One nation, under God — or not

Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism
By Michelle Goldberg
NORTON; 242 PAGES; $23.95

The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America’s Religious Fringe
By J.C. Hallman

For most of the 20th century, the main debate over religion was whether it was merely dying or already dead. From Descartes to Darwin, the purveyors of Enlightenment rationalism and the scientific method had inflicted critical wounds. The only question in the minds of many thinkers was how much longer the bleeding could last before the veins went slack. At the outset of the 21st century, we appear to have an answer: When it comes to belief in the supernatural, there is no such thing as a mortal injury. Whether we’re talking about Mormonism or Scientology or Wahhabi Islam, the obituaries have been premature.
This is a source of great grief to committed secularists who would have liked nothing so much as to dance on organized religion’s grave. It is a triumph for many others, some of whom do not approve of dancing at all. Either way, religious faith is coursing through the world with amazing and sometimes unsettling vitality, and perhaps nowhere is its pulse stronger than in the United States. It is time to pose a new question and stop scheduling the autopsy and start thinking about how to foster some degree of harmony in a society where religious voices are strident, occasionally inflexible and gaining strength all the time. That is the terrain into which Michelle Goldberg and J.C. Hallman wander with two new and vastly different books.

Goldberg is a longtime reporter at who envisions her beat as “America’s ever-seething culture war.” That martial metaphor makes it no surprise that “Kingdom Coming” describes a country in the grips of a two-sided struggle. On one end of the field are Christian nationalists, a small but influential minority whose goal is to convert the United States into a theocracy. Lined up against them are secular cosmopolitans who hold church and state to be separate and envision the Constitution as a protector of cultural pluralism. In Goldberg’s analysis, the aspiring theocrats are on the offense. Worried that liberals are failing to recognize the danger, she wastes no time laying out just how high the stakes are. The book begins with Michael Farris, head of the evangelical Patrick Henry College who aims to convert home-schooled Christians into right-wing political cadres. “The holy land is America as Farris imagines it,” Goldberg writes. “The enemy is America as it exists right now.”

What Farris and his allies want — creationism in the classroom, the prohibitions of Leviticus in Senate bills, contraceptives in locked warehouses instead of drugstore aisles — isn’t so much Christianity as Christianism. It is less a spiritual pursuit than a political program. And although Goldberg eschews theological exploration, it is extremely hard to find anything of Jesus in it. (Allegiance to his name is paramount, but one may pick and choose among his teachings or even ignore them altogether; in contemporary American politics, Jesus functions more like a mascot than a mentor.) Goldberg trots out all the usual suspects: Rick Santorum, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson and a host of others. Convinced that America is bedeviled by ills ranging from the acceptance of evolutionary biology to the portrayal of sexual relationships on television, they are on a mission to purify the public square and private realms alike.

These people are real and there are good reasons to be frightened by them. Goldberg catalogs the big ones with perceptive, forceful prose. Revisionist historians like David Barton, who try to prove the Constitution was built on a rigid Christian foundation even though it never even mentions the word God, threaten to pervert our educational curricula. Faith-based initiatives to shift social services away from public agencies to religious institutions threaten to make the profession of a creed a precondition for employment in fields ranging from drug-abuse counseling to early childhood education. Americans who profess Judaism, Buddhism or no faith at all already underwrite an increasing number of Christian organizations through their taxes, paid to a government that may become more inimical to religious pluralism.

Goldberg rounds the bases ably, but her subject material is not entirely original. Readers of a variety of left-leaning magazines and newspapers will have seen most of this before — and indeed Goldberg frequently draws from the work of other journalists as she lays out her case. What’s more, her solution to Christian nationalism is dispiriting: “Liberals need to create their own echo chamber to refute these kind of distortions while loudly supporting everyone’s freedom of speech.”

The fact is that liberals already have their echo chambers, and their success at doing anything more than reinforcing their participants’ righteousness is debatable. Besides, Goldberg recognizes that the political battle will likely be decided by less partisan folks. “America is full of good people, but something dark is loose,” she observes, worrying that well-meaning soccer moms and Rotary Club members will recognize the specter of religious totalitarianism only when it’s too late. It is a regrettable facet of our polarized culture that their likelihood of encountering this book may stand in inverse proportion to their need for discovering its contents. “It’s kind of like being a lobster in a pot, with the water heating up so slowly that you don’t notice the moment at which it starts to kill you,” Goldberg writes.

For the sake of all Americans who value secular society and religious pluralism, one hopes that she unwittingly chose the right animal for her metaphor. Frogs may repose peacefully in cool water brought gradually to a boil, but lobsters raise a ruckus when the temperature passes from lukewarm to hot.

Christian fundamentalists may be the most aggressive faith group in the United States, but they are by no means the only show on the road. In “The Devil Is a Gentleman,” Hallman veers off the highway and heads for the ditch, plunging himself into the midst of modern-day Druids, Scientologists, Satanists, evangelical wrestlers and other exemplars of America’s kaleidoscopic spiritual fringe.

Hallman is an uncommonly insightful and humane guide, but what gives his travels real depth is that he has a guide of his own: William James. The author of “The Varieties of Religious Experience” and the philosophical father of Pragmatism, James (1842-1910) stands as the country’s most eloquent proponent of religious pluralism. Although he had little enthusiasm for institutionalized religion or priestly hierarchies, James embraced the spiritual life in every imaginable manifestation, arguing that no form of religion should be dismissed if it conveyed a benefit on its adherents. Beliefs do not work because they are true, he posited, they are true because they work. And given the diversity of human temperaments, a wide variety of religious belief (and nonbelief) was to be expected in any tolerant society.

If James were confronted with the pit bulls of America’s religious right, he would likely run for the hills, and that is exactly what Hallman does. With participatory zeal, he steers himself by James’ dictum that “one can never fathom an emotion or divine its dictates by standing outside of it.” Yet it is clear that religion was not something he was predisposed to at the outset. “Sometimes I loaned money to my girlfriend only to have her turn around and tithe 10 percent of it,” he recounts early on. “It wasn’t a relationship that would last.” Nevertheless, he throws himself into about half a dozen offbeat sects with abandon, trying valiantly to see things from the perspective of a dog-breeding monk or a Hindu-Zen Celto-Stregheria witch without allowing his critical mind-set to rear up before he taps into the essential experience.

Whether he’s exploring the disputed etymology of the word “druid” or recounting basement rituals conducted by good-hearted Canadian Satanists, Hallman writes with wit, curiosity and genuine empathy. He is not a seeker in the same sense as his subjects, but he embraces their search and isn’t afraid to cut loose. His chapter about the Texan Christian Wrestling Federation is a small masterpiece of first-person reportage and flights of scholastic fancy. Surrendering himself to the unexpectedly ecstatic moments in these mock-violent pantomimes, Hallman finds a reading of the Bible that “amounts to the story of God winning jurisdiction over the world and eventually acquiring compassion — in wrestling terms, he made a transition from heel to babyface and in a daring cross-circuit matchup proved himself stronger than the gods of the Canaanites.”

And then he goes off to acquaint himself with some of that God’s rivals and competitors, including an illuminating foray into the Church of Satan, which happens to operate out of a post office box at Radio City Music Hall, and look at the American Atheists, who hold their national gatherings “on Easter weekend, for the double entendre of irony and economy.” Happily for a volume partially devoted to James’ biography, Hallman discovers something redeeming in most of the people and practices he joins, and even finds that neo-paganist witch covens worship nothing so much as the idea of religious pluralism itself.

Hallman’s richly entertaining and thoughtful book deserves to find readers among the fundamentalists of Christianity and secular humanism alike. By revealing that there is more than one true path, that many avenues may lead to spiritual satisfaction and buffer against the uncertainties of an anxious age, he offers an antidote to the zero-sum conflict Goldberg describes.

Hallman does not end up a convert, but does find that “the lingering effect of James on me has been to soften the confusion of a hacked-apart world, a world perplexed by modernity.”

It is easy to wish more zealots shared James’ pluralistic vision. If Americans were more easily seduced by diversity than by righteousness, perhaps religion’s foes would be in less of a hurry to bury it.

Trey Popp is a Philadelphia writer.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
San Francisco Chronicle
June 4, 2006 Book Review
Trey Popp
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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday June 8, 2006.
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