Michelle Goldberg’s new book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism explores the influence of radical religious right forces on American politics and policy. In a recent interview with Onnesha Roychoudhuri, Goldberg reveals that she first became aware of a Christian world co-existing with the mainstream when she attended an Exodus conference.
One of the first pieces I did on the Christian right was on the ex-gay movement. What struck me going to the Exodus Conference was that it takes place in this whole entire parallel universe. They have their own psychologists, psychological institutions and their own version of professional medical literature. The amount of books, magazines and media, and the way it almost duplicated everything that we have in our so-called reality, is remarkable. What struck me years later when I was reporting on the Bush administration was that the parallel institutions that I had first come into contact with were replacing the mainstream institutions — especially in the federal bureaucracy.
In the interview Golberg gives examples of how this all works. She also provides a clear definition of Christian Nationalism.
Christian Nationalism is a political ideology separate from evangelicals. Evangelicals are about 30 percent of the American population. Christian Nationalism is a subset of 10-15 percent. It’s less a religion than it is an ideology about the way America should be governed. It has this whole revisionist history claiming that America was founded as a Christian nation, that the separation of church and state is a fraud perpetrated by seculars. What follows from that are ideas about Christianization of institutions in American life, and that the courts have vastly overstepped their authority in the enforcement of the separation of church and state.
John McCandlish Phillips, a former NY Times reporter and once a mentor to me for several years when I was an ex-gay in NYC, recently responded to similar charges that conservative religious ideology has infiltrated our government. In his Washington Post opinion piece he claims that we have nothing to fear from a government infused with religion, as long as it is the correct expression of Biblical Christianity. Of course he considers that to be an Evangelical Christian faith that he insists springs from our earliest male leaders. He seeks to assuage any fears about a US theocracy.
In the long journey from the matchless moment when I became “born again” and encountered the risen and living Christ, I have met hundreds of evangelicals and a good many practicing Catholics and have found them to be of reasonable temperament, often enough of impressive accomplishment, certainly not a menace to the republic, unless, of course, the very fact of faith seriously held is thought to make them just that. It is said, again and again and again, that the evangelical/Catholic right is out of accord with the history of our republic, dangerously so. What we are out of accord with is not that history but a revisionist version of it vigorously promulgated by those who want it to be seen as other than it was.
Phillips harkens back to what he sees as a lost era of faithful men in public service advancing the Gospel of Jesus Christ lead by the Spirit of God. I am all for individuals, leaders and ordinary citizens, exercising and expressing their faith. But so much of what Phillips considers spiritual faith is actually culture that is tied into systems of oppression. Somehow these great people of faith that Phillips mentions in his piece (founders of America’s greatest universities as well as founding fathers) systematically excluded women, people of color, Jews and non-land owners from their institutions and the political system of voting and serving.
Similarly today’s Christian nationalist political and religious leaders, (aided by national ex-gay leaders) aggressively seek to forbid the rights of gays and lesbians to marry, to adopt, to even be safe on the streets–not to mention a gross irresponsibility in addressing the environment, the economy and our own contribution to world violence and oppression.
Back in the early 1990’s when I was a member of the New Testament Missionary Fellowship sitting under the teachings of Phillips that I would have rejoiced at the prospect of a government controlled by Evangelical Christians. In fact, for years we prayed for a spiritual coup in the White House, Congress and Supreme Court.
I look at that time and those prayers and see that many were prayed in fearful superstition that if we did not appease the angry God that pulled the strings, our whole society would devolve into a godless morass. Reacting to the terrors of postmodern theory and the liberation of politically and socially oppressed peoples, I now understand that we sought to recapture the “glory days” of the city set up on a hill. Most people though were not privileged enough to dwell on those safe hills and fotresses. Rather they were forced to labor in the kitchens, the fields and in the streets to keep the gods of this world in power.
This all reminds me of the wisdom of T.S. Eliot when reflecting on the birth of Christ he wrote,
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
Time for new wine in new wineskins.