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What, Me Worry? The Christian Right and "Theocracy Hype"

11/12/2006 01:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In The New York Times Book Review today, John Wilson wrote a version of a piece I've been seeing a lot of lately. He argued that the danger of the Christian right has been wildly overstated, offering as examples books like my Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, Kevin Phillips American Theocracy, and the documentary Jesus Camp.

"Will the evangelical Red Guards soon be storming the Museum of Modern Art? How worried should you be?" he asks, then answers, "Not very." This, of course, is absolutely correct. It also absolutely misses the point. I can only speak for my own book, but what I sought to describe was not an imminent theocratic takeover of America, but a slow, often subtle, but ultimately profound change in American life and government. As I wrote, "I want to be clear, however, that I am not suggesting that religious tyranny is imminent in the United States. Our democracy is eroding and some of our rights are disappearing, but for most people, including those most opposed to Christian nationalist agenda, life will most likely go on pretty much as normal for the foreseeable future." There is a vast distance between democracy and theocracy, and even a small shift along that spectrum strikes me as cause for concern. The writers denouncing "theocracy hype" don't engage with these incremental alterations, instead suggesting that since we're not quite slouching towards Gilead, there's nothing much to be concerned about.

Before I go on, I should emphasize that my problem is not with evangelical Christianity per se. In fact, I use the phrase Christian nationalism precisely to differentiate between the religion and the right-wing political program that professes to act on its behalf. (The New Testament, after all, is silent on the way the United States should be governed). Christian nationalism, as I define it, is a movement that insists that America was founded as a Christian nation, that separation of church and state is, as pastor Rick Scarborough puts it, "a lie introduced by Satan and fostered by the courts," and that the institutions of American life need to be re-Christianized so that the nation can regain its former glory. If the movement had its way, non-Christians could continue to practice their faiths, but they would have to know their place. (Already, thanks to the infusion of taxpayer money into religious organizations via the faith-based initiative, non-Christians are ineligible for certain government-funded social service jobs.)

"The Christian nationalist movement does not represent a majority of Americans -- it does not even represent a majority of all evangelicals -- but it does represent a significant and highly mobilized minority," I wrote in Kingdom Coming. A little later, I continued, "If Christian nationalists don't predominate in the population, they do dominate the Republican party, for reasons that have more to do with their organization than their numbers...In 2004, the Christian Coalition gave 42 out of 100 senators ratings of 100 percent, meaning they took the group's position on every significant issue." And that was before the 2004 election gave us lawmakers like Tom "death penalty for abortionists" Coburn.

Of course, these last few days have been distinctly unhappy ones for the Christian nationalists, and I certainly feel far more optimistic than I did a year ago. When I finished Kingdom Coming, Ted Haggard was still a leading spokesman for the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, critics of Mel Gibson's anti-Semitism were being dismissed as paranoid Christophobes, Ralph Reed was better known for his association with the Christian Coalition than with Indian casinos and Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay was ruling the House and the Senate was being led by a man who purported to diagnose Terri Schiavo via cable TV. On Tuesday, some of the movement's Congressional stalwarts fell, including Rick Santorum and John Hostettler. Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell, one of the politicians most closely associated with Christian nationalism, was annihilated. Most heartening of all were the ballot initiative victories -- abortion in South Dakota, gay marriage in Arizona, stem cells in Missouri -- that both rejected fundamentalism and helped neutralize right-wing demagoguery about activist judges.

But here's one of the great ironies about this election. Even as the Christian nationalists were defeated in the GOP, the GOP was left more dependent on them than ever. Contrary to some initial reports, there was no significant shift among white evangelicals to the Democrats. A CNN poll found that 70 percent of white evangelicals voted Republican in the last election, compared to between 74 and 78 percent in the 2004 presidential race. This is a decline, sure, but it's not a realignment. Polls also showed that evangelicals made up about the same percentage of the electorate that they did two years ago. The base turned out for the Republicans, but independents turned away.

Meanwhile, although some prominent Christian nationalists were tossed out, the more significant defeats were among moderate Republicans from the Northeast, where they lost nearly a third of their House seats, and Midwest, where they lost 15 percent. As Sydney Blumenthal wrote in The Guardian, "After the mid-term elections, the GOP has become a regional party of the South. And, in the future, Republicans can only hold their base by asserting their conservatism, which alienates the rest of the country. More than ever, the Republicans are dependent upon white evangelical voters in the South and sparsely populated Rocky Mountain states. The Republican coalition, its much-touted 'big tent,' has nearly collapsed."

The man currently being touted for GOP House Minority Leader is Mike Pence, who describes himself on his congressional website as "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order." (You can learn more about him on Hullabaloo ) Pence is very close to the Christian nationalist movement -- last year he was one of 24 Congressmen to receive the Family Research Council's "True Blue" award, meaning he voted with the group 100% of the time.

So what does all this matter? After all, many commentators have lately been suggesting that the Christian right never got much from the GOP even when they dominated the entire government. If your only yardstick is theocracy, there's some truth to this. If you're looking for subtler changes, though, there's no end to them. Conside that thanks to the faith-based initiative, millions of dollars have gone to religious social service providers that explicitly refuse to hire non-Christians. (In David Kuo's recent book Tempting Faith, he argues that Bush only allocated a fraction of the money he promised for the faith-based initiative. It's true there was little new money -- instead, there was a large shift of money that had already been allocated from secular social service programs to religious ones.) The pro-life movement has been subsidized through abstinence-only grants to so-called crisis pregnancy centers, and its dogma widely disseminated in public schools and through government agencies. Look at some of the people who have staffed our official delegations to UN conferences -- Janice Crouse from Concerned Women for America, for example, or Christian radio host Janet Parshall -- or figures like Paul Bonicelli, the former Academic Dean of the fundamentalist Patrick Henry College, now overseeing USAID's Democracy and Governance Programs. Check out the Christian nationalist curriculum being taught in dozens of public schools under the guise of history. Consider that, should unhappy parents sue such a school district, the judiciary is increasingly unsympathetic to separation of church and state -- a quarter of federal appeals court judges having been appointed by Bush.

Perhaps this kind of thing will slow down now that Democrats control Congress. Perhaps the Christian nationalist movement has peaked once and for all. It's a good idea to keep in mind, though, that obituaries for the Christian right have been written many times before -- after the televangelist scandals of the late 80s, for example, and after Clinton's election and reelection. The movement has been rejected by a majority of Americans, just as it was in the 1990s. That didn't stop it from forcing the crisis of impeachment, and I doubt it will neuter it now.

A few weeks ago, I spoke at the 92nd Street Y with Deborah Lauter, the Civil Rights Director of the Anti-Defamation League. She was talking about the changes wrought in the texture of American life by an increasingly assertive evangelical culture, and she said that many of these changes fall outside the bounds of law and politics. In some schools and workplaces, for example, bible study and prayer groups play a crucial part in social life, and while there's no official pressure to join, the imperative to conform, especially at work, can be quite strong. Legally, there's probably nothing that can or should be done about this -- people have the right to free speech and free association. But it makes some people anxious all the same.

Afterwards, a woman came up to me and said that her daughter worked in such a place. I expressed my sympathy, and asked where. "The Justice Department," she said.

Is this evidence of a theocracy? It is not. But does that mean it's nothing to worry about?