2016-07-27
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The other night at a family dinner I heard words that would be music to the ears of the Democratic National Committee. My mother-in-law, an evangelical Christian, lifelong Republican, and faithful voter, wondered aloud whether Christians ought to do away with their SUVs in the name of stewarding God's creation. Then she wondered whether Christians should "shop more thoughtfully," supporting local business and darkening Wal-Mart's door less often. Making sense of herself and her new thinking, she uttered a shocking sentiment: "I dunno. Maybe I'm becoming a Democrat."

She's more likely becoming a Crunchy Con, if not a Red Letter Christian. What she's most certainly not—and would not be even if her politics were not undergoing reconsideration—is a theocrat. She, like countless other evangelical Christians, voted for George W. Bush twice and has put faith in his policies. She wishes America were more God-fearing and moral. She appreciates some public Christian figures and is ambivalent about others. But she, like many of her fellow evangelicals, doesn't hope for theocracy, and she is embarrassed by the Christians who do.

This year, the New Releases section of your local bookstore would like to suggest otherwise. A quick scan of current titles posits a country at the brink of theocratic takeover by the Christian Right: “The Left Hand of God” by Michael Lerner, “American Theocracy” by Kevin Philips, “Kingdom Coming” by Michelle Goldberg, “Thy Kingdom Come” by Randall Balmer, “Why the Christian Right Is Wrong” by Robin Meyers, and a litany of other titles offer a clarion call against the coming Christian storm. Their warning? That America is under threat by Christian nationalists. Fundamentalists are consolidating power, gaining influence, and are poised to cleanse the country of a host of sins, from homosexual unions to a multi-party political system. These would-be tyrants believe the United States is meant to be a nation under God, and they're willing to make it so by force.

Given the seriousness of the situation, the authors of these books are not just reporting; they are on a mission to steer the nation from the Highway to Heaven and back toward . . . what? The Clinton era? The 1960s? It's hard to say exactly, but the books all exude the fear that something went dreadfully wrong when the Moral Majority formed in the late 1970s, and the nation has been headed for Christian totalitarianism ever since.

Cleary, the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004 has inspired a cottage industry of complaint, just as the tense reign of Bill Clinton in the 1990s helped inspire and sell conservative books (and launch the FOX News network). With these books appearing one after the other in a swelling army of criticism against the Religious Right, it's tempting to see them all as basically the same book. Their uniformly shrill titles and subtitles ("How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America," bellows Balmer's) convey the sense of variations on a theme, and indeed, the books have a great deal in common in addition to hysterics.

Last summer, Ross Douthat excoriated a host of these titles in the conservative Catholic journal “First Things,” taking them to task for sniffing out theocracy where none exists and for neglecting to mention the role the Democratic Party played in the formation of the Religious Right. (Douthat and others argue that the Right became Religious only after the Left became Anti-Religious, or at least "self-consciously secular.") The problems don’t end there. In assessing the seriousness of the theocratic threat, the anti-Religious Right books overestimate the influence of some Religious Right leaders (Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell) whose time has passed. They frequently reveal embarrassing religious ignorance, especially in their failure to notice or make sense of some of the biggest phenomena in evangelicalism. You'll find little mention of megachurches or evangelical small group systems, and little notice that evangelicalism is in a Norman Vincent Peale stage, with politically innocuous books like Joel Osteen's “Your Best Life Now” flying off the shelves.

Worse, the pages of all these books drip with contempt for their subject. The headquarters of Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs are James Dobson's "lair" (Goldberg); the Religious Right has "back-stairs power" in Washington (Balmer); evangelicals constitute part of a national "Disenlightenment'' (Philips). Much of the writing has the tone not of journalism or scholarship, but plain ol’ conspiracy theory. Faced with a lack of hard evidence that the dark forces of Christian fundamentalism are poised to create an American theocracy, Philips suggests that suspicion is as good as proof: Just as exposés of Communist groups published by conservative journalists in the 1940s and 50s have since proved accurate, so "today's liberal and progressive muckrakers are probably just as accurate in suggesting a larger-than-realized influence" of Christians bent on theocracy.

Given all that, it might come as a surprise that, in my estimation, the worst problem with these books' many failings is not the failings themselves. The problem is that these failings will prevent the books from reaching the audience that stands to benefit from them the most: evangelicals.

I'd like to see evangelical Christians reading—or at least skimming—these books. Not Philips, perhaps, whose fatuous reading of religion in America is one-sided and mean-spirited. But I'd like to see some of these titles—particularly Goldberg's and Balmer's—have a moment in the sun. I'd like to see them read by evangelicals like my mother-in-law, who are looking to revise certain political and theological stances. Goldberg could shock evangelicals with a closer look at some leaders who claim to speak for them. Balmer could remind evangelicals that they have a heritage of spreading redemption to slaves, subjugated women, and other oppressed Americans. Many evangelical readers would be amenable to this discussion, but these fever-pitched books aren’t, in fact, discussions; they are broadsides in the culture war.

As Goldberg admits, outside of a small subset of Christian Reconstructionists, most evangelicals want nothing to do with theocracy. But they do want something to do with the way their faith and their politics are characterized by people in their own camp and caricatured by people outside their camp. They want to be part of the conversation because they want to have a say in what happens next. Randall Balmer senses this the most—predictably, since he is also an evangelical—but he closes his book (and salts too many of his passages) with acerbic sermonizing that shows little patience for his brothers and sisters who might reasonably disagree with his positions on key social issues such as abortion and homosexuality. His readers would welcome reasoned criticism—not derision, not suspicion.

A series of levelheaded, reasonable critiques of conservative Christianity's recent attachment to the Republican Party would be welcome, but most of what's on offer is not equal to the need. What would be equal to the need? For starters, critiques of sectarian Christianity that are not themselves sectarian. Books that seek to discern the difference between evangelical faith and political speech infused with evangelical-ese. Books that wonder whether evangelical Christians really march lockstep behind every word from the mouth of James Dobson. Books that notice that the problem with our political moment in America is not merely the current powers that be, but our politics itself, where positions exist in narrow grooves separated by gulfs.

One book released this year does get after this job, at least in part. Becky Garrison's “Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church” features a subtitle that makes it seem of a piece with these lopsided critiques (“Eyewitness Accounts of How American Churches are Hijacking Jesus, Bagging the Beatitudes, and Worshipping the Almighty Dollar”). But Garrison, a senior editor for the religious satire magazine “The Wittenburg Door,” is an equal opportunity critic. Of all the authors on today's literary landscape (or battlefield), Garrison is nearly singular as a conscientious objector to the culture war, and her book is tortured not just over conservativism or liberalism, but over the American Church and American politics in sum. She describes the post-2004 nation as a place where churches became "red and blue houses of worship" where attendees prepare for the cultural battle. "Meanwhile," she writes, "I was seeking in vain, it seemed, to find a gathering of faithful believers who try to live out the teachings of Christ by demonstrating His love toward the political stranger in their midst."

As Garrison explains, Christians are partly to blame for the poisonous political air in our country, and too many evangelical leaders have backed the right on issues that have little to do with Christian fidelity. That should change, and it has begun to in many quarters. But for lasting change to take root, we need voices—including critics—that do more than react, more than trade blow for blow, and more than mirror disdain for the other side of the political divide.

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