Cracks in the Christian Ascendancy

Why it’s too soon to panic about an American theocracy.

Last month, James Dobson, the grandfatherly radio voice of middle-American Christian conservatism, told listeners of his Focus on the Family radio show that the National Association of Evangelicals’ campaign to reduce greenhouse gasses evinced “an underlying hatred for America.” How dare the group imply that global warming was a more important issue than gay marriage? His fellow conservative activist Rev. Richard Cizik, a political liaison for the National Association of Evangelicals—and a self-proclaimed Reagan Republican influential in anti-abortion and anti-gay circles—was not about to turn the other cheek. Cizik fired off a nasty letter calling Dobson’s accusations “outlandish.” On The 700 Club, Pat Robertson joined in, denouncing the evangelical version of environmentalism—“creation care”—and demanding to know why God-fearing conservatives like Cizik were teaming up with “far-left environmentalists.” 

As evangelical Christians gain more political clout within the Bush administration, the ideological gaps between the factions of the Christian right are becoming more pronounced. It’s not just environmentalism. Even gay marriage, that touchstone of the religious right, is a source of internecine tensions. Michael Farris, the founder of Patrick Henry College—an elite breeding ground for conservative Christians—opposed the latest constitutional amendment against gay marriage because it didn’t go far enough in stripping gays of their rights. But the strains within the evangelical movement don’t get much play in the secular media. For liberals, there’s little difference between a Dobson, a Robertson, and a Cizik: They’re all wing nuts in flyover states with bad hair and a gay obsession.

The specter of an American theocracy, the title of Kevin Phillips’ broadside against the Bush administration, has obscured the signs of dissent in what can look like a Christian monolith. Michelle Goldberg, a Salon reporter and the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, misses some of the signs, too, in her otherwise astute study. It’s not just that she blurs the more fringe personalities, lumping together conspiracy-minded nut jobs (like theocrat Howard Phillips, who believes that “enemies of Christ in this fallen world must be conquered”) with veteran conservative blowhards like William Bennett. As she describes how the Christian Right moved from the margins of acceptability to the Republican mainstream, she also overlooks generational tensions and large-scale dissatisfaction with the Bush administration among many conservative, white evangelicals (only 34 percent of whom, according to a June 6 Pew research poll, “strongly back” the president).

In her subtitle, Goldberg uses the term Christian nationalism to describe a “totalistic political ideology” that encompasses a wide variety of conservative groups—two of the most prominent being the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. Goldberg ranges far and wide over the “parallel universe” of Christian nationalism and argues that, for all its contradictions, a central ideology motivates all the disparate groups on the Christian right. This ideology is called “Christian Reconstruction” and it traces its origins to a little-known but highly prolific thinker named R.J. Rushdoony, who died in 2001. Rushdoony, the son of Armenian immigrants, taught that the American Revolution was actually a “conservative counterrevolution” against the Enlightenment. He argued that the Constitution prohibited an establishment of religion because Christianity was already the de facto religion of individual states. Viewing the separation of church and state as a myth foisted on Christians by liberal elitists, Rushdoony made it his lifelong project to reconstruct an imagined Christian nation. It’s a project whose legacy is carried on—in Goldberg’s estimation—by everyone from George W. Bush to Jerry Falwell. Yet Rushdoony plays an outsized role in Kingdom Coming; even ultraconservatives like Ralph Reed have distanced themselves from Christian Reconstruction.

Still, as a label for the activist Christian right, Christian nationalism is definitely an improvement over the more common fundamentalism—a belief in biblical infallibility that often eschews politics altogether. It’s a label that also helps Goldberg surmount some of the confusion surrounding evangelical, a term by now rarely used in its original sense, to denote an individual conversion experience in which a person professes Jesus as the one true lord and savior of mankind. What the term Christian nationalism misses, by implying a biblically correct position on every “values” issue, is an inherent tug of war within evangelicalism itself. Again and again throughout American history, evangelicals have retreated from the political scene, taking to heart the admonition to be “in the world, but not of the world.”

It was only seven years ago that Paul Weyrich, a strategist for the Moral Majority, surveyed the state of the culture wars as the Clinton presidency ended and concluded that evangelicals should “drop out of this culture, and find places … where we can live godly, righteous and sober lives.” What ensued was a fierce debate about the future of the movement, a debate that Weyrich clearly lost. Although Goldberg doesn’t give much play to this discussion, she provides a detailed picture of what happened next: Evangelicals turned their energies to building grass-roots support and an activist base. They started home-schooling their children and getting creationists elected to school boards. While the media focused on flare-ups over hot issues like abortion and gay rights, she charts this more pervasive change on the local level. The goal has been to reshape public policy under a sympathetic administration, and the result has been a “diversion of taxpayer dollars from secular social service organizations to … sectarian religious outfits [that] has been one of the most underreported stories of the Bush presidency.”

The movement has indeed learned its lessons from the confrontations that marked the culture wars of the 1990s. Goldberg is alert to the subtler political, and rhetorical, strategies that have helped propel the Christian right’s agenda forward. She finds one of the most telling examples of the grass-roots movement in Michael Farris’ university, Patrick Henry College, which he started in 2000 to attract gifted and ambitious home-schooled kids to the conservative cause. Here recruits are trained to work within the system of electoral politics. In six short years, the school has provided interns for 22 members of Congress and had more interns in the Bush White House than any other institution. Goldberg also calls attention to the concerted effort to mask conservative theology in the guise of scientific or humanistic language. She quotes Ned Ryun, the director of an organization called “Generation Joshua” that trains college kids to make Christian nationalism palatable to the MTV generation, telling his charges to take a ” ‘firm, solid Biblical worldview’ and [translate] it into ‘terms that the other side accepts.’ ” It’s an approach also embraced by the many faith-based organizations Goldberg profiles. For example, Leslee Unruh, “the doyenne of the chastity industry,” who helped her organization, Abstinence Clearinghouse, land a $2.7 million contract with the Department of Health and Human Services in 2002, does her best to promote the cause in secular terms—never mind how strained: Her claim that postponing sex until marriage is good for promoting “simultaneous orgasms” lacks, shall we say, a scientific ring.

Goldberg sees this new strategic subtlety at work in the service of a basic intransigence that she finds alarming: You’re either with Jesus, or you’re with the liberals. It’s certainly true that the old guard, like Dobson, often resorts to the confrontational stance not just in battles with the enemy but within the movement itself. Yet part of the reason he’s compelled to draw lines in the sand within his own ranks is that there are more than a few fissures in the larger movement, which is less purely politically driven and partisan than Goldberg appreciates. In Kingdom Coming, Patrick Henry comes off as a boot camp for young culture warriors marching in lock step to a unified vision and lacking a basic grasp of critical thought. But Patrick Henry is also a perfect example of tensions within the conservative Christian fold.

In May, five of the school’s 16 faculty members left the school over a debate about how to read non-Christian texts. Farris, the school’s founder, publicly rebuked a rhetoric professor for not mentioning the Bible in a lecture about St. Augustine last fall. Other professors—many of them evangelicals themselves—complained of “arbitrary limitations” on what they could say in class. As the debate heated up in March, two professors wrote in the school newspaper: “When we examine the works of any author, professed Christian or otherwise, the proper question is not ‘Is this man a Christian?’ but ‘is this true?’ ” They resigned a day later. Dissent is also growing in the faith-based world. David Kuo, a former deputy director of faith-based programs in the White House, expressed frustration with the Bush administration in a June 2005 column on Beliefnet, a clearinghouse for views on American religion. By Kuo’s calculation, Bush had delivered only a fraction—$500 million—of the $6.8 billion he promised for faith-based organizations in June 2001. For Kuo, it became clear that the White House wasn’t really interested in “poor people stuff.” As long as such controversy surfaces on the Christian right, it may be theocracy-fearing liberals whose views are unduly apocalyptic.