Michelle Goldberg writes in the new afterword to her book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism that everything fell apart so quickly. Just one year ago, the Christian right was at the apex of its power. Today, its leadership has been humiliated in a series of scandals and its political machine suffered a historic defeat in the 2006 mid-term elections.
Goldberg, who will speak at the Elliott Bay Book Company on April 13, has spent years reporting on the Christian Nationalist movement, charting its ascendancy to power in her best-selling book and for Salon.com. She spoke to JTNews from her home in New York.
JTNews: How did you become interested in the Christian right in the first place?
Goldberg: My first encounter with right-wing evangelical Christianity came from the fact that I grew up in Buffalo, New York. When I was in high school, Operation Rescue came to try to shut down all the abortion clinics….When I got older and became a journalist I became curious about who these people really were who I had seen until then only as the enemy.
During the current Bush administration I noticed a bunch of ways in which this moment was cropping up to influence policy in ways that were pretty striking. It was kind of like the members of this movement who I had only encountered as fringe characters were all of a sudden occupying the Department of Health and Human Services and the American delegation to various U.N. conferences.
The book was an attempt to explore and explain this movement to people, especially on the coasts, who I felt were oblivious to this massive political force, and also to explain how it was subtly, but in a way that was ultimately quite profound, changing the way our government works.
JTNews: This is a particular subgroup of evangelical Christians, right?
Goldberg: Yeah, the reason I use “Christian nationalist” is to separate out what I’m talking about from evangelic Christians more broadly. Evangelical Christians make up somewhere between 30-40 percent of the population. If they were all Christian nationalists we would be in trouble. The movement I’m talking about is still pretty significant.
I’ve extrapolated from various surveys and studies and they are probably about 10-15 percent of the population. That’s a lot of people and it’s the core of the Republican Party. But it’s a movement that believes that America was founded as a Christian nation, that believe that the separation of Church and State is a lie and a fraud, that all the institutions of American life need to be Christianized so that the U.S. can reclaim its former glory.
JTNews: One of the things you write in your book is that the Christian nationalists you met were gracious in person. Was that surprising?
Goldberg: Before I wrote this book I did some reporting in the Middle East. My experience is that most people on a one-to-one basis relate to each other as human beings. When I traveled in Iraq or in the West Bank or Jordan or Syria I met people who were virulently anti-Zionist and had a lot of paranoid anti-Semitic ideas, who nonetheless were absolutely charming and welcoming.
The lesson I took from that was that first of all these aren’t necessarily bad people, but they were people with a bad ideology.
JTNews: Can their personal kindness become a basis for a future compromise or conversation?
Goldberg: I think it can be a basis for a conversation — not with the leadership. One of the things that I think is problematic when dealing with this movement is that it is so hermetically sealed. It thrives in this exurban environment, where people live in these fairly atomized places. They are probably not from there, because it was usually farmland. There is no community infrastructure at all.
Then you have these megachurches providing everything a town used to provide….But it is a very ideologically homogenous environment with a message coming from a preacher that is not only very conservative but there is quite a bit of communication between the Republican Party and intermediaries giving marching orders…it creates such an impenetrable alternative reality.
So certainly I think some kind of discussion would be valuable for them to see that secularists and gay people don’t have horns and don’t want to abduct their children. But I think that for the leadership it doesn’t matter. It’s about power.
JTNews: You observe in the book that before homosexuality, the movement’s enemy was the Catholics. Is there something about the movement that needs an enemy?
Goldberg: Sure it needs an enemy. I see the movement as having some of the characteristics of a proto-totalitarian movement. By that I don’t think you are going to see Christians in jackboots marching down the streets trying to ship everyone off to re-education camps. I mean that totalitarian movements are defined by creating an alternative reality and talking about how society is decadent and depraved and needs a rebirth. And these kinds of movements need something to organize themselves against and they also need a scapegoat.
JTNews: There are many reports about a kind of fascination with Jewish culture among evangelicals. Did you experience as a Jew yourself?
Goldberg: By and large this isn’t an anti-Semitic movement. In fact, it’s a kind of philo-Semitic movement. At least one strain believes that before the Second Coming happens the Jews will return to the Biblical state of Israel, which includes all the occupied territory and even Jordan in many narrations. Once this happens there will be a rapture and a series of wars and the rise of the anti-Christ who is often depicted as the secretary general of the United Nations….There are a number of Jews whom I’ve spoken to, especially more conservative Jews who are concerned with a more hawkish foreign policy, who will say, “What do we care? They think we are going to hell. We know we’re not. They are our allies. We are happy to have them.”
What I would say as someone who has a more liberal vision of the Middle East is that the vast majority of Jews see a nuclear war in the Middle East as something to be avoided at nearly all costs. They don’t see it as a kind of precondition for paradise. And the way you approach foreign policy is going to change depending on which of those views you hold.
JTNews: Was there any indication leading up to 2006 that this whole movement would publicly fall apart?
Goldberg: I finished the book in 2005 at a high point for the movement. What you could kind of see was the beginning of the end of Tom DeLay, which was kind of important because he was one of their biggest allies. And then all of these things happened like dominos.
I feel much more optimistic now than I did when I finished the book. Even more important than some of these falls were the defeat of the South Dakota abortion ban and, for the first time, you saw a state defeat an anti-gay marriage amendment. One of the things I would caution is that when I was researching this book I found articles every two years since the late ‘80s about the end of the Christian right. In 1999, right before this movement was going to reach the height of its power in government, there were articles in The Economist about how despondent they all were.