News & Politics

When Faith Turns Deadly

Larry Beinhart, author of <i>Wag the Dog</i>, discusses religion, politics and hucksters in his new novel.

Larry Beinhart's thrillers are not only pointedly political, but also, as they say on Law and Order, ripped from the day's headlines. In The Librarian, he tackled dirty tricks in national political campaigns; in American Hero -- which became the movie Wag the Dog, with Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman -- Beinhart looked at the ease with which the media can be manipulated to sow fear of national-security threats to an often-insular public.

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In his new novel, Salvation Boulevard, Beinhart drills into the nexus between religious fundamentalism, politics and the deadly ways the two often mix. AlterNet recently asked Beinhart to shed some light on a touchy subject.

Joshua Holland: All your books have a political component -- and of course you write nonfiction as well. Tell me about the larger themes you were trying to tease out in this book?

Larry Beinhart: The pitch meeting summary is: The corpse is an atheist professor, the accused an Islamic foreign student, the defense attorney is a Jewish lawyer, the investigator is a born-again Christian -- The Mystery is God. God is the great mystery. Does God exist or not? If not, why do so many believe? And why do people believe so fervently they will kill and die for their belief in a particular version of God? One that is, to an outsider, indistinguishable from several others.

If God does exist, why doesn't he tell a straight story, once and for all? (Yes, I know that each believer in each version believes he has, but not so that he could convince a jury consisting of believers in a variety of the others.) If God is a delusion, and a delusion is, by definition dysfunctional, how come I have so many delusional friends who are wealthier, more successful and apparently happier than I am?

In order to answer those questions successfully, we need to answer, or at least encounter, a bunch of the other long-term puzzles of philosophy. Questions like: What is truth? How do we determine truth? Can religion be studied by science? What is science?

And if morality doesn't come from God, where does it come from? To answer that, we have to figure out what morality is.

Now, I find such questions to be lots of fun. Many people find them stressful or tedious. My solution to that is to put only the tips of the icebergs in the book and put the full bergs (there's a Jewish joke in there somewhere) in a series of upcoming articles on AlterNet and on my blog,

While the novel itself is full of drama, intrigue, some kinky sex, a slug from a 9mm, a touch of torture here and there (hey, it was written in the Age of Bush), schemes and double-crosses.

Religion is the major cause, or at least the major excuse for, mass violence in the 21st century. Late in the 20th, we saw the reemergence of the theocratic state. In the hard sense, as the Islamic Republic of Iran, in the soft sense, as the domination of America by the Republican Party, a party which exists in a state of codependency with the religious right.

There is also a structural issue that relates to economics. People have theological attitudes about economic theory. Marxism (may it rest in peace) was long criticized as being like a religion, a faith that instructed its followers to leave reason and reality behind and that did so successfully. The same may be said, accurately, of the neo-free-marketeers.

JH: Your protagonist is a dyed-in-the-wool, white, evangelical Christian who comes with all the baggage that entails. Later in the book, uncertainties creep in, but through much of it, he shares the common belief that wicked liberals are trying to destroy America -- all that jazz. You're a nice, liberal Jewish boy -- what was it like to get into the head of a character like that?

LB: To make the story interesting, really interesting, it had to be from the inside, from belief. That's where the drama comes from, from confrontation of beliefs with realities and contradictions and crisis.

As a writer, when I want to have a character do something, I always try to see what it is in them that would make them do it -- whether they're heroes or villains, winners or losers, male or female. The actors process, which is similar and applicable, is to find what in themselves -- if they were in those circumstances, including age, life experience and social context -- would motivate them and lead them to act.

The process, in this case (I think) was like the intellectual one of trying to understand religion. To go below the labels -- the forms that faith takes -- and try to figure out what the underlying needs and cravings are, and then understand how religion functions to meet that needs.

The primary function of fundamentalist religion is a world of order. Any religion, but on a sliding scale, the more fundamental, the more order. As someone who has been either a freelancer or an entrepreneur my whole life, I have frequently dreamed of -- but never chosen -- a life in which I didn't have to figure out what to do with myself every morning and in which structures were imposed from the outside. Not religious ones, but still, there's the same kind of desire.

One of the primary selling points of fundamentalist religion is patriarchy. A world in which wives and children obey the No. 1 male figure in the house. It's a pleasant fantasy. A very pleasant fantasy. And a common one. I've never experienced it, but I have experienced being at the top of a social system. Particularly as a rich -- by world, not U.S., standards -- white American in Eastern Europe and in Third World countries. Also as a fellow at an Oxford College where the class structure is out of the 17th century (or earlier).

One of the most striking qualities of that class structure is that it is a co-conspiracy; it is not imposed by whips and chains or even by explicit and visible sanctions. We can say that society imposes it through this or that means, but in the individual case, people at each level choose to relate in a class manner to both those above and below them.

The great peculiarity -- to an outsider -- of religious and right-wing sexism is that there are many women who advocate such an order. It is PC to claim the patriarchy is imposed, and that if it weren't for the oppressors it would disappear. But in practice, it's often a co-conspiracy. That has to be understood, and that's actually a bigger stress.

Then, once you get into it, other things happen. I got to like Carl (the name of the main character and the narrator of the story). When I got stuck, we'd take long walks and have imaginary discussions together, and he would explain what he would do in whatever situation I'd stuck him in and how he felt about it.

But to answer your more specific question, posed as conservative versus liberal, I think that's an old division. The real division is between reality and myths. The problem with free market capitalism is that it does not work in reality the way it works in the mythology. The economic failures we're going through now result from the failure to distinguish between how markets are "supposed" to work and how they actually work. The disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq come from believing in the myth of how democracy and "freedom" are supposed to work and what happens in reality.

And that's true, all down the line. It's fascinating to read the post-election Republican self-analysis. There's a general admission that Bushianity failed. It is almost universally blamed on his failures to adhere to the true faith and principles of conservativism (unlike St. Reagan). The failure is to understand that that's what happens when "conservatives" actually get into power. Whether it's [Newt] Gingrich, [Tom] DeLay, [Dick] Cheney, and on and on. The only successes they've had were when their leaders really dealt with reality -- Reagan backing out of Lebanon when attacked; Bush I raising taxes and stopping short of Baghdad during the first Gulf War; Eisenhower faced reality most of the time; or Nixon reaching out to China, or passing the clean air and water acts.

As we look forward to [Barack] Obama, the ideologues on the left will probably be disappointed. But if we redefine our goals as looking for reality -- peace and prosperity, however we get there -- justice and the rule of law, even if we don't try Bush for war crimes (which would be a slam-dunk case), and so on, I expect he will go a long way toward meeting them.

That's what the last election was about: Reality v. Myth. It was a great moment, because at the last moment reality struck hard -- the market crashed, the banks and economy not far behind -- and kicked myth in the teeth so hard that when people walked into the voting booth, they either had to vote for a, a … you know who … or the Great Depression. By a slim, but more than sufficient, margin they voted against the Great Depression.

That's Carl's journey, in a way. He has his theology, which gives a structure to his life, which is necessary, and then he meets situations where the theology doesn't fit the reality. He has to come to terms with that. So do several other people in the book. They do so in different ways. Several deny the reality and insist on the theology. Which many people do in real life (George Bush keeps raving on about free markets after having asked for a trillion dollars to bail them out -- astonishing, but true).

JH: At the end of The Librarian, you tell the reader that some of the events in the book mirrored real life, and you do that again in Salvation Boulevard. Can you get into that a bit without giving up too much of the plot? I'm interested in privatization -- of the creation of publicly funded honeypots ripe for the taking by private interests.

LB: Reality is so much fun. It's so full of outrageous stories. I would refer readers to Fog Facts to see a bunch of them straight up, as they are, not repackaged in fiction.

Bush and Cheney's economic adventures in real life, both in and out of government, are wonderful -- or would be if they were fiction -- gigantic, multimillion- and then multibillion-dollar capers, which are quite appalling in reality. Both claim to have been free-market true believers. In reality, they both got personally rich the same way: Using government to take money from ordinary people to give it to very rich people. Then, when they got in power, using government to make other rich people very rich.

One of these incidents -- back when Bush was governor of Texas -- forms the basis for part of the plot. The real story is in an afterword at the back of the book. It involved transferring $7 billion in public funds to a private party who helped make Bush rich in a separate deal and went on to become one of his biggest supporters (and why wouldn't he?).

Privatization is a real threat to our well being. It, too, got a kick in the teeth from reality. I don't think there is anyone looking forward to retirement who isn't totally relieved that Bush didn't get to privatize Social Security and make it stock-market-based.

That being said, there is a huge job to be done in explaining and justifying the utility of public ownership, public endeavor, and working for the common good. Think Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine -- the idea that disaster is a time to rush through radical change. She describes how the Right uses disasters to do that. We now have a disaster, a set of disasters, produced by the Right. It is our opportunity to rush in with alternative ideas while there is the panicked will to implement them.

JH: Let me change gears here for a moment. In his new book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, Hooman Majd writes, "It strikes me often when I am in Iran that were Christian evangelicals to take a tour of Iran today, they might find it the model for an ideal society they seek in America. Replace Allah with God, Muhammad with Jesus, keep the same public and private notions of chastity, sin, salvation and God's will, and a Christian republic is born." A provocative argument, but one I've always felt to be true intuitively. What's your reaction, having written Salvation Boulevard and travelled to Iran this year?

LB: I think of Iran as America's dark mirror. Iran is an Islamic republic. Its government is elected. Really, in real elections. But in order to run, you have to go through a Council of Guardians, who evaluate if you are religiously correct enough to run. In America, the government is elected. Certainly, in presidential elections, you have to go on TV and explain that you are religious enough to be president. In order to run for any other federal office, you have to raise at least a million dollars, often more. In order to do so, you have to have appear before an amorphous social order of corporate money and millionaires. If you can't get past them, you can't -- with rare, rare exceptions -- get elected.

We have had a Republican-led government for six years. It is a party whose dominant popular base is religious, desperately concerned with sexual issues. The Islamic government in Iran has a base of popular support. It is not an imposed foreign or socially alien dictatorship. The core of that popular support are the true believers. The ones who want women "decent" -- hair and body covered. Who want capital punishment for adultery.

There is also an intersection between religion and business. Religious organizations and religious figures are key players in the entire economy. Every business person I met in Iran said, "You can't do business without a mullah as a partner." Should you try, and you are successful, one of them will show up and announce that you have a partner or you're out of business.

It is more extreme than here. But that is only because they can. If Dr. [James] Dobson or Tony Perkins could make every business tithe and could then take that money and use it to get a stake in lots of other businesses, they would. You betcha.

Yes. It is a model for a Christian Republic of America. Slightly different costumes, kebabs instead of barbecue, but very similar (and no homosexuals! Remember, it's a choice, they can be retrained through prayer or severe chastisement).

JH: I write about politics and the economy, but allow me an annoying literary question. I'm a fan of the classic old "hard-boiled" detective novel -- [Dashiell] Hammett, [Raymond] Chandler, those guys. I was reminded of that genre with this book. Was that something that was intentional, or is that a product of natural osmosis.

LB: It was half and half.

With more deliberate commercial planning, I would have structured it as a thriller. The paradigm for a thriller is "the race between the train and the Model T." The hero is in the Model T. The villain on the train with the girl and the money (or the deed to the ranch). The villain is racing to finalize his villainy, the hero to stop him and rescue the girl. They crisscross, with the villain setting traps and ambushes to kill the hero. That's what the fiction market likes now.

Somehow, I started out with Carl and stayed with him. In the end, I think it makes a more interesting and less-genre book. There are two stories. One is his investigation, detective style, into a crime. Did his client do it. If not, who did? The other is the story of Job. There are two other characters. The dead atheist professor. A megachurch preacher, who saved Carl from a life of drugs, drinking, dissipation and disasters.

Those two would see themselves in a battle for souls. Normally, we expect the dead to be at a disadvantage. But the atheist has left a book behind. If there is one absolute, indisputable truth we can learn from the Bible, it's that even if you're dead, you can exert a lot of influence if you leave a book behind.

Their battle -- like that of God and Satan over Job -- comes down to a single soul. In this case, it's Carl, the detective and narrator of the book. So the second story is his spiritual journey. And, like Job, he is stripped of everything along the way. So at the end, he has nothing but himself and his own values as he stares into the void.

And there's lots of funny stuff along the way.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.