Author’s note: This review was written in the years before the rise of Donald Trump, the MAGA movement, and the mainstreaming of Christian Nationalism in the US. Now I re-read this review today in a world where much of the Evangelical community in the US has utterly abandoned many of their core beliefs so as to join the Trump personality cult, I feel I was in error to dismiss the author’s dim vision of America’s future.
See the appendix for more comments after the original review.
I have long been a critic of the militant Christian Right, largely because I know them so well. I was one of them during their rise to power from the late 1970’s through the early 1990’s. I studied at several of their premier schools and universities. I know all too well both their rhetoric and core beliefs. So, when I saw a blurb on The Christian Nation by Fredric Rich I just had to buy the book.
The book, written in the first person, tells the account of the seizure of power by Christian fundamentalists/evangelicals and the creation of a 1984-style all-seeing and all-controlling theocratic police state. What makes this book unique and chilling is the author uses real Christian leaders in shaping his vision of a theocracy. The author quotes the writings of a man named R. J Rushdoony and his followers. While his name is not heard much today, in the 70’s Rushdoony’s writings and lectures helped catapult the modern right-wing Christian school movement. He was not a marginal figure, I studied his work at my Christian college. His theology explicitly states that the United States must become a Christian theocracy before Jesus can return to set up his earthly kingdom. Using the brand of Christian theology called Dominionism, the author builds a narrative that appears very current and plausible, at least during the first half of the book.
The book is built on the premise that McCain won the 2008 election, and then died soon thereafter leaving Sarah Palin as president for almost the entire 4 years of his term. The presentation of Sarah Palin as utterly hapless is so over-the-top as to set the stage for the rest of the book’s tone of presenting every “villain” as completely one-dimensional and every conservative as a villain. If someone like me who does not think very highly of Palin is turned off by how she is presented, you can guess how pathetic he makes her appear. One of the few fictional characters the author presents in the evil cabal that turns the US into a police state is a man named Steve Jordan. Inexplicably Palin (and the Republicans) first let him function as defacto co-president, and then after her second term, he is elected president. Jordan can be, at best, called an uninteresting version of a Hitleresque villain, who leads the US to a civil war that ends spectacularly on the shore of Manhattan Island, the last bastion of freedom.
Now besides the fact the writing is flat and the prose utterly lifeless, the book is so amazingly stilted as to be almost a caricature. If Southern conservatives were to write a parody of what they believe an Ivy League educated, New York Corporate lawyer thinks of them it would look like this. Essentially everyone who lives in the Mid-West and South are unbelievably stupid, gullible and so filled with hatred of gays that they would gladly give up democracy in order to get rid of them. On the other hand, New York City is presented as the “center of the United States” and “indispensable to the US” as a whole. And, surprise, the author is indeed an Ivy League educated New York corporate lawyer and wears his profound condescension with pride.
Though the author’s regional arrogance and dismissal of Middle America is annoying, it is difficult to not categorize this book as hate propaganda. While it is true he uses real characters, he blatantly plays the demagogues game of taking obscure extremist in the Christian community and linking them at the hip with significant mainstream leaders. Only two things link the Dominion people and the mainstream Christian leaders he lists as coconspirators, such as Ralph Reed or James Dobson: they both claim to be Christians and they both oppose gay marriage because they believe it is a sin. I might not be a great fan of Ralph Reed or James Dobson, but to link them to the Dominionists that seek a Theocracy is not just unwarranted, it shows a disinterest in the truth and profound lack of understanding of Evangelicals.
I could not understand how he made such leaps if he had even done basic research into the beliefs of the men he accuses until, as a post script, he noted that all his “research” came from a handful of books by conspiracy theorists. The fact is he fundamentally does not understand the impassible theological divide between the Dominionists and mainstream Evangelicals, nor does he care. In this, he is just like those who say Osama bin Laden was a Muslim and therefore all Muslims are terrorists. I can safely say if we reprinted this book and replaced radical Islamists with the Dominionists and other Muslims in the supporting roles because they are the same religion as the Islamists, the book would be rapidly declared hate literature by the media (and rightly so).
I have been referring to the Christian Right as the Christian Taliban for several years. I have no doubt they seek to impose their moral vision on the US. But what this author doesn’t seem to want to understand is that these people are striving for the US to look like the Andy Griffith Show, not Iran. He also hasn’t a clue these people are the most mule-headed anti-authoritarian group on the planet. There is a reason there is no single Evangelical denomination because they absolutely refuse to cede one ounce of local control to any larger Christian group. Why is there a different church on every Southern street corner? Because they don’t get along and when they don’t get along one church becomes two. Bubba would not lead an effort to establish a dictatorship, even with the Christian name, but Bubba would die fighting against it.
But I digress.
I must admit, if I had not been committed to writing a review of this book I would have never have made it to the end. I actually was hoping it would be well done and thought-provoking. However, in the end all I came away with was the annoyance at the overt condescension toward rural Americans and the concern that this level of bigotry and hate is common among the Ivy League elite.
I will admit, I was wrong.
For decades, every time I’d read a book or see a documentary on the rise of the Nazis in Germany, I puzzled on how a whole nation could lose its mind like that. The author of this book postulated that Americans could do the same in a heartbeat, and as you read, I said it couldn’t happen here. I was wrong.
Multiple surveys find that the majority of Republicans (the majority of which identify as conservative Christians) embrace authoritarianism if it is needed to achieve their social and political goals. I did not believe this was possible in the US. I was wrong.
Just as alarming, members of the US Congress now openly embrace Christian Nationalism.
From my college and grad school days, I know all about Christian Nationalism (though it was not yet called that back in the 1980’s). Bob Jones University Press was (and is) a leading purveyor of textbooks for private Christian schools, and as a grad student at Bob Jones University, I did a project on reviewing the “Christian” content in their textbooks. Even at the time I was appalled at how they implied through their texts that the founders of the US were conservative evangelical Christians. Of course, that is patently false, like pants on fire false. I concluded even as a grad student that was why the text writers heavily implied it while never saying “Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin were good Baptist fundamentalists.” The intent was to lead the children to believe something even the writers had to know was false….
But I digress.
To be sure, what politicians now call “Christian” is very different than what conservative evangelicals at Bob Jones University would call “Christian” when I was there in the 1980’s. “Christian” now is more a political identifier than something associated with religious doctrine. It is actually funny when I think how R. J Rushdoony would roll over in his grave if he saw how the word “Christian” has utterly lost all the meanings he associated with the word. While this amuses me, it is a key to the new Christian Nationalism. They have simply sidelined religious doctrine to create a version of “Christianity” that is 49% political/economic, 49% social behavior and 1% religious doctrine so that Baptists, Catholics, and Mormons can all get on board the same right-wing ecumenical train as they race toward a theocracy. This was the great omission in the book A Christian Nation, the author didn’t postulate how all the conservative “Christians” would unify. Perhaps the idea they would rally around a profligate sinner like Donald Trump would have seemed too outlandish to even write in 2008.
So, perhaps my criticism of the book was warranted in that the author did not tell us how all the various brands of conservative Christians would unify to enforce their will on the nation.
However, it happened in a way that makes the proposition of this book more frightening by far than it was when it was written.