The (further) rise of Christian nationalism by Michelle Goldberg

This is an edited version of Michelle Goldberg’s speech from FFRF’s 40th annual convention at the Monona Terrace and Convention Center in Madison, Wis., on Sept. 15.

She was introduced by FFRF Communications Director Amit Pal:

Just this week it was announced that Michelle Goldberg will be a columnist for The New York Times. She has written for a variety of publications from Slate to Rolling Stone to Glamour, New Yorker and The Nation. And she’s written two prescient, and if I may use the word in this gathering, almost prophetic books. They are Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, written back in the Bush era, and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World. Her latest book is The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. We are really pleased to welcome her to speak about the current state of the United States and the rise of Christian nationalism. So, welcome Michelle.

By Michelle Goldberg

Thank you so much for having me. Eleven years ago, I published the book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, which was about a kind of ascendant authoritarian fundamentalist movement in American politics. I wrote, “America is full of good people, but something dark is loose. There is a free-floating anxiety that easily metastasizes into paranoia and hatred for the same enemies always targeted by authoritarian populist movements: homosexuals, urbanites, foreigners, intellectuals and religious minorities. Rationality is losing its hold. Empirical evidence is discounted as the product of a secular worldview or a scheming liberal elite. Democracy suffocates in this atmosphere and space opens up for something else to supplant it.”

I think we’re starting to see what that something else looks like. When I wrote that book, a lot of people said that it was overwrought or hysterical, and I was never entirely sure whether they were right. There’s something about being a writer; it’s like the Buddhist parable of the blind man and the elephant. You try to describe what’s in front of you as best you can, but there’s always something that you’re missing. You try as best you can to give a picture of what you’re observing and what the people you’re talking to are saying, but you can never be sure how representative the people who you’re talking to are of a broader phenomenon.

I thought there was something really dark and frightening in the United States. I thought that democracy, or at least liberal secular democracy, was more fragile than a lot of us hoped, but I wasn’t entirely sure. And then Barack Obama was elected in 2008. For a while it really seemed like Christian nationalism was, in fact, no longer on the rise.

One of the figures that I wrote about a lot in Kingdom Coming was Roy Moore. How many of you are familiar with him? Roy Moore at the time had become a martyr to the Christian Right. As chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, he’d had this 2.6-ton granite Ten Commandments monument installed at the courthouse. A judge said he’d have to remove it. He defied the judge and ended up being removed himself. And to a lot of people in the movement, he was a martyr to secular tyranny.

When I was doing reporting for the book, I saw school kids doing a modern dance about his heroism and mistreatment. He spoke at rallies of thousands and thousands of people. I think most of you do know who he is. For those who don’t, maybe I’ll give a taste of who he was. In 2002, he awarded custody of three children to their allegedly abusive father over their lesbian mother, saying that homosexuality was abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature. And then he implied that gay people should perhaps be put to death: “The state carries the power of the sword. That is, the power to prohibit conduct with physical penalties such as confinement and even execution. It must use that power to prevent the subversion of children toward this lifestyle.”

I thought it was chilling to see crowds cheering for Moore, to see children dancing for Moore. But, at the same time, this system kind of worked as it was supposed to. He was removed. And I would have never in my wildest dreams have imagined 11 years ago that Roy Moore would soon be on the cusp of winning a U.S. Senate seat, which is where we are right now.

Trump’s acolytes

I also never would have imagined in my wildest nightmares that Sessions would be the attorney general. Jeff Sessions is probably best known among a lot of people for his very strident opposition to immigrants and to civil rights law. It probably won’t surprise a lot of you that he does not like secularists. He has decried the idea of a “wall of separation between church and state.” He says it’s not constitutional and not historical. He attacked Justice Sonia Sotomayor for having a postmodern relativistic secular mindset that is directly contrary to the founding of the republic. During his confirmation hearing, he was directly asked by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse if a secular person could have just as good a claim to understanding the truth as someone who is religious. Sessions hedged and said, “I’m not sure.”

But he’s not the only enemy of secularism and proponent of what I then called Christian nationalism. This kind of Christian fundamentalism is tied to a very authoritarian, almost quasi-fascist kind of nationalism.

He’s not the only exponent of that sort of ideology who’s in the White House. There’s Mike Pence, who once gave a speech saying that it was un-American, or wrong, to be teaching evolution, because every signer of the Declaration of Independence believed in creationism.

In 2011, the House voted to defund Planned Parenthood, which back then was still a radical idea. It’s hard to remember now, but that’s something that even George W. Bush would have never tried to defund because that was just too far out of the realm of mainstream politics. And the person who helped put it into the realm of mainstream politics was Mike Pence. When the House voted to defund Planned Parenthood in 2011, the legislation was called the Pence Amendment.
Then there is Ben Carson, who has complained that “secular progressives” have succeeded in de facto redefining part of the Constitution. And Betsy DeVos, who has talked about her work in privatizing public school funding as being a way to “advance God’s kingdom.”

There’s Mike Pompeo, who’s the head of the CIA. When he was nominated, I watched some of his old rallies, including a 2015 “God and Country” rally in Kansas, where he talked about those values: “We will defend our Christian values and American exceptionalism with all our heart,” he said. And then he said that that battle is “a never-ending struggle.” Never ending, that is, until the rapture.

There have been stories in the news about Mike Pompeo “Christianizing” the CIA — trying to recruit more white conservative Christians, trying to make bible study more a part of the culture of the CIA. So, you do see this sort of slow Christianizing of the institutions of American government. This is how political change ends up getting made in the absence of legislation. It’s unlikely that any really striking Christian nationalist legislation is going to be passed in the immediate future, given a gridlocked Congress and a dysfunctional executive.

Personnel is policy

It’s a longtime truism of Washington politics that personnel is policy, and the personnel in this administration are overwhelmingly very, very conservative Catholics or fundamentalist Christians, who are using various government departments to restrict funding to family planning providers both here and abroad, to reinstitute funding for abstinence education, and to launch attacks on the Johnson Amendment, which is the amendment that stops churches from basically turning themselves into political action committees.

And you see this in the Justice Department. You’ve seen a turn away from enforcing discrimination against women and gay people and African-Americans and religious minorities, and a turn toward investigating discrimination against white Christians. All this is happening, and in some ways it’s extraordinarily strange that this would be happening under this administration. Here we have a president who is, among other things, the first American president that we know of to have appeared in a soft-core porn film, the first American president to have tried to negotiate a contract for his wife to appear nude in Playboy, the first American president to have owned a casino with a strip club in it. So, in some ways I feel like there are parts of Kingdom Coming that have now come to fruition, and some developments since then that I never in a million years could have foreseen.

It turns out that when right-wing populist authoritarianism came to power in the United States, it wasn’t some kind of radically pious, Calvinist Handmaid’s Tale-like theocratic movement. It was, in a lot of ways, a rebellion against all moral restraints whose catch phrase would be “grab ’em by the pussy.” Like a lot of people, I was confused by this.

I spent a lot of time reporting on the Trump campaign. I was in Iowa during the caucuses when you saw a lot of the Religious Right mobilizing to try and stop him and mobilizing to try and get Ted Cruz in there. But the Religious Right very quickly coalesced behind Trump once he won the nomination and has now become really the bulwark of his support. And when everyone else fades away, you still have this 35 percent of disproportionately white conservative evangelicals who are loyal to this president. White evangelicals actually voted for Trump in higher percentages than they voted for George W. Bush. And you wonder, how can that be?

There’s hypocrisy there, but there’s also something more. I think his movement and the Christian Right have more in common than it might immediately be clear — and the beginning of that lies with race.

Birth of the Christian Right

One of the myths that the Christian Right tells about itself is that it was born out of abhorrence to abortion in Roe v. Wade. But that’s not really true, because Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973 and it took many years for the Christian Right to really get rolling. Most reliable historians of the Christian Right will tell you that what really drove that movement was fury when the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of the white, segregated Christian schools that had popped up in the South in reaction to Brown v. Board of Education. They were called “seg academies,” segregated academies where you could send your kids to make sure they didn’t have to go to school with black people, and the IRS eventually said that a tax-exempt school can’t discriminate. This sparked enormous outrage.

The Christian Right has always had a sort of strange, contradictory relationship with race. Its roots lie in Confederate nostalgia and Southern identity politics. But when I was writing Kingdom Coming during the administration of George W. Bush, there was a conscious effort to apologize for that past, to repent that past. There was an understanding that it was embarrassing. There would be these ceremonies where white pastors would get on their knees before African-American and Latino pastors and beg forgiveness for the sin of racism. And then they would all join hands against the gays.

Ralph Reed wrote about the movement having to basically face the fact that it was on the wrong side of the civil rights struggle. What happened is that, in 2008, we elected a black president, and suddenly a lot of that racial reconciliation language and work went by the wayside. And the white resentment that had been key to the movement since its very beginning came roaring back to the fore. So that mapped very easily onto Donald Trump’s movement.

The Christian Right had also, particularly in the last few decades, waged a pretty sustained battle against what might be called “objective knowledge” or “objective truth.” There was this strangely post-modern strain to the Christian Right, especially when I was writing about it 11 years ago, that basically said that any reality is kind of governed or shaped by your worldview. So, anything that flows from a secular worldview or flows from secular premises is itself questionable.

If it doesn’t start with the premise of God being supreme, science itself is not reliable. That sort of approach makes it very hard to get hold of anything. It makes it makes all of reality suspect. I compared it in my book to this feeling of being either in the “Matrix” or in a Borges novel where you could go to a book fair and find a whole library describing a world that didn’t exist, all footnoted to each other, completely self-contained so that if you were inside of it, you would almost have no way to comprehend a reality outside of it. And that erosion of the reality principle in our national life has obviously set the stage for a president for whom reality is no constraint whatsoever.

Finally, there’s the conspiratorial nature of the Religious Right. Another of its antecedents was the John Birch Society. There has been a tremendous amount of paranoia in the movement about the “New World Order,” The Trilateral Commission, the Rockefellers. This idea that shadowy powerful actors are manipulating your life and undermining your sovereignty, which was key to the Trump administration, has been part of this movement since the beginning. When Trump came along, although in many ways he represented a style of life that was antithetical to everything that this movement claimed to be fighting for, he also hit a lot of notes or repeated a lot of the deep story of this movement. And they were able to convince themselves very quickly that he could be their albeit imperfect champion. And, to be honest, he has been. Donald Trump doesn’t really keep his promises, he’s not a loyal person, but he does tend to like people who like him.

Christian identity politics

He has elevated a kind of Christian identity politics so that, although he himself is not a pious man, he does treat white Christians as having pride of place in this country. When he says over and over again, “We’re going to say Merry Christmas again in this country!” that’s what that’s about, right? It’s not, “We’re going to celebrate the lessons of Jesus Christ.” It’s kind of, “Merry Christmas. Screw you!” I’ve seen where he says, “We’re going to protect and take care of Christian Americans!” Christian. The idea being that these people have not previously had the authority and cultural respect that they deserve.

Just as we’ve learned that a lot of the Republican Party never really cared about Paul Ryan’s tax plans, I think we’re learning that a lot of this movement maybe has never really cared about having a sexually chaste leader, never really cared about the moral example of the leader as much as they cared about having their power and authority and cultural primacy recognized. And that’s really what Donald Trump does now.

And the movement also has a level of pessimism and desperation that didn’t exist when I was covering it all those years ago. The movement always had a dark vision of America. And that’s another reason why I think Donald Trump spoke to it. There were only two major American cultural or political figures that blamed this country for 9/11: Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who basically said that America had been struck because it’s so morally corrupt.

When Donald Trump talks about American carnage, when he talks about this country basically going to hell, that resonates with a lot of these people because it looks and feels like they don’t recognize this country anymore. Nevertheless, 11 years ago, George W. Bush had been re-elected, there was a sense that they were on the cusp of retaking the culture. Megachurches were growing. They felt like they were culturally ascendant. Young people were going to Patrick Henry College and then moving into the administration and moving up through the ranks of government. There was a sense that they were, not in the promised land, but on the edge of the promised land.

It’s telling that one of the main groups from back then was called “Generation Joshua,” the ones who are going to retake the land for the chosen people. And that optimism, that that kind of forward-looking momentum, really disappeared during the Obama administration, which members of this movement experienced as a profound and dislocating trauma. And there was a great deal of that that was just about racism.

The other day, a friend of mine said, “I can’t imagine what it must

feel like to be a sexual assault survivor and have to live with this president.” My husband said, “Probably how it feels to be a racist and have to live with President Obama.” There is a sense in which this administration defiles the Oval Office, and I thought the other day, “My God, now I know what Catholics felt like when they looked at Andre Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ'” — that famously controversial artwork of a crucifix submerged in urine.

When I see Trump sitting at the Resolute Desk, it feels unholy. That’s how I think a lot of people in this movement experienced the Obama years, and part of it was just about Obama himself, part of that was about the legalization of gay marriage, the growing cultural intolerance for intolerance.
Fundamentalist bakers and florists refuse to cater gay weddings. You see increasingly this sense that we’re not going to take back the culture, but we need to sort of defend our metaphorical borders. This sense that the situation is so dire, they’re so ready to wipe us out that anyone who will fight on our behalf and anything that can be done on our behalf is justified. Right?

This sense of extreme victimization, even stronger than anything that was there 11 years ago, in turn leads to an extreme aggression and kind of a permissive structure to basically allow and forgive almost anything.

I think it’s extremely unlikely for that spell to break because the movement that I wrote about in 2006 believes that it has a biblical right to rule and that being displaced from the top of American society is a kind of intolerable, un-biblical, almost satanic state of affairs.

Majority in the minority

I want to close by talking about this idea of who gets to rule, because I want to make a case that if you care about secularism, if you care about religious freedom, you need to care very, very deeply about voting.

One of the things that’s so odd about this moment of religious fundamentalists’ ascension in our politics is that the movement itself is shrinking, the country is becoming more secular.

Young people are certainly becoming more secular, positions that had a lot of power 11 years ago, like opposition to gay marriage, are increasingly minority and fringe positions, and yet people who hold these positions control everything. They control the White House, if you assume that someone besides Donald Trump is in control of most things the White House does.they control both branches of Congress. The majority of people in this country didn’t want this; the majority of people in this country didn’t vote for Donald Trump. They didn’t vote for Republican senators. The majority of people hate what’s going on.

In 2018, there is the extreme likelihood that the majority of people in this country will vote for Democrats for the House and that might not make a difference because of both gerrymandering and just the geographic concentration of the population.

Some statisticians say the Democrats need as much as 60 percent of the popular vote overall to have a chance of retaking the House. These differentials are manipulated by the Republican Party through voting restrictions and gerrymandering.

But they are also integral to the Constitution because of the Senate, which gives South Dakota and California the same number of senators. And it’s also the Electoral College, which gives such disproportionate power to the white rural conservative parts of this country.

All of this means that we’re entering a period — and I feel like this is inadequately understood on our side — of a flat-out minority rule.

It’s always been true that America was never really designed as a pure democracy. And some people would say, “Well, this is a republic, not a democracy.” But at least since the late 1900s, popular will and electoral result have coincided, so it was kind of possible to ignore those deeper structural questions.

But, of course, in 2000, for the first time in over 100 years, we got a president who had lost the popular vote. And at the time this was treated as a fluke. People would say, “Well, you know if this happens again it might call the legitimacy of the whole system into question.” And then, 16 years later, it happened again. It might happen that there are structural factors that are making this more and more likely. And so, in a way, it’s not going to matter if secularists are able to spread their message — or win converts or win the culture wars — if they’re not able to contend for political power.

Again, I would argue that as much as you’re focused on separation of church and state, you know your cause is the same as everyone else in this country who is fighting for a more democratic democracy and fighting for voting rights and fighting for more equitable forms of representation.

Because the Christian Right, the Christian nationalist movement that I wrote about in this book, it’s a minority of this country, but it’s now the minority that’s in charge.

Freedom From Religion Foundation