Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 21 Aug 06 13:09
Our next guest, Michelle Goldberg, is the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism." Michelle has been reporting on the religious right and the conservative movement for years, first as a freelancer and then as a senior writer at Salon.com. In addition to her work on domestic politics, her peripatetic career has taken to many countries in Asia and the Middle East, and she'll soon be heading to Ethiopia to research the effect of Bush's abstinence-only policies on women's health there. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Observer, The UK Guardian, Newsday and many other publications, She's a fellow at the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion. Leading the conversation with Michelle is Mark McDonough. Mark was born in Rochester, NY, back in the days when televisions were black and white and working people had RVs and cottages at the lake. An Americanist by training, he has been an architectural historian, a high school teacher, a reporter, and other jobs too numerous and strange to mention. He is currently a software QA manager. On the WELL since 1990, he has followed the rise of the religious right since the mid 1970s, when he first started tuning into televangelists like the late Dr. Eugene Scott on UHF stations. Welcome to Inkwell.vue, Michelle and Mark.
Carl LaFong (mcdee) Tue 22 Aug 06 06:32
Michelle, following the religious right in a casual way has been sort of a goofy hobby of mine since the 1970s, when I started watching televangelists like Gene Scott and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. This country has never been short of religious fanatics going all the way back to the Pilgrims' landing on Plymouth Rock. What do you see as being particularly alarming about today's religious right?
Michelle Goldberg (goldberg) Tue 22 Aug 06 14:53
Good question. Obviously, religious fervor is nothing new in America. What is new, I believe, is the total integration and identification of a right-wing religious movement with a political party, the development of an all-encompassing politico-religious ideology, and the mainstreaming of quite radical beliefs. I'm guessing I'll be elaborating on all of these themes in the days ahead, but I'll briefly give a few examples of what I mean. Starting with the Christian Coalition in the early 90s and continuing with contemporary groups like Vision America, the Family Research Council and various statewide "patriot pastors" networks, there's been an unprecedented melding of the religious right and the GOP. The movement has successfully taken over much (though not all) of the party at the grassroots -- precinct by precinct, school board by school board, city council by city council. Meanwhile, many churches have morphed into virtual campaign headquarters -- phone banking, petition drives and GOTV efforts are taking place inside many megachurches (we can get into the IRS loopholes that are being exploited later). Focus on the Family recently announced that it's hiring political field officers to organize friendly churches in eight states before the midterm elections. It's unfair to most Christians to describe what's happening in theological terms -- that's why I use the phrase "Christian nationalism." It's a very specific political ideology with a revisionist history of America that denies the validity of church-state separation. Christian nationalists often refer to their ideology as the "biblical worldview," and they'll use various kinds of biblical exegesis to insist that there's a correct biblical position on the tax rate, for example (it should be flat), or on secular public education (it shouldn't exist). Obviously, they have every right to make these arguments. What's alarming (at least to me) is the way positions that would once have seemed crazy are now a normal part of the public discourse. One of the things I try to show in my book is the way ideas that have migrated from far right theocratic sects and reactionary outfits like John Birch Society -- a group that was anathema even to most conservatives -- are now taken up by mainstream politicians. These include a rejection of the idea of church/state separation, court stripping, attacks on contraception and the idea of a conspiracy, either secular or homosexual, against Christianity, among other things. Does this mean America is on the cusp of theocracy? It does not. But as I try to document in the book, people, families and communities are being affected, whether its a lesbian couple stripped of their health insurance because domestic partner benefits at public universities are being challenged, or a Jewish administrator driven out of a federally-funded faith based social service job, or a public school student being taught that sex with condoms is no safer than Russian roulette.
Carl LaFong (mcdee) Tue 22 Aug 06 16:48
Good answer! :-) One of the things I was really struck by while reading your book was the importance of the "mega churches" in the politicization of American religion. I was unaware, for example, of the critical role they played in getting out the vote for Bush in Ohio in 2004. And I had no idea just how many of them there are, although after I read your book, I realized I drive by at least two on my way to work. Again, the idea of a very large church led by a powerful and magnetic minister is not new. Aimee Semple McPherson's Angeles Temple and Father Coughlin's Shrine of the Little Flower were basically mega churches. But there is nothing to match the explosion of huge churches we see now -- one expert quoted in your book estimated that a new mega church is opening every day. Why do you think we're seeing such a dramatic increase in the number of mega churches right now?
Michelle Goldberg (goldberg) Wed 23 Aug 06 07:05
I think they're filling a void left by the decimation of America's community infrastructure. It's not a coincidence that these churches are sprouting fastest in the exurbs. These are places that often didn't exist a decade or two ago, so no one has roots there. There's no town center, no Main Street. Often there are no parks or libraries. People are totally atomized, and the megachurches offer people an instant community. They usually have gyms, after-school programs, singles nights, coffee shops and weight loss programs. Some have bowling alleys and swimming pools. The services themselves aim to be really fun and ecstatic -- there are light shows and rock music and lots of dancing in the aisles. They're incredibly welcoming, and they encourage you to join small groups of other believers so you can form more intimate relationships. (These groups, which are organized almost like cells, are also part of the reason megachurches are such powerful political machines). There's nothing wrong with any of that, of course. But for those who oppose the religious right's agenda, what's troubling is that these megachurches also tend to transmit a far-right political ideology. Because they form some of their members' entire social worlds, they can create an entire parallel reality (one in which evolution is a massive hoax, homosexuals are plotting to make Christianity illegal, and George W. Bush is spreading freedom across the globe.) And it's important to understand that in many cases the preachers aren't acting independently. In the book I write about monthly conference calls where Tony Perkins, head of D.C.'s Family Research Council, gives pastors political marching orders. Statewide "patriot pastors" networks also coordinate church-based political organizing, and Focus on the Family is getting increasingly involved as well.
Carl LaFong (mcdee) Wed 23 Aug 06 07:59
Yes, I thought your account of being included on those calls (posing as a pastor) was very creepy. There's a parallel in how right wing talking points appear and vanish on cue on talk radio -- obviously there's centralized communication of some type going on there as well. I think your point about the exurbs (and I live in one through no particular fault of my own) is interesting, and I'd like to return to it later. But... first, I'd like to throw you a more general question. Why do you think it is that there's no left-wing or, shall we say, cosmopolitan equivalent to the incredible sense of organization and purpose you see in the mega-churches? It almost seems like the religious right is playing 3-D chess and the rest of us haven't even found the checkerboard yet.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Wed 23 Aug 06 13:56
>>>I think they're filling a void left by the decimation of America's community infrastructure.<<< Michelle, why do you think the mainstream Protestant churches -- Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, etc. -- and the Roman Catholic Church in America have not, it seems, been able to fill this void?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 23 Aug 06 15:53
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Public persona (jmcarlin) Wed 23 Aug 06 15:59
To take a broader view, can you comment on this story which mentions similar trends in Islam and Hinduism (BJP party in India). http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/bal-id.god20aug20,0,1337138.story?pag e=1&coll=bal-home-headlines http://tinyurl.com/nvvty Religion's flame burns brighter than ever ...
Alan Turner (arturner) Wed 23 Aug 06 18:49
As you've said, religious fervor is nothing new in America - I have (or had, haven't had any contact with them in decades) relaitves who sent their children to a church school so they could be taught Creation Science instead of that Evil-lution stuff. What do you think has changed in the past twenty years or so to merge the religious and the political realms?
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Wed 23 Aug 06 19:48
>filling a void left by the decimation of America's >community infrastructure. I've just been reading Jane Jacob's "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." It's an interesting idea that the drive toward suburban housing isolated from commerce and other community activities, which Jacob critiqued so convincingly, has encouraged the development of a highly politicized religious movement. >many churches have morphed into virtual campaign >headquarters This is illegal, if I'm not mistaken, according to IRS code. Shouldn't these churches lose their tax-exempt status? I suppose there isn't much will to do so right now.
Elisabeth Nygren (wickett) Wed 23 Aug 06 20:31
That's a good question about IRS regulations. I grew up with a right-wing father. His sister was a disciple of Aimee Semple McPherson and until sometime in the 1960s ran a millenarianist newspaper in Los Angeles called _The Herald of His Coming_. Shards of it may still exist. It was a commune of sorts, a newspaper, a church with some community outreach, but basically small and offbeat. I liked the cooking on a ten-burner range in the huge kitchen, the roof garden, my grandmother who lived there, and the charismatic services when I was a wee sprout. I am familiar with the religious right, as well, because grades one through eight, I was put in Christian school after Christian school in the western U.S. My mother pulled me out regularly and put me in public school. However, changing schools on the average of every six weeks for eight years wasn't much of a way to become educated. For the first part of high school, I attended Prairie Bible Institute in Three Hills, Alberta. I ran away on my sixteenth birthday with the Mounties after me. For many years afterwards, I was able to straddle the politico-religious divide and talk conversantly and respectfully with both sides. However, sometime during the Reagan presidency, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the Christian (nationalists) of my acquaintance. I didn't have words for my escalating unease I felt until I read your book, Michelle. It resonated as deeply true. And it scared me so much that I couldn't read much at a time and had to take an extended break before I could finish it. I've seen some of the Joshua generation. I'm delighted to be involved in this discussion and that we are able to have this public discussion.
Teleological dyslexic (ceder) Wed 23 Aug 06 20:58
It could be fundamentalists--no matter what religion. Not theology, though IMHO; it may not be religious AT ALL to propogate hate pretending it to be an act of Faith. Hate is hate, more or less.
Michelle Goldberg (goldberg) Thu 24 Aug 06 07:02
Forgive me if I don't answer every question in this post -- I'll be back later today. Let me start with two related questions -- about why the mainline churches haven't filled the social void in American culture, and why the left hasn't been able to organize the way the Christian nationalists have. Part of this is just a matter of infrastructure. Mainline churches aren't really trying to turn themselves into spiritual marketplaces and recreation centers. (In my book, I note that, for all the right-wing calumny against latte liberals, conservative evangelicals are the ones serving lattes *in church*.) Similarly, liberals are lacking a physical entry points into many communities. They used to have union halls, but now there's nothing like that. But the broader issue is why liberalism and mainline theology aren't filling people's deeper longings for meaning and coherence. My sense is that this has a lot to do with the power of a total ideology. In the last chapter of my book, I write, "Ideologies that answer deep existential needs are hugely powerful. The Christian nationalists have one and their opponents largely do not. Today's liberalism has many ideas and policy prescriptions, but given the carnage born of utopian dreams in the twentieth century, it is understandably distrustful of radical, all-encompassing political theories Liberals don't want to remake the world; they just want to make it a little better." Liberalism doesn't purport to answer all your questions and give you a place in the world, and it doesn't promise the kind of radical redemption both in heaven and on earth that the evangelical right purports to offer. I see a lot of analogies between the Christian nationalists and the Communist Party. You'll hear leaders say that, with the correct Christian worldview, one can discern the correct position on every public and private issue. It's like the kind of clarity comrades would find in the party line (understandable, or course, to anyone with the right understanding of the dialectic). There's something enormously comforting about this kind of confident simplicity. At one point in my book, I quote a leading creationist named Ken Ham saying, "The Bible gives us an account of history to enable us to have the right presuppositions to know the right way of thinking in every area Ain't it exciting being a Christian? We have the history to explain the universe!" The mainline churches also can't offer people this kind of absolute certainty. A theology that asks people to be humble before the mysteries of creation and the ineffability of the divine is, to my mind, more profound that one that pretends to offer all the answers, but that's just not what people seem to want. That's true not just here, of course, but worldwide; fundamentalism, after all, is on the rise everywhere. I have to run out now, but will be back in a few hours, and I'll explain how the megachurches are circumventing IRS regulations. Also, Elisabeth, thank you so much for your comments. Writing this book, I was aware that I'd always be lacking the perspective that comes with first-hand experience, so I'm so pleased to hear that it resonated with someone who knows this world from within.
Carl LaFong (mcdee) Thu 24 Aug 06 07:15
Interesting. Another comparison I was thinking of while reading the book was the popular cults of the 1970s. Many of which are still around, of course, and at least one of which (the Unification Church) has been willing to play ball with the fundies. I remember once riding on a bus in Oakland, CA with two people who had just been to their first Nation of Islam ("Black Muslim") meeting, and they were just so filled with joy and excitement -- suddenly, they had answers for everything in the world and life was no longer a mystery. Of course it was all a complete load of crap made up by a con man, but... It's hard for rational worldviews to compete with that.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 24 Aug 06 07:59
Here the mega churches are Cathedral of the Rockies, which is a United Methodist, and First Church of the Nazarene, which as the name implies is Nazarene. Another fairly big one is Cherry Lane Christian Church, which is a nondenominational Protestant. LDS also have a lot of community centeredness around their churches -- basketball courts, events every night of the week except Monday, I think it is, which is Family Night, and so on. However, instead of having mega churches they have lots of little neighborhood churches, which usually sprout up in the middle of nowhere and are followed by houses later.
Elisabeth Nygren (wickett) Thu 24 Aug 06 08:10
When I used to play SimCity, I'd get so annoyed that the minute I zoned an area, a church would pop up. Now I know why!
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 24 Aug 06 09:41
Actually, another big church here is the Unitarians. Many of the progressives I hang out with here attend that church.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Thu 24 Aug 06 10:00
>>>The mainline churches also can't offer people this kind of absolute certainty. A theology that asks people to be humble before the mysteries of creation and the ineffability of the divine is, to my mind, more profound that one that pretends to offer all the answers, but that's just not what people seem to want. That's true not just here, of course, but worldwide; fundamentalism, after all, is on the rise everywhere.<<< This, I think, is the critical point. The Lutheranism I was raised up in is a set of questions more than answers -- it's a doctrine of philosophy, not of certainty. (Indeed, my uncle, a Lutheran pastor in Louisville, is also a professor of philosophy at the Univ. of Louisville.) Martin Luther's 95 theses that he tacked to the church door in Wittenberg, which were the effective beginning of the Lutheran church, were intended to be points of discussion and debate, not rules to live by. The introductory paragraph Luther wrote for the theses reads (in English): "Out of love and concern for the truth, and with the object of eliciting it, the following [theses] will be the subject of a public discussion at Wittenberg under the presidency of the reverend father, Martin Luther, Augustinian, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and duly appointed Lecturer on these subjects in that place. He requests that whoever cannot be present personally to debate the matter orally will do so in absence in writing." In periods when the problems of the world seem overwhelmingly complex, such as right now, belief systems that provide certain answers and, as Michelle puts it, a "total ideology" always seem to improve membership at the expense of belief systems that encourage questions and self-discovery and awareness. I fear these periods mightily, because fundamentalism has never in history led to anywhere good and has been the cause of an enormous amount of cultural, political and theological destruction.
Angus MacDonald (angus) Thu 24 Aug 06 11:12
[Sharon, in the Sixties and Seventies, the United Methodists were among the relatively liberal denominations, sharing "AD" magazine with the United Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ; have they changed that much?]
Public persona (jmcarlin) Thu 24 Aug 06 11:30
The Methodist campus minister in my college town ran a stop on the underground railroad getting deserters into Canada during Vietnam.
Michelle Goldberg (goldberg) Thu 24 Aug 06 14:12
I wanted to quickly explain why churches are able to get away with so much political organizing without losing their tax exemptions. Obviously part of it is simply a matter of who is in power to enforce the law. Complaints about GOP politicking in evangelical churches have gone mostly unheeded, but last year the IRS warned the All Saints Episcopal Church in California that its tax status was in jeopardy due to a 2004 sermon criticizing the Iraq war and Bush's tax cuts. But there's something else going on as well. One of the reasons the statewide anti-gay marriage amendments were so important in 2004 is that, in addition to mobilizing the base, they offered churches a way to get heavily involved in the election. Churches aren't allowed to endorse candidates or parties, but they can campaign on behalf of ostensibly nonpartisan issues like gay marriage. (In a remotely just system, of course, that would apply to war and tax cuts as well, but this is the Bush regime ) In Ohio, the anti-gay marriage amendment Issue 1 allowed churches like Rod Parsley's World Harvest to set up their own get-out-the-vote phone banks. When I went to Christian nationalist churches in October of 2004, pastors would hammer away at the maleficent homosexual agenda and speak about the upcoming vote as a contest between good and evil, lightness and darkness. Many churches seemed to cross the legal line -- an interfaith group in Ohio has been trying to get the IRS to investigate Parsley, but so far they haven't had any luck. Meanwhile, the right is trying to pass something called the House of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act that would remove limits on political speech in churches. It has 165 co-sponsors in the House. Besides further politicizing religion, this would open up a financial black hole, since churches aren't subject to the same kind of financial reporting requirements as nonprofit advocacy groups.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 24 Aug 06 14:15
Thank you for explaining that; I was wondering how my Catholic church got away with things like decrying gay marriage and abortion. As far as Methodists being liberal, I'm the wrong person to ask. I occasionally attend the Methodist church in my city because they have events I wish to participate in, usually surrounding food. Hence my description of the Methodists: "Whenever two or more of you are gathered in my name, there is a casserole."
Public persona (jmcarlin) Thu 24 Aug 06 14:31
"...there is casserole"... Very nice, Sharon.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 24 Aug 06 15:00
Every Methodist I've ever related it to has laughed hysterically.
Elisabeth Nygren (wickett) Thu 24 Aug 06 15:20
I attended a wedding between two students from Liberty University. The first words out of the minister's mouth, "The institution of marriage is under attack." Being under attack and struggling under great odds to "restore" an aspect of the US as a "Christian nation" seem to be the two great rubrics under which much effective fundamentalist mobilization happens.
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