The Growing Threat of Right-Wing Christians
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"I don't want to be alarmist, but this is actually quite alarming," Michelle Goldberg said. She was referring to the subject of her new book, " Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism," which chronicles the steady rise of the neocons of Christianity.
Whether she's attending a Ten Commandments conference or joining Tony Perkins' conference calls to listen in on what D.C. agenda will be passed on to congregations, Goldberg's reporting offers insight into a movement that has reshaped the nation's political and cultural landscape. Goldberg did not go undercover, nor wear any disguise. Rather, she simply showed up, listened and learned. And what she has learned is definitely alarming.
Traveling around the country on her book tour, Goldberg notes that many people have approached her with stories that illustrate the religious intolerance that is the hallmark of an aggressive Christian movement. On a muggy day in Brooklyn, Goldberg sat down with me to discuss the need for Americans -- particularly progressives and liberals -- to recognize the sophisticated intellectual structure of Christian Nationalism, and how it has succeeded in constructing a parallel reality based on Biblical rhetoric and revisionist history.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri: How did the idea for the book come about?
Michelle Goldberg: I've done reporting on the subject for a long time. 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.
Roychoudhuri: Can you give an example?
Goldberg: In the Department of Health and Human Services, the people they hired to formulate sex education policy, at both the national and international level, didn't come from the American Medical Association or the big medical schools. They're coming from places like the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, which is this Christian Nationalist medical group. [The group says it is a "nonprofit scientific, educational organization to confront the global epidemics of non-marital pregnancy."]
One of the earlier stories I did for Salon was on the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) which does family planning, but they don't do abortion, mostly safe childcare and reproductive health through clinics all over the world. Congress had appropriated $35 million to the UNFPA. There's this group called the Population Research Institute -- another one of these parallel institutions. They're radically anti-family planning and claim that population control policies are part of this "one-world conspiracy" to cull the population of the faithful so that the "one-world government" can more easily assert its control. On the website it said that not only is overpopulation a myth, but all the people on Earth could live comfortably in the state of Texas. I did this story in 2002. I still had this naÃ¯ve idea that this kind of thing would remain marginal.
But what's amazing is that Population Research Institution went on to testify before Congress saying that the UNFPA promotes forced abortions in China. These kinds of accusations start echoing up the ladder to the point where Bush froze the UNFPA funding. This despite the fact that the State Department had already sent a delegation to China to investigate and said there was nothing to these accusations at all.
There's a myth on the left that's been fostered by Thomas Frank. I think it's a mistake to think that the religious right hasn't got anything. Frank has fostered this idea that the right votes to end abortion and gets a repeal of the estate tax. They've actually gotten quite a bit. One of the main ways they are rewarded below the radar is by being given vast amounts of control over American family planning policy abroad.
Roychoudhuri: What is "Christian Nationalism" and what characterizes it as a political movement?
Goldberg: 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.
Roychoudhuri: Throughout the book, you show examples of the Christian Nationalist movement pushing for special privileges under the banner of equal rights. The change in the hiring rights of faith-based social programs seems to epitomize this.
Goldberg: The words that they use for that is "religious freedom in hiring rights." Religious groups have been able to get government checks for a long time. But they used to have to abide by 1956 civil rights law which has an exemption for religious groups. So, if you're a church you can prefer Christians, mosques can prefer Muslims, but the catch has always been that if you're contracting with the government, then you have to abide by the same civil rights laws as everybody else. Bush, by executive order, overturned that so that government-funded charities are no longer bound by the laws. Now, there is job training, drug treatment and preschool programs that are totally separate. The job is 100-percent taxpayer funded, but they can say in the help-wanted ad, "Christians only."
Bush wanted to get the Salvation Army aboard the faith-based initiatives. The Salvation Army then brought in a consultant to Christianize certain divisions. He asked the human resources director at the Salvation Army headquarters, Maureen Schmidt, whether one of the human resource staffers at the social services division, Margaret Geissman, was Jewish, because she had a "Jewish sounding name." Schmidt told him that she wasn't. So then he went to her and said, "I want a list of homosexuals who work there."
She said no. She's a really conservative lady, but she was totally appalled and refused to do it.
Roychoudhuri: How did this kind of shift occur? Is there an architect behind these faith-based programs?
Goldberg: The architect of the faith-based initiative is Marvin Olasky. He was an advisor of Bush's campaign. Bush wrote the foreword to Olasky's book, Compassionate Conservatism , I think people hear "compassionate conservatism," and it sounds like a banality, but if you know Olasky's book, you know it's outlining something very specific. Olasky believes that America is in moral decline and that we need to return social services to churches. He also believes that conversion is an important part of the process. This book laid out exactly what he thought we should be doing, and Bush went and did it.
Roychoudhuri: Your book discusses the role that megachurches play in the politics of the right. Can you explain the ties?
Goldberg: It's not all of the megachurches, but it is many of them. There's different kinds of connections. New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Ted Haggard is the pastor there. He has a call with the White House every single week. Other churches are networked in through the Family Research Council in D.C. It's run by Tony Perkins who has these conference calls that I actually got the number for and started listening in on. All these pastors call in and Perkins basically updates them on his latest conversations with the White House and the congressional leadership. He tells them what kind of issues he needs to focus their congregations on. So he would say you need to have your congregants write to their senators about abolishing the filibuster or about confirming a certain judge. He's literally relaying marching orders from Washington, D.C.
Roychoudhuri: Do you think congregants are aware of the connection?
Goldberg: I kind of doubt that people in the congregations know that but I'm not sure that they would be particularly angry or outraged about it. It would only outrage you if you believe in the separation of church and state, that church shouldn't be a political party.
Roychoudhuri: You frequently discuss the similarities between Christian Nationalism and fascism and totalitarianism. Were you conflicted about broaching this?
Goldberg: Among liberals, there is always talk about fascism and there's a kind of agreement that you can't talk about it more publicly without sounding like a lunatic. You don't want to sound like you're comparing Bush to Hitler. We have no language to talk about the intermediate stages of this kind of thing. But there are these really unmistakable parallels to fascism, not as a government system, but to fascism in its early stages. Before fascism is a government, it's a movement. It's not born in power, it comes to power. I think it's time to talk about fascism or another word for it. Christian Nationalism is one way to talk about it. But there are things that are going on that are not normal, they're not politics usual.
These things are always subtle and gradual, but there are moments when all of a sudden you think "Oh, they're drawing up lists of people who are gay at public agencies." I don't want to be alarmist, but this is actually quite alarming. Just recently, there was a story about a Jewish family in Delaware who moved after fearing retaliation for filing a lawsuit regarding state-sponsored religion. As I've been traveling around the country, and I've been traveling a lot, I keep hearing about things like this happening all over the place.
There's one abortion clinic in Mississippi right now and Operation Rescue is planning to close it down. In parts of the country, doctors are living under constant terrorist threat and it's a daily battle. If you're in other parts of the country, you can be completely unaware of it. I keep hearing from people on the coasts who say, well, I'm sure the pendulum will swing back. But my sense is that, for instance, gay people who are living in conservative states or Jews who are living in places where there aren't a lot of other Jews, definitely feel something is going on and it's affecting them on a day to day basis.
Roychoudhuri: You see this becoming an even more polarized battle in the future -- the secular vs. religious. Barack Obama recently gave a speech in which he advocated for a middle ground, and for progressives to embrace their faith. Do you think that's a viable option?
Goldberg: Obama's speech to me was interesting. I thought that there were some things about it that were really valuable, and some things that were really destructive. What he said about people feeling that there's something missing in their life, and speaking to that, was right on. The religious right gives people the narrative arc both for their own lives and then the country as a whole and it's very comforting to people. Giving someone a list of policies -- even policies that will make their lives better can't really compare to that.
But what was destructive was that he took for granted right-wing rhetoric that has no basis in fact. He said, "What's the matter with the Pledge of Allegiance, I don't think anybody is really bothered by the 'under God.'"
He's right; most people aren't bothered by it. It's a myth that liberals, not to mention Democrats, have done anything against the Pledge of Allegiance. The only people trying to take the "under God" out are a few individuals representing themselves. When that California guy sued to have the "under God" taken out of the pledge of allegiance, he wasn't being represented by the ACLU, or the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He was representing himself.
Roychoudhuri: What do you think it's going to take for progressives and liberals to gain more currency?
Goldberg: One thing that the right does have that you don't have on the left are these umbrella organizations. Most years, I go to the Conservative Political Action Conference which brings together the religious right, but also the neocons, the hate government people like Grover Norquist, and the gun owners. They see each other there once a year, they have weekly meetings that Grover Norquist holds where he brings together representatives from all the different right-wing groups. Then there are institutions like the Heritage Foundation that has religious right social policy thinkers but also neocon defense people. Not everybody believes everything in the movement, but there are these interlocking circles and this social milieu where people meet and ideas circulate. We don't have that.
We don't have one meeting that brings together the feminist groups, gay groups, civil liberties and environmental groups. I feel like I'm always talking to like-minded organizations, and they don't know what the other group is up to.
Roychoudhuri: Any sense why that is?
Goldberg: There is progressive funding available for programs, but not for institution-building. It's just now that they're starting to come up with journals about these ideas that should underlie where the progressive Democrats should go. There has been a real neglect in part because people held the right in such contempt. There was never any appreciation for the depths of the intellectual infrastructure. Even though the stereotype is that liberals are the academics, there is, in certain senses, anti-intellectualism among policy and political people who don't see how that structure roots people, shapes ideas. It's more than just crafting a message; it creates this whole interwoven skein of values and assumptions. Now we're starting to see an attempt to create that on the left.
The other thing that I think is really necessary is creating something parallel to the right's Concerned Women for America. Let's say it gets in the news that the Dover school board is talking about introducing creationism. We know the ACLU is great when it gets to the legal issues, but even before it gets to that stage, we need consultants calling up the people on our side saying, "Here's what we're up against, this is what to expect, this is how you can talk about it in a way that will resonate with people." You have the information, but it's just not getting to those people. Whereas, on the other side, you do have consultants calling up coaching people through it before it even gets to the table.
Roychoudhuri: You're very solution-oriented in the last chapter of the book, but you clearly state that you think it's going to get worse before it gets better.
Goldberg: It's already worse since the book came out. There's an idea out there that once Bush is gone, or maybe if the Republicans lose Congress, then we'll all be free and clear. Obviously, there's nothing more important to me than seeing the Republicans lose Congress. But, it's entirely possible that most Americans are going to vote Democratic in the polls but that Republicans will still control Congress. The huge structural advantages the Republicans have created for themselves have to be addressed before anything else can be solved. I would say the collapse of the Republican Party is really important, but the Christian Nationalist movement is not a majority. I don't think there needs to be a majority to affect policy.
Roychoudhuri: You write of a pretty enormous communication chasm: "Dialogue is impossible without some shared sense of reality... What's lacking isn't just truth, it's the entire social mechanism by which truth is distinguished from falsehood." How can we regain that?
Goldberg: I found the last chapter the hardest to write because I do feel like in certain ways the problem is much larger than any solutions I've come up with. There are all these voices on the right that can say almost anything without consequence. You would never see Kerry joining hands with someone from the Black Panther Party or someone from the ANSWER coalition. But there are people on the right who are calling for theocracy and almost nothing they say discredits them; they're still treated as respectable mainstream voices.
It's important to get people to pay attention to who these people really are. People don't know what Reconstructionism is, so it doesn't occur to them to be shocked when they see a Reconstructionist on a panel or at a banquet table with congressmen. That should be politically damaging; that should be embarrassing. And the media needs to stop treating it as "some people say this" and "some people say that" as though it's balanced, as though they're legitimate points of view.
Also, journalists should take these religious groups seriously enough to ask about them. I'm totally agnostic on the question of whether Bush is a true believer or totally cynical, I think he's some combination. Somebody asked Bush at a public meeting whether any of his Middle East policies are informed by his vision of the End Times. That to me is a totally legitimate question and he didn't really answer it. If these people are saying they take their religion seriously, then people have a right to ask what is it and do you believe x, y or z.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri is a former assistant editor of AlterNet.