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inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #0 of 142: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #1 of 142: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #2 of 142: 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 it’s 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.  
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #3 of 142: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #4 of 142: 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.  
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #5 of 142: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #6 of 142: 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?  
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #7 of 142: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 23 Aug 06 15:53
    

(Note: Offsite readers with comments or questions can send them to
<inkwell@well.com> to have them added to the conversation)
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #8 of 142: 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
...
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #9 of 142: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #10 of 142: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #11 of 142: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #12 of 142: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #13 of 142: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #14 of 142: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #15 of 142: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #16 of 142: 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!
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #17 of 142: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #18 of 142: 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.   
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #19 of 142: 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?]
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #20 of 142: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #21 of 142: 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.   
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #22 of 142: 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."
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #23 of 142: Public persona (jmcarlin) Thu 24 Aug 06 14:31
    

"...there is casserole"...

Very nice, Sharon. 
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #24 of 142: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 24 Aug 06 15:00
    
Every Methodist I've ever related it to has laughed hysterically.
  
inkwell.vue.280 : Michelle Goldberg, "Kingdom Coming"
permalink #25 of 142: 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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