The cross and the flag

A field guide to sects that take their Bible literally

In the introduction to her very readable primer on conservative Christianity in America, Kingdom Coming, journalist Michelle Goldberg quotes Josh Ryun, an ex-speechwriter for George W. Bush turned Christian youth activist, a man who does not want for savvy.

As Ryun explains, the majority of Americans won't accept "because the Bible says so" as an explanation for government policy decisions. He's found that "you have to use terms and facts that the other side accepts as reasonable."

Examples of this contrived game of semantics abound in Christian PR campaigns. It's no accident that "intelligent design" is the preferred term for Christian activists instead of, say, "anti-evolutionism." Such language masks a political intent that's not palatable to the mainstream. Another example is "abstinence" sex education. It's certainly not posited as a means of scaring kids, but rather as the only way! of fending off unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Even the blanket term "people of faith" is deployed by people who, by and large, are really of just one faith.

Kingdom Coming grew out of Goldberg's fear and fascination with the far right wing's political-religious machine, which, from her Brooklyn perch, seems hostile to cosmopolitanism in particular and democracy in general. "Christian Nationalists" is the label she pins on a large swath of Christians united in their belief in biblical literalism as a worldview that should govern the state and self. Others have labeled this political strain "dominionism," a blend of biblical literalism and extreme nationalism that in Goldberg's words asserts "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 creating a government that privileges no faith or creed.

The major culture wars, such as abortion and gay marriage, are encapsulated and assessed here. More interesting though is the book's 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), premillennialism (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. You don't need to read closely to find passages that might as well have "These folks are cuckoo for Christ-o-puffs" emblazoned parenthetically. Goldberg is particularly fond of closing a passage with a quote from some impossibly gullible Christian nationalist and letting them hang from a scaffold of their 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 understandable in this context. How exactly do you avoid 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. Evangelicals have not suffered for lack of media attention in recent years, especially with their wildly overstated role in re-electing George W. Bush. 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 admits, they don't agree with most of America on the nature of reality. So many mainstream pundits (David Brooks and Nicholas Kristof, I'm talking to you!) 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 argue such dialogue is pointless.

John Dicker reviews books for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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