Be Not Afraid

Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg (W.W.Norton, 224 pages, $23.95)

Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis by Jimmy Carter (Simon & Schuster, 224 pages, $25.00)

The Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David l. Holmes (Oxford University Press, 240 pages, $20.00)

American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century by Kevin Phillips (Viking, 480 pages, $26.95)

The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right's Plans for the Rest of Us by James Rudin (Thunder's Mouth Press, 300 pages, $25.00)

The word, as Stephen Colbert would say, is … theocracy!

Although Kevin Phillips's best-selling volume has three parts, devoted to the politics of oil, religion, and debt respectively, it is “theocracy” that gets pride of place in his title and analysis.

“The fight between secular modernity and religious authority is an old one,” writes Michelle Goldberg in Kingdom Coming. “Right now, however, is high tide for theocratic fervor.”

For James Rudin, “a specter is haunting America,” an “effort to change America into a Christian theocracy.”

Exposés of the religious right are nothing new. But they are now appearing at a quickened pace and a greatly heightened pitch of alarm. Once, the religious right was viewed as threatening specific liberal concerns, from Roe v. Wade to freedom from government-sponsored proselytizing. Today, the worry is nothing less than the strangulation of liberal democracy itself at the hands of a cabal of Republican evangelicals backed by a populist movement of angry true believers. Instead of a return to the America of the 1950s, the danger seems to be a return to the Europe of the 1930s.

“Social conservatism is not in itself fascistic, of course,” Goldberg allows, “But the combination of repression, populism, and paranoia, the fear of decadence as a monstrous plot against the nation, carries frightening echoes.”

By these standards, Jimmy Carter's Our Endangered Values is virtually matter-of-fact. Never mind that it is the cri de coeur of a deeply devout Baptist who in the past would not have blanched at having his traditional evangelical Christianity labeled fundamentalist, but is now appalled by a new species of fundamentalism that he believes is distorting his Christianity and endangering the nation. Carter's book belongs to a new genre of books written by Christians either to immunize fellow Christians against the blandishments of this fundamentalism or to arm them with arguments against the religious right's positions on war, poverty, gender, marriage, homosexuality, capital punishment, and other issues.

Different in tone but pertinent in subject matter is David L. Holmes's The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, a sensible primer that maps the religious landscape of 18th-century America, carefully distinguishing between non-Christian and Christian Deism as well as orthodox Christianity. Holmes puts the lie to religious-right fantasies of America's founding generation as pious Christians in the mode of later orthodox evangelicals. The book, however, may also confound secularist assumptions that the religious beliefs, ties, and sensibilities of Christian Deists (or “Deistic Christians”) such as Washington or even the later Jefferson -- beliefs in prayer, providence, the example of Jesus, and life after death, for example -- were only superficially different from the skeptical free thought of a Thomas Paine.

The other books, though written from different perspectives and for different audiences, have a common aim: to describe and analyze the nature and the extent of a looming threat and thereby to mobilize a countermovement. Which raises two questions: Are their descriptions and analyses accurate? And will they, in fact, mobilize an effective countermovement?

In the case of the more far-reaching efforts, by Phillips, Rudin, and Goldberg, my answer to both questions is no. I learned a number of valuable -- and disturbing -- things from these writers, and one of them, Rabbi James Rudin, an outstanding figure in the field of Jewish-Christian relations, is an admired friend. More important, I share their convictions that the Bush administration has done long-lasting harm to America and its institutions and that a major factor in this evil has been the ideological and organizational backing of the religious right.

But the idea, increasingly voiced by left-of-center activists and intellectuals, that religion is the driving force of the administration's policies and the leading threat to American democracy is exaggerated and misplaced. Phillips, Rudin, and Goldberg themselves regularly stick qualifying phrases into their declarations of alarm. They know that fanaticism and nuttiness, including downright dangerous nuttiness, can be found all over the place in a religious and political landscape as vast and diverse as America's. And they know better than to equate hardcore religious-right leaders and organizations, let alone the still smaller kernel of literal theocrats, with evangelical Americans in general, who constitute between 30 percent and 40 percent of the population and who have swung massively into the Republican camp in the last three decades.

The task, in other words, is not simply to shine light on faith-based anti-democratic currents but to map context, patterns, proportions, and trends, tracing not only real connections but also deep differences between what's marginal and what's central. This task, in the end, they fail to accomplish.

Take, for example, the frequent references to “dominionism” or Christian Reconstructionism. From one of the many crevices of American Christianity, this obscure sect spun out a genuine doctrine of theocratic rule fierce enough to give nightmares to any believer in democracy. Phillips, Rudin, and Goldberg dwell on links, a few of them new to me, between the little-known ideologues of Christian Reconstructionism and right-wing figures of some influence in Republican politics. But Phillips and Goldberg, at least, are aware of the flaws in this procedure.

“Reading about the webs and connections between reconstructionism and the rest of the religious right,” writes Phillips, “… calls to mind the exposés published by conservatives fifty or sixty years ago that linked various progressive organizations to communist front groups and fellow travelers.” He's absolutely right. But then he neatly parr ies his own admission by declaring that the recent release of Soviet files “has confirmed some of what the conservatives were charging, and today's liberal and progressive muckrakers are probably just as accurate in suggesting a larger-than-realized influence of Christian Reconstructionists.”

This is a typical example of Phillips's efforts to demonstrate the dubious with pseudo-concessions, slippery logic, and adroitly placed weasel words. So what about those complicated spider webs proving that the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the civil-rights movement were communist enterprises because A went to this meeting or belonged to this group and then cooperated with B or provided funds for C? Were they accurate accounts or bizarre and demagogic redbaiting? By deftly framing his response with “some of what the conservatives were charging” and “just as accurate” and “larger-than-realized” (by whom?), Phillips twists to his advantage an obvious weakness in his argument. Others will have to judge Phillips's treatment of oil and debt; his treatment of religion is polemic pretending to be scholarship.

Christian Reconstructionism and its weird “dominion theology” probably play a greater role in the writings of the religious right's critics than they ever have in the wider evangelical world. That wider evangelical world is precisely what is missing from these books. Rudin has a chapter focusing on such matters as evangelicals' enthusiasm for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by theological and political conservatives. But neither he nor Phillips nor Goldberg make any reference to the extensive studies of evangelicals and other conservative believers by Alan Wolfe, Christian Smith, and a raft of social scientists. Phillips tries to lend scholarly authority to his foreboding of theocracy with a blizzard of (selective) facts and figures concerning Christianity over many centuries and several nations, but when it comes to the present-day confluence of religion and politics he takes his cues from a familiar set of anti–religious-right articles, books, and Web sites.

It is symptomatic that of Phillips's hundreds of footnotes dealing with, for the most part, Protestant theology and politics, only one refers to Christianity Today, the flagship monthly of the nation's wider evangelical world. Theologically and politically, Christianity Today is unquestionably conservative. It is also moderate, reflective, and self-questioning, especially about evangelical ventures into politics. The danger of theocracy might look a little different if, alongside right-wing partisans and theological crazies, these writers had paid a little attention to this leading journal that in recent months has published articles like “Five Reasons Why Torture Is Always Wrong” and “The ACLU Is Not Evil.”

Christianity Today does not rate even one footnote in Kingdom Coming, although The Origins of Totalitarianism rates four. (Nothing at all is footnoted in The Baptizing of America.) But Kingdom Coming is based substantially on the author's own intrepid and energetic reporting. Goldberg has survived visits to a Colorado homeschooling convention, a traveling road show celebrating former judge Roy Moore's campaign to display the Ten Commandments in courthouses, the Ohio megachurches that turned out antigay-marriage voters for Bush in 2004, an anti-evolution conference at the ultra-right Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, and various faith-based addiction and abstinence programs. Goldberg's reports are full of concrete, eye-opening detail, made all the more convincing by her conscientious efforts to keep things in perspective. She regularly concedes that America is not “on the cusp of religious totalitarianism” or “close to becoming a theocracy.”

But despite these concessions (which she tends immediately to minimize), perspective is ultimately what is missing from Kingdom Coming, not because of Goldberg's intentions but because of her ideology and the very nature of her project. If I were to visit only the wilder shores of liberal, left, feminist, sexual, and environmental politics, reporter's notebook in hand, I would probably get a similarly worrisome view of the prospects for American life and institutions. (Doing that is, in fact, a cottage industry for the religious right.)

When Goldberg moves away from direct reporting to larger conclusions, whether about faith-based social services, crisis pregnancy centers, or the intelligent-design controversy, she turns to partisan sources rather than anything resembling dispassionate ones. Anyone reading her one-sided recounting of the discrimination charges made by Salvation Army employees in New York, for example, would be baffled why the federal trial court has largely ruled against them. When she states flatly that crisis pregnancy centers in general “have long, well-documented records of lying to women about their sexual health,” is she unaware that she is repeating not proven fact but an artifact of the hardball polemics about abortion?

Does any of this really matter? If the danger is so great, is hyperbole or inaccuracy to be counted perhaps not as a vice but a virtue?

It matters, first of all, because it deflects attention from what remain the major sources of the Bush administration's disastrous and ominous policies, perfectly secular rationales for trimming government, cutting taxes, opening the door to torture, circumventing congressional and judicial oversight in establishing secret surveillance programs, and relying on military strength while belittling international institutions.

These approaches had percolated for years in conservative think tanks, among K Street lobbyists, and on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. Can anyone really believe that the administration's energy policy would have been different absent the speculations of end-times theology? K Street and the lingering doctrine of supply-side economics, not Christian Reconstructionists and biblical inerrantism, drive the administration's fiscal follies. The officials sending the United States to war in Iraq -- Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Libby -- did not come from the religious right, let alone the larger evangelical constituency. One can always trot out the regrettable figure of John Ashcroft to prove the religious right's ascendancy in the Bush administration, which makes as much sense as pointing to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to prove the ascendancy of blacks.

* * *

Abortion, same-sex marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, teenage sexual abstinence, the public display of religious symbols, the teaching of evolution -- these are the issues on which conservative Christian beliefs are the driving force and that enable the organized religious right to get traction among evangelical and conservative Catholic voters, who end up, more passively than not, buying into the rest of the Bush agenda. However much these issues exercise liberals and the left, they are also issues that the Bush administration has generally addressed in cautious, halting, inconsistent, or purely token fashion.

Exaggeration and inaccuracy also matter because they decrease any chance of mobilizing the opposition to the country's current course, as these writers ardently desire. They draw bold and broad lines between empiricism, science, tolerance, rationality, and democracy, on the one hand, and faith, theology, revelation, persecution, irrationality, and authoritarianism, on the other; and they assign whatever they like or dislike to one side of the divide or the other. This dualism disregards rational dimensions of faith and theology (as well as faith dimensions of science and rationality) and neglects the historical reality that the modern world of empiricism, science, and Enlightenment reason has produced its own irrational nightmares. Treating the moral questions that agitate conservative Christians as obviously settled beyond all reasoned argument does not just target theocrats. It sprays bullets widely into the ranks of moderate evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and even many centrist and liberal believers.

Goldberg ends with recommendations, some sensible, some quirky, for building a progressive movement to counter the dangerous brew of fundamentalist Christianity and belligerent nationalism. Among them is the advice that progressive should “win their neighbors over, not just beat them in court.”

That is not likely to happen without a significantly greater effort to understand those neighbors and their beliefs. At the end of her book, calling for a movement to oppose the theocrats, Goldberg runs up all the old banners of the war between secularism and religion, pitting “freedom and Enlightenment” against “stale constricting dogmas” and “holy books.” Reading those words, I question not only whether I -- and a lot of people like me -- belong in her ranks, but also whether she, or Kevin Phillips, or even my friend Jim Rudin, really want us.

Peter Steinfels writes the “Beliefs” column on religion and ethics in The New York Times and is the author, most recently, of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America. He co-directs Fordham University's Center on Religion and Culture.

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