding is distributed through the states, such
laws could put an end to at least some of the taxpayer-funded bias
practiced by the Salvation Army and other religious charities. Right
now, very few people know that, thanks to Bush, a faith-based outfit
can take tax dollars and then explicitly refuse to hire Jews, Hindus,
Buddhists or Muslims. The issue needs far more publicity, and a
political fight -- or a series of them -- would provide it. Better
still, the campaign would contribute to the creation of a grassroots
infrastructure -- a network of people with political experience and a
commitment to pluralism.

Progressives could also work on passing laws to mandate that
pharmacists fill contraceptive prescriptions. (Such legislation has
already been introduced in California, Missouri, New Jersey, Nevada,
and West Virginia.) The commercials would practically write
themselves. Imagine a harried couple talking with their doctor and
deciding that they can't afford any more kids. The doctor writes a
birth control prescription, the wife takes it to her pharmacist -- and
he sends her away with a religious lecture. The campaign could use one
of the most successful slogans that abortion rights advocates ever
devised: "Who decides -- you or them?"

A new media strategy

In conjunction with local initiatives, opponents of Christian
nationalism need a new media strategy. Many people realize this.
Fenton Communications, the agency that handles public relations for
MoveOn, recently put together the Campaign to Defend the Constitution,
a MoveOn-style grassroots group devoted to raising awareness about the
religious right. With nearly 3.5 million members ready to be quickly
mobilized to donate money, write letters or lobby politicians on
behalf of progressive causes, MoveOn is the closest thing liberals
have to the Christian Coalition, but its focus tends to be on economic
justice, foreign policy and the environment rather than contentious
social issues. The Campaign to Defend the Constitution intends to
build a similar network to counter Christian nationalism wherever it

Much of what media strategists need to do simply involves public
education. Americans need to learn what Christian Reconstructionism
means so that they can decide whether they approve of their
congressmen consorting with theocrats. They need to realize that the
Republican Party has become the stronghold of men who fundamentally
oppose public education because they think women should school their
kids themselves. (In It Takes a Family, Rick Santorum calls public
education an "aberration" and predicts that home-schooling will
flourish as "one viable option among many that will open up as we
eliminate the heavy hand of the village elders' top-down control of
education and allow a thousand parent-nurtured flowers to bloom.")

When it comes to the public relations fight against Christian
nationalism, nothing is trickier than battles concerning public
religious symbolism. Fights over creches 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.

The challenge, finally, is to make reality matter again. If
progressives can do that, perhaps America can be saved.

Fighting fundamentalism at home

Writing just after 9/11, Salman Rushdie eviscerated those on the left
who rationalized the terrorist attacks as a regrettable explosion of
understandable third world rage: "The fundamentalist seeks to bring
down a great deal more than buildings," he wrote. "Such people are
against, to offer just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multiparty
political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government,
Jews, homosexuals, women's rights, pluralism, secularism, short
skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex."

Christian nationalists have no problem with beardlessness, but except
for that, Rushdie could have been describing them.

It makes no sense to fight religious authoritarianism abroad while
letting it take over at home. The grinding, brutal war between modern
and medieval values has spread chaos, fear, and misery across our poor
planet. Far worse than the conflicts we're experiencing today,
however, would be a world torn between competing fundamentalisms. Our
side, America's side, must be the side of freedom and Enlightenment,
of liberation from stale constricting dogmas. It must be the side that
elevates reason above the commands of holy books and human solidarity
above religious supremacism. Otherwise, God help us all.

Reprinted from Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by
Michelle Goldberg.

Copyright 2006 by Michelle Goldberg