June 1, 2006
Michelle Goldberg's Gone To the MegaChurch and She Found Christian Nationalism There
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Michelle Goldberg took a close-up look at right-wing religion in America and has reemerged to tell others just what she found there - a hypnotic mix of Jesus, community, and ballot box activism. Her new book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, explores the parallel universe that threatens our reality-based world, and indeed, could replace it. We can just hear Thomas Jefferson rolling over in his separation-of-church-and-state grave. Michelle Goldberg talked with BuzzFlash about Hitler, Scalia, Christian revisionist history, and Christian reconstructionism.
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BuzzFlash: In his remarks at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Stephen Colbert said, "Though I am a committed Christian, I believe that everyone has the right to their own religion, be you Hindu, Jewish or Muslim. I believe there are infinite paths to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior." How would you take that quotation and apply it to Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism?
Michelle Goldberg: As always, reality keeps sneaking up behind Stephen Colbert’s satire. The Christian nationalists, which is a term that I use to describe people from various denominations, but who believe that the United States needs to be remade as a specifically Christian nation, includes most of the leadership of the religious right's huge swaths of the Republican Party. The vast majority of these people will say that everyone has a right to practice their own religion. But they’ll say, as long as they recognize that this is a Christian nation. You can do what you want as long as you know your place.
There’s one quote in this book that was really, really telling about this. The Congress was going to have the first-ever Hindu priest give an invocation. The Family Research Council issued a really angry statement, which says: "While it is true that the United States of America was founded on the sacred principle of religious freedom for all, that liberty was never intended to exalt other religions to the level that Christianity holds in our nation’s heritage. Our founders expected that Christianity and no other religion would receive support from the government, as long as that support did not violate people's consciences and their right to worship. They would have found utterly incredible the idea that all religions, including paganism, be treated with equal deference." That’s from the Family Research Council, which is a spin-off of Focus on the Family.
BuzzFlash: Dobson’s group.
Michelle Goldberg: Right. This is Tony Perkins' group now.
BuzzFlash: I listen to that statement and I think, one, it’s a historically inaccurate one. The debates over the Constitution clearly indicated that the intention was to separate church and state, and there were even those who felt very strongly that if any church became involved in the state, it would corrupt the church and not necessarily the other way around. Second of all, the statement just doesn’t make any sense. The Constitution said we could support a religion, but only Christianity? Where does the Constitution say any of this?
Michelle Goldberg: The Virginia religious liberty statute was written by Jefferson and is widely seen as the basis for the First Amendment. As Jefferson wrote in his autobiography, some had wanted to put an amendment into that statute saying that Jesus Christ was a source of religious liberty. Jefferson said, "It was rejected by the great majority in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection the Jew and the gentile, the Christian and the Mohammedan, the Hindu and infidel of every denomination." So where do they get this from? Part of what I seek to do in my book is show that this is not just a political movement, but an entire parallel reality. It has its own revisionist history, including its own revisionist American history. There are volumes upon volumes that essentially rewrite the history of America, cherry picking various quotes and taking things out of context to try to show that the founders intended to create an Evangelical Christian America, and that separation of church and state is something that they never intended, and indeed would have been appalled by.
One of the crucial figures in spreading this kind of Christian revisionist history is a figure named David Barton, who’s actually the Vice Chairman of the Texas Republican Party, which I think shows you how much this ideology, which has departed so far from rationality or scholarship, is rooted and intertwined now with the Republican Party.
BuzzFlash: I have an issue that I’ve brought up before with the books we’ve carried about the attempt to turn America into a theocracy. A rather small item appeared in the paper, and we posted it on BuzzFlash, having to do with Antonin Scalia. He is a proponent of theocracy. He’s an Opus Dei Catholic, which is very close to the Evangelical movement, and when he was speaking at a synagogue in Alabama last year, he told the members of the synagogue that they shouldn’t fear a Christian nation because Jews have always been safe in a Christian nation. I’m thinking, how can this man be "brilliant" when Adolph Hitler ran what he very much celebrated as a Christian nation?
Michelle Goldberg: Hitler’s relationship to Christianity is complicated because he also had all this kind of pagan, Arian mythology. But, absolutely yes, it’s a preposterous statement. The entire history of Europe bears that out. But at the same time, even if you said, okay, if America’s a Christian nation, they won’t persecute you, I would say that that is still not good enough. You know, prior to the creation of Israel, Jews were by and large safe in Muslim countries. They kind of had their place, and it was understood that they weren’t weren’t quite citizens, but they were protected. So I would say that being a tolerated, protected minority whose rights are granted at the pleasure of the majority is a very different thing than being a full and equal citizen.
BuzzFlash: To carry that a bit further, Scalia himself says that he’s a strict constructionist – only what’s in the Constitution. Where in the Constitution does it say that this is a Christian country?
Michelle Goldberg: The Constitution was very consciously the only founding national document that does not mention God. There’s an excellent book that looks at this, called The Godless Constitution. That wasn’t an oversight. It was a remarkable thing for the time, and it shows the Enlightenment values of the founders. One of the things that some of the Christian nationalists have tried to do is to say that, in the end of the Constitution, when it says “in the year of our Lord,” that that was an attempt to give it the imprimatur of Christianity.
BuzzFlash: You mean merely the dating of it, basically?
Michelle Goldberg: Right. It kind of reminds you of another Stephen Colbert routine, when he’s talking to an atheist, and he’s saying, well, what about the money – "in God we trust" - don’t use money.
BuzzFlash: One more question, because it just flabbergasts me that he is on the Supreme Court. Everyone says, oh, I may disagree with him, but he’s just so brilliant and scholarly. So it’s not in the Constitution, yet he says he’s a strict constructionist. Where in the world does he get this? Is he just a liar?
Michelle Goldberg: Obviously, I can’t speak for Antonin Scalia. I will say that there is a very conservative school of Constitutional interpretation which is actually adhered to, I think, by a lot of Bush’s judicial appointees, which essentially holds the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to the states. They’ll say what is to stop each state from declaring themselves to be a Christian state? I don’t know where Scalia falls on that. But there is on the right this kind of radically circumscribed understanding of First Amendment freedoms that I think would shock a lot of people. Most people take for granted the fact that your rights are protected on the local level as well as the national level.
BuzzFlash: It’s what people like Ashcroft and Scalia bring to the Constitution. It ’s just not in there that the Constitution is a divinely given document. But they believe, because democracy is such a gift, that it must be divinely inspired. Therefore, since God is Christian, it must be a Christian document. That is why Ashcroft says Jesus is our king in America. And Scalia and Bush are in the same camp, even though there is nothing in the document that signifies that, and the founders explicitly excluded God from the Constitution and made the decision to keep church and state separate for a variety of reasons.
We talked with Stephanie Hendricks a little bit about dominionism. Can you explain what that term means?
Michelle Goldberg: Let me start by explaining Christian reconstructionism, because dominionism flows from that. Christian reconstructionism is a very small sect that actually has a quite different eschatology than most Evangelical Protestants. Most Evangelical Protestants in America are what is called pre-millennial dispensationalists , which basically means that they believe that the rapture and Armageddon will come, that Christ will return to earth, and then there will be a thousand years of peace.
The post-millennialists believe that they first have to build the kingdom of Christ on earth, and it has to rule for a thousand years, and then Christ will return. They’re much more activist because there’s much more of a role for humans to play in bringing about the Second Coming. Their philosophy of government is very, very harsh. It’s the closest that anyone comes to envisioning a real Taliban-style theocracy – the execution of homosexuals, the execution of women who are unchaste before marriage. But they’re a minority.
Their political philosophy, dominionism, basically holds that God gave the saints dominion over all aspects of life and creation, and that Christians need to retake their proper place and control every aspect of human society. That’s become very, very influential, and it’s something that’s spread to a number of thinkers. Some of the most influential are probably Tim LaHaye and James Dobson. Tim LaHaye is pretty explicitly a dominionist. With James Dobson, it’s implicit in much of what he writes. It’s basically an idea that’s central to a lot of what Pat Robertson has done in building the Christian Coalition. It’s central to a lot of these reformation projects, like the Ohio Restoration Project. They’re basically saying we need Evangelical Christians to take over every aspect of the state political machinery. This idea has kind of filtered down – it’s a part of Christian reconstructionism that has become popularized.
The post-millennialists are trying to facilitate the arrival of Christ. But for the most part, pre-millennialism has bred a certain kind of passivity. If you really believe that we’re in the end times and the rapture is imminent, then really all you need to kind of do is sit back.
What’s happened is that, through people like LaHaye, pre-millennialism in the 1980s was really politicized. The ideal is that you might only have a generation or two more, but during those generations, we have to make this a godly country. It’s part of your responsibility as Christians to spread the gospel and spread righteousness.
BuzzFlash: Kind of clean house before the Second Coming.
Michelle Goldberg: Exactly.
BuzzFlash: Okay, now let’s look at a specific advocacy/think-tank that’s facilitating this. Can you explain the significance of the Seattle based Center for Science and Culture? It’s played a very pivotal role in the development of this euphemism for creationism, "intelligent design."
Michelle Goldberg: The Center for Science and Culture is housed within the Discovery Institute, which is a conservative think tank in Seattle. It’s funded in part by Howard Ahmanson, who actually is a Christian reconstructionist. We said before that most people weren’t, but he actually is a pretty forthright theocrat. And the Center for Science and Culture takes creationism and tries to legitimize it in scientific terms, and make it sound as if it’s really just a competing scientific theory. It hires people with a lot of impressive degrees, although, in many cases, they got the degrees specifically with the idea of using them to discredit Darwinism for religious reasons. It’ll put someone forward like Jonathan Wells, who has a Ph.D. from Berkeley, and yet here he is, defending intelligent design. So they’ve given a lot of thought to packaging intelligent design to make it seem like legitimate science. And they’ve given a lot of thought to how to try to infiltrate their ideas into the culture.
One of the most interesting and clearest statements of their intentions comes from a leaked document called "The Wedge Strategy." It’s a 1999 fund-raising proposal that shows very, very clearly that they want to use intelligent design as a way to replace the foundations of modern Western thought. They say they want to do away with "the materialistic conception of reality." That would be replaced with a supernatural conception of reality. In the scientific method, you observe things. You test things. You build on knowledge. When something is discredited, you move on. You find other hypotheses. This is how most of us understand reality. It’s why, when people found dinosaur bones or discovered carbon dating, they said, oh, the Biblical account must be wrong. Or at least it must be symbolic or metaphorical. It’s clearly not scientifically correct.
What they would essentially say is that you have to start with the Biblical account as the foundation of truth, and if you find something in the world that contradicts that, then there’s something wrong with your findings basically. You’re either seeing it wrong, or you’re interpreting it wrong. Basically, how do you know what truth is? You have to start with the word of God. This would mean a huge revolution in the very structure of our thought and our society.
BuzzFlash: As Mark Crispin Miller has said, they don’t want to take us back just to before the revolution. They want to take us back to before the Enlightenment.
Michelle Goldberg: One thing that is important to realize is that, if you read the words of, say, televangelist D. James Kennedy, who’s very influential, his books very specifically attack the Enlightenment. Not only does he attack the Enlightenment, he attacks the Renaissance. They see this battle between the Renaissance and the Reformation, and they believe that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment are corrupted by the influence of the paganism of the ancients. They reject all classical knowledge and see, as opposed to that, a reformation as the closest thing to the kind of society they would like to create - either a kind of theocracy, such as in the Calvinist theocracy in Geneva, or the Puritan theocracy in the colonies.
BuzzFlash: I just want to make an observation about what you described as creationism/intelligent design. It reminds me of the political parallel about fixing the facts - when going into the war with Iraq. In other words, you find contradictory facts. You somehow make them fit into the game plan, no matter what.
Michelle Goldberg: I kind of show in my book that the reason this debate is important is because it’s part of a more general contempt for the truth and contempt for empirical reality.
I describe the movement as proto-totalitarian, not totalitarian. I don’t think that we’re anywhere close to the kind of horrors that we’ve seen in other countries in the 20th Century. But I think some tendencies are at least nascent in this movement.
One of the things Hannah Arendt talks about is the way totalitarian movements construct an entire parallel reality, and then insist that that reality be substituted for the actual reality. You see this with everything from what’s going on in the science class, to the construction of foreign policy, to the promotion of abstinence education to the kind of fictitious numbers that are given for the Bush tax cuts. It’s something quite new in American politics – this idea almost of radical relativism – the idea that truth is determined by the person who has the power to impose it.
BuzzFlash: And to quote our friend again, Stephen Colbert, about Bush’s low poll numbers. He said Bush, "my hero," doesn’t need to worry about this because these poll numbers merely reflect reality. And, as we all know, reality has a liberal bias. And one of Colbert's opening schticks was about, "I feel it in my gut. I only do what I feel in my gut. There’s a lot of nerve endings there, they tell me." The facts don’t matter. All that matters is what’s in his gut. If he believed that Christ is leading him or God is talking to him, empirical facts don’t matter. And they don’t matter to some of the people he appoints to scientific committees or boards.
Michelle Goldberg: You essentially have this idea that truth has to be balanced with falsehood.
BuzzFlash: Yes, that’s certainly true. You bring up the interesting and rather distasteful case of David Hager, who opposed the morning-after pill and persuaded the FDA to overrule a majority recommendation to make the pill available over the counter. Then it turned out that his former wife told a reporter for The Nation that he was – what shall I say?
Michelle Goldberg: Well, that he had been raping her.
BuzzFlash: And he quietly resigned from his position.
Michelle Goldberg: He resigned, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that there are a lot of figures like him within the federal health bureaucracy. It’s not as if he resigned and now all is right. He’s an example in terms of his approach to science and evidence, and his desire to impose what is often called a Christian world view on the country. There are a lot of people who have the same backgrounds that are in the federal bureaucracy. I think it’s often very hard for people who don’t do this for a living, or pay attention to politics, to understand the influence that somebody who’s relatively obscure, on a relatively obscure subcommittee, can have on their actual day-to-day lives.
BuzzFlash: A person we haven’t really discussed a lot before, is Marvin Olasky, a former Jew who became a convert and is a professor at the University of Texas, Austin. What is his role in the rise of Christian nationalism?
Michelle Goldberg: I’m not sure whether he actually identifies himself as a Christian reconstructionist, but he’s very close to Christian reconstructionism. Basically, Marvin Olasky is like David Barton – a kind of revisionist historian. According to his revisionist history, the welfare state and the end of church-based charity have led to a decline in America throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase "compassionate conservatism." That’s a phrase that comes from the title of one of Marvin Olasky’s books that George W. Bush actually read the introduction to. And Olasky was an advisor on Bush’s first Presidential campaign. He definitely influenced not just Bush’s thinking, but the thinking of a lot of the Republican Party.
BuzzFlash: Olasky was Jewish and a Marxist at one point, and then found Jesus. He ended up as sort of Bush’s Billy Graham. As you say, Olasky is the godfather of many of his ideas, particularly the phrase "compassionate conservatism" and the whole faith-based approach that Bush has adopted.
Michelle Goldberg: I’m not sure if he is still close to Bush. He was clearly the impetus behind the creation of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, which is something that’s gotten billions of dollars. But he’s not a Bush advisor any more. He’s now the editor of an Evangelical magazine, The World. He’s still very influential in that world, but I don’t know what his relationship to Bush is.
BuzzFlash: Let me ask you about the growth of the mega-church. What is that phenomenon? I read about churches getting bigger and bigger in size.
Michelle Goldberg: It’s not just that they’re getting bigger and bigger in size. They’re also getting bigger and bigger in function. A lot of these churches look more like suburban megaplexes or shopping malls than any traditional idea of what a church looked like. They’re these massive suburban structures that encompass not just these amphitheatre-type chapels, but also day care, gyms, coffee shops, dinner places. They tend to sprout up in these very new suburbs and exurbs that have virtually no organic community or public space, and where you have the situation where the people who live there aren’t usually from there.
A lot of these places didn’t even exist ten or fifteen years ago. You have all of these people who don’t have roots, and don’t have any kind of community, and the church comes, and it’s this instant social world. It’s there to provide everything that you need. Certainly that could be a positive thing for people. Clearly they are incredibly welcoming. You go in there and sometimes you almost feel like you’re being love- bombed. But the thing is, often these megachurches also are giving people a very specific and detailed political ideology. When there’s nothing else challenging that, it takes hold all the more. If there’s nothing to contradict them, you have people living in an almost total parallel reality.
Under the IRS rules, churches aren’t allowed to campaign for a Republican candidate. But they are allowed to campaign for ostensibly non-partisan issues like a gay marriage amendment. And so, through the use of things like the gay marriage amendment, these churches can basically be enlisted as massive auxiliaries of the Republican get-out-the-vote machine. In 2004 in Ohio, they just moved the phone banks and voter registration into the megachurches. I remember there were stories in 2004 that liberals and progressive Democrats felt pretty confident because they were out on the streets, and they weren’t seeing the Republican get-out-the-vote machine. That’s because a lot of it was taking place in the churches.
BuzzFlash: A good example of this in the 2004 election is the activity of the current Republican candidate for governor of Ohio, Ken Blackwell, who championed the anti-gay marriage amendment in Ohio. There were questions about the propriety of that. He was and still is Secretary of State. But as you say, that was a de facto get-out-the-Republican-vote drive.
Michelle Goldberg: Yes. Before the election, I went to the megachurches. There was lots of dancing, lots of lights, and then this incredibly impassioned sermon. They were all about you need to form a mighty army and march on the ballot box, and everything was about the homosexuals, and the decadence and depravity, and they’re coming for your children. It would just go on and on and on, but it was all entirely political.
BuzzFlash: From what you just described, they have an entertainment component to them.
Michelle Goldberg: Absolutely. The music sounds much more like soft rock – it’s not hymns. It’s kind of soft rock, but with "baby" replaced by "Jesus." And big screens, and these kind of psychedelic swirling patterns all over the place – it’s a really impressive light show.
BuzzFlash: When you were covering the court case on intelligent design in Dover, Pennsylvania – which was eventually defeated – did you find these people amiable, nice, pleasant?
Michelle Goldberg: Sure. But my experiences of most people everywhere on a one-on-one basis are amiable, and kind. Having reported a little bit in the Middle East – it’s useful to realize that somebody’s ideology can be violently opposed to you, and they might support politics that would actually lead to your destruction. But that doesn’t mean they won’t have you over for lunch and be a totally gracious host. So on a one-on-one basis, I met people all the time who were charming and generous.
So they’re good people. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t support policies that would make this country unlivable, or that would destroy everything that people like me value in this country. It doesn’t mean that when they’re in groups and being fired up, and being told that homosexuals and secularists and atheists and feminists are a menace to their family – that they’re not capable of getting caught up in that kind of hysteria. That was something I saw as well. People, totally sweet on a one-to-one basis, but in the megachurch cheering about we’re going to defeat the homosexuals. And you see the gay people in the areas, where these anti-gay measures were used to get out their vote, and what they’re feeling is real terror. They’re looking around and thinking, these are my neighbors. They’ve always been nice to me. We’ve always smiled at each other. Who are these people?
BuzzFlash: For many years, progressives and cosmopolitan people, contemporary post-Enlightenment people, saw America as this great country and society that seemed to be moving forward. Maybe there were people of different ideological stripes, the Archie Bunkers, the middle America Nixon saw, and there might be some morality differences. But as you write in the Preface to your book, we really have two different societies now. We have this alternative reality and then we have like contemporary America that’s like contemporary Europe in many ways. It’s part of the modern world. Then we have a parallel society in America which is really, in its religious extremism, not that different than Islamic fundamentalists. They both reject contemporary society and resent contemporary morality. They both reject the Enlightenment. What happened?
Michelle Goldberg: My feeling is that they were always there – they just weren’t organized. There have always been fundamentalists in America, although I think this kind of Evangelical upsurge is something different. But the fundamentalists that were there kind of withdrew after the Scopes monkey trial, where they felt that they were humiliated. So they organized their parallel society in a way that made it easy for people on the Coast or in the cities to completely overlook it. Then, starting in the late seventies, with the creation of the Moral Majority, going into the Christian Coalition, and now into this much more dispersed Christian nationalist movement, they’ve just gotten much, much more organized, while Democrats and the left have become completely disorganized. Increasingly, people are no longer part of any civic or trade organizations. The unions fell apart and the megachurches bloomed. It’s been abetted by population shifts and redistricting, which really electorally disempowered people in big cities, which tend to be located in the most progressive states. Redistricting has kind of crowded urbanites together into single districts and spread out conservatives more so that they have vastly more electoral power. That’s part of it.
Another part of it is just existential. I think a lot of people feel despair or find modern life meaningless. Somebody said to me at one of these school board meetings, if evolution is true, then life has no meaning. If God hasn’t put you on this earth for a purpose, and if He doesn’t love you and think you’re special – if you’re just a product of random chance, some people see that as intolerable meaninglessness.
BuzzFlash: Has technology contributed to this?
Michelle Goldberg: Technology has had two roles, I think. On the one hand, it undermines the sense of traditional community. A lot of the people that I talk to seem to have this incredible nostalgia for their towns. They’re just living in these kind of suburban nodes. So there’s a sense of something profound that has been lost, and they feel kind of adrift. Then the megachurch fills that need that nobody else is filling. That’s part of it.
Technology has also allowed for the creation of this entire parallel media. It used to be that most people got pretty much the same news. People had access to pretty much the same entertainment. Technology has allowed this completely fictitious world to become an all-encompassing bubble.
BuzzFlash: Thank you, Michelle. It’s a wonderful book.
Michelle Goldberg: Thank you so much.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
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Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (Hardcover), by Michelle Goldberg, a BuzzFlash premium.
What is Christian nationalism? by Michelle Goldberg (TPMCafe Book Club)
Saving Secular Society, by Michelle Goldberg (In These Times)