Only a year ago, American evangelical Christians seemed more powerful than they had ever been. They had helped to re-elect George W. Bush in 2004, in spite of a rickety economy and the disastrous invasion of Iraq. They had waged a successful campaign in Washington to restrict access to late-term abortion. They had launched a series of ballot initiatives intended to prevent states or judges legalising gay marriage. And they had encouraged the Bush administration to appoint sympathetic justices to the Supreme Court. (In 2005, they secured their long-standing goal of a conservative majority on the court.) As the mid-term elections approached, worried liberals were warning that an American theocracy was just around the corner.
Then things started to unravel. When Americans went to the polls last November, both branches of Congress fell to the Democrats and the Republicans lost control of the House for the first time since Newt Gingrich’s triumph in 1994. Some of the religious right’s most loyal allies were vanquished. Tom DeLay, the former bug exterminator from Texas who had been a steadfast friend to evangelicals during his time as House majority leader, was dethroned in a corruption scandal before the election. The voters of Pennsylvania rejected Rick Santorum, perhaps the strongest voice for the evangelical agenda in the Senate, who had opposed gay marriage with unusual fervour. (In 2003, he told Associated Press that marriage should legitimate neither gay unions nor ‘man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be’.)
Meanwhile, one of the most powerful evangelical leaders in America, Reverend Ted Haggard of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, was caught up in a sex scandal. Haggard was a trusted adviser to the president on social issues and had drawn plenty of attention from skittish liberal journalists. Days before the November elections, a male prostitute from Denver told the press that Pastor Ted (who is married with five children) had paid him for sex on numerous occasions during the previous three years. Haggard had spiced up their encounters by taking crystal meth, his accuser claimed. To the amazement of evangelicals, Haggard admitted that he was a ‘deceiver’ guilty of ‘sexual immorality’. (He also admitted that he’d bought the drugs, though not that he’d used them.) He was fired from New Life and retreated for a period of spiritual contemplation, claiming that he was ‘completely heterosexual’.
Things got worse. In May this year, Jerry Falwell, arguably the most influential evangelical of the last three decades, died suddenly of a heart attack in his office at Liberty University in Virginia. Falwell had founded Liberty in 1971 as a private religious college and it played an important role in nurturing Christian causes, from the pro-life movement to Bible prophecy. It was the more embarrassing, then, that a Liberty student was arrested at Falwell’s funeral with homemade bombs in his car. He told police he’d brought them just in case liberal protesters threatened the cortège.
Now, with Congress in the hands of the Democrats and the party’s leading presidential candidates raising record-breaking sums of money, Christian conservatives find themselves in an unenviable position. They don’t have a strong candidate for 2008 and aren’t keen on any of the Republican frontrunners. Rudy Giuliani was the mayor of New York City, Sodom to Las Vegas’s Gomorrah, and his Manichean view of the war on terror can’t make up for his pro-choice position or his other bracingly liberal views. (Giuliani camped out at a gay couple’s flat after he left his second wife and children in 2000, and he has made several public appearances in drag.) John McCain has shown himself to be unreliable on terror with his liberal-sounding objections to torture at Guantánamo and is too friendly to illegal immigrants. With Mitt Romney, it’s hard to know which is the more off-putting: that he served as governor of hippie Massachusetts or that he is a Mormon. Mike Huckabee, who was a Southern Baptist minister before he became governor of Arkansas, has cluttered his anti-abortion platform with liberal ideas about fighting poverty, protecting the environment and limiting the pay of corporate executives. Even the dark horse of the race, senator-turned-actor-turned-candidate Fred Thompson, has a liberal skeleton in his closet: his lobbying firm did work for pro-choice groups during the Clinton years. In 2000 and 2004, the religious right could rally behind a candidate who said, with apparent sincerity, that Jesus Christ had ‘changed my heart’. This time, the leading Republican candidates sound unconvincing when they court Christian conservatives – if they try to court them at all.
This gloomy picture of political decline will come as a surprise to those who have read any of the recent books attacking the religious right. At least half a dozen of these have appeared from major publishers in the last year: the list includes polemics by the likes of Kevin Phillips as well as alarmed reporting by American journalists like Salon’s Michelle Goldberg and Chris Hedges, who reported on Bosnia and the Middle East for the New York Times in the 1990s. Hedges’s thesis is simple: religious conservatives in the United States are incubating a form of fascism that could eventually destroy America’s political and intellectual traditions, exposing the nation and the world to a terrifying form of theocracy. He’s not the first to indulge in reductio ad Hitlerum as he bears witness to what’s going on in the megachurches: viewers of Richard Dawkins’s documentary The Root of All Evil? might remember his opening salvo against a pre-scandal Ted Haggard, in which Dawkins said that a New Life Church service reminded him of the Nuremberg rallies. (Haggard eventually chased Dawkins out of the church parking lot.) Hedges has a more sophisticated way of dealing with religious Nazis; he reprints a brief essay by Umberto Eco on ‘Eternal Fascism’ and, like other critics of the religious right, seizes on Sinclair Lewis’s line from the years of the Great Depression: ‘When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.’
According to Hedges, an evangelical movement in the United States is trying to establish a government based on scripture rather than the constitution. This movement, he argues, is not interested in dialogue or rational thought. It will distort, suppress or otherwise crush the opinions of its opponents. ‘It is not mollified because John Kerry prays,’ Hedges notes, ‘or Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school.’ By the end of the book, Hedges is pleading with liberal readers to give up ‘naive attempts to reach out to the movement’. This is a call to arms: it’s time for liberals to meet intolerance with intolerance. After all, ‘this movement is bent on our destruction.’
The postwar revival of the religious right is one of the strangest stories in recent American history. In 1925, religious conservatives in Tennessee challenged the rising tide of secularism by enforcing state laws against the teaching of evolution in schools. The resulting trial of the pro-Darwin teacher John Scopes pitted the attorney Clarence Darrow against William Jennings Bryan, the ex-Populist and fervent evangelical. Bryan, who had been secretary of state in Woodrow Wilson’s first administration, was persuaded to take the stand as a witness for the truth of the Bible; Darrow delighted his captive audience of big-city reporters and East Coast intellectuals by making a mockery of Bryan’s heedless scriptural literalism. No matter that Scopes was convicted (though the verdict was overturned on appeal). Religious conservatives were laughed out of the cultural and political mainstream and the elder statesmen of the modern Christian conservative movement can still remember the advice of their mentors in the 1940s and 1950s: stay out of the dirty business of politics.
This attitude began to change in the 1960s, with a Republican uprising against the Democratic Party and the liberal intelligentsia. The rebellion broke out in the Sunbelt states of the Southwest and found expression in tough-minded Cold Warriors like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. With his strongly libertarian streak, Goldwater turned out to be a poor fit for the religious sensibility of the new movement and in the 1980s he delivered from the floor of the Senate some of the most vitriolic rhetoric ever uttered by a US politician against the religious right, even though its adherents had been central to the Sunbelt conservatism he pioneered. Nixon was readier to appease them, but the first presidential hero of the religious right was Ronald Reagan.
Ironically, it was the liberal thinking of Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter, that catalysed Christian conservatism on the national scene. Carter, a born-again Baptist from Georgia, had been maddeningly unreliable on social issues after taking office in 1977. He didn’t seem exercised by the Supreme Court’s pro-choice decision in Roe v. Wade, he put pressure on Israel to return land to Egypt and he was insufficiently bullish towards America’s godless Communist enemies. He even chose a humanist, Walter Mondale, as his vice-president. In the early 1970s, Christian leaders had started building the alternative networks of communication and scholarship that still define the evangelical movement: this was the moment when Christian television channels began to proliferate and ‘research institutes’ were established to promote creationism. But it was during Carter’s unhappy term in the White House that Jerry Falwell and others built the national political organisations that were to become the vehicles of the religious right. When Reagan was elected in November 1980, the long exile of evangelicals from Washington had come to an end.
It would be a mistake to imagine that the religious right has controlled American politics for the past quarter-century. Despite the present spate of books decrying a fundamentalist takeover of the Republican Party, there has been plenty for evangelicals to complain about even since the triumphs of Bush and Karl Rove. As Thomas Frank argued in 2004 in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, the striking thing about the Republican alliance with evangelicals has been the thinness of their legislative achievements: abortion is still legal, campaigners for gay rights have made real strides and the wall between church and state remains largely intact in American classrooms. Frank suggested that legislators had pulled off a confidence trick in their courting of evangelicals. The people who became Republican senators and congressional representatives in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t want to live in an America pockmarked by backstreet abortions or hate crimes: they talked the talk at election time but did very little in office to suggest they’d implement an evangelical agenda even if Republicans seized all three branches of government (which they did in 2005).
How to make sense of the contradiction between Frank’s analysis and the desperate alarm sounded by Hedges? In defence of Hedges, the grassroots efforts of Christian conservatives since 2004 have tested the idea that the separation of church and state is an unassailable principle in America. Those ballot initiatives attacking gay marriage were an unusually public sign of a more assertive Christian agenda; a good deal of work has been going on behind the scenes to advance the concerns of evangelicals and even to change the composition of the federal government so that conservative Christians are less reliant on the whims of elected officials. For example, the Justice Department has been quietly overhauled by evangelical appointees, to the point that civil rights laws are now regularly invoked to protect religious groups (Christian evangelicals, in the main) rather than racial minorities. The most troubling example, however, is the securing of a conservative majority on the Supreme Court with the appointment of Samuel Alito in 2005. The new court has already issued opinions on late-term abortion, affirmative action and campaign funding which have cheered religious conservatives, though whether the court will feel bold enough to overturn Roe v. Wade is another matter.
Still, I’m not sure that Hedges is right in his extreme assessment of the threat from religious conservatives or his hardline prescription for how liberals should counter it. For all their organising skills, squabbles and faultlines divide the would-be theocrats. Last year, as research for a book about Christians in the US, I spent a month talking to evangelicals who believe that the End Times are imminent. On my travels through the Bible Belt, I saw the San Antonio televangelist John Hagee accuse tens of millions of evangelicals of being ‘counterfeit Christians’, since they support preachers who sound ‘more like Dr Phil or Sigmund Freud than St Paul’. Tim LaHaye, doyen of the modern prophecy movement, told me that he took ‘vicious exception’ to Hagee’s suggestion that it might be easier for Jews to be saved by God than for other potential believers to win salvation. I heard Jerry Falwell attack a San Antonio rabbi for suggesting to the Jerusalem Post that Falwell went along with this line of thinking (the public denial was prompted by the Post’s screaming headline: ‘Falwell: Jews Can Get into Heaven’). And I heard just about everyone in the evangelical community attack Joel Osteen, pastor of America’s largest megachurch, for being too timid about his commitment to Christ in an appearance on CNN’s Larry King Live. Osteen has written a string of national bestsellers and his congregation in Houston has become so large that he’s converted the local NBA basketball arena into a church with 17,000 seats.
Beyond the personal rivalries and posturing of evangelical celebrities, there are deep divisions within the religious right, as there are among conservatives more generally, over political issues such as climate change and immigration. Pat Robertson, who is probably the country’s best-known evangelical now that Falwell has died, declared himself a ‘convert’ on the issue of global warming last summer, insisting that ‘we really need to address the burning of fossil fuels.’ Even on immigration, an issue that traditionally unites conservatives, the religious right has struggled to adopt a single position. Richard Land, the powerful Southern Baptist leader, joined with Ted Kennedy in March to promote reforms that would enable illegal immigrants to gain legal resident status; Joel Osteen and others offered their support. Savvy evangelicals have struggled with this issue because they recognise two competing conservative constituencies: the core of white Protestant evangelicals who have traditionally been hostile towards immigration, especially from Mexico and other Catholic nations in Latin America; and the tens of millions of Latino Catholics – citizens, legal residents and illegal aliens – who might be willing to ally with Protestant conservatives on some social issues, notably abortion.
The eagerness of some of today’s evangelicals to court Catholic immigrants would have horrified the religious conservatives of 19th-century America. As European immigration in the 1830s and 1840s brought millions of Catholics to the United States, mainstream Protestants joined Methodists and Baptists in complaining about lax border restrictions and permissive naturalisation laws. ‘Catholic Europe is throwing swarm on swarm upon our shores,’ the Presbyterian Lyman Beecher warned in an 1835 tract. Comparing the ‘tremendous tide’ to the ‘locusts of Egypt’, Beecher detected a conspiracy by the pope and the Catholic powers of Europe to bring down the American republic through a demographic revolution.
Only in recent decades has the religious right been able to overcome its aversion to the Catholic Church and the future of this new alliance will determine whether the nightmare scenario Hedges paints is realised. As the religious right has outlined its social programme, it has become increasingly dependent on Catholics to do the political and intellectual heavy-lifting. Until he dropped out of the 2008 presidential race last month, the most serious candidate for evangelicals was Sam Brownback of Kansas, a senator who left the Topeka Bible Church in 2002 and converted to Catholicism. On the Supreme Court, the five conservative justices are all Catholics.
The dependence of American Protestants on their oldest enemy suggests the intellectual fragility of the evangelical cause. Will Clarence Thomas or John Roberts allow the United States to become a theocracy? It’s possible, but very unlikely. Instead of worrying about such things, it would be more prudent to confront the immediate dangers to abortion provision and affirmative action presented by the new alignments of religious conservatism in America. Liberals might also look out for areas in which Catholic intellectuals and Protestant moderates are unwilling to march in lockstep with evangelical extremists. For example, along with a raft of conservative decisions, the Supreme Court also produced opinions that were attentive to the threat of climate change. Brownback may have let out a cheer from his desk when the Senate passed legislation outlawing ‘partial-birth’ abortion, but he has taken a liberal position on the immigration debate and has teamed up with Barack Obama and George Clooney to raise awareness of the violence in Darfur.
According to Hedges, we may be only one cataclysmic event away from a total reordering of American politics and a takeover by the theocrats. Many of the Christian conservatives I spoke to last year fully expect another 9/11, but their gloomy view of the future has more to do with Ezekiel than the Fox News Channel. According to recent polls, tens of millions of Americans believe that the apocalypse will take place in their lifetime. Prominent evangelicals have suggested that the End Times might have already begun with 9/11 and that in the short period before the return of Christ and the beginning of the millennium, there will be neither a pax Americana abroad nor a theocracy at home. Instead, true Christians around the world – and especially in the heartland – will be teleported to heaven and spared what follows. European nations will soldier on after the Rapture, since only a few of their citizens will disappear. But the United States will be devastated by the loss of so many good people and the most powerful nation on earth will fall by the wayside. The Antichrist will emerge and bring peace to the Middle East. He will unite the economies and governments of the world, including the former United States, and institute a new religion in which everyone worships him. For the seven years that follow – the Tribulation – those left behind after the Rapture will endure terrible torments if they defy their ungodly leader. Then Jesus Christ will return, the Antichrist will be routed, and the millennium will begin.
This scenario provides one of the most powerful ways for millions of American evangelicals to think about what lies ahead in world politics. (Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, a sequence of 16 apocalyptic novels which imagines the realisation of Bible prophecy in today’s headlines, has sold more than sixty million copies since 1995.) Not everyone has been seduced by the notion of the End Times; the so-called Dominionists, the bogeymen in Hedges’s book, are especially withering about apocalyptic Christians. Dominionists make up only a fraction of the evangelical movement but are the strongest proponents of theocracy. In their view, prophecy preachers encourage Christians to abdicate the project of fashioning a Christian society. Dominionists would very much like to see Deuteronomy as the law of the land, but they struggle to convince fellow evangelicals, who are waiting for the rise of the Antichrist rather than an American Moses.
The religious right should not be treated as a monolith; nor should it be assumed that its adherents are interested in the same political outcomes. It may be that the liberal obsession with theocracy rather than apocalypse has distracted attention from some of the threats posed by Bible prophecy enthusiasts, especially in the field of US foreign policy. While prophecy believers have tended to retreat from the political arena, or limit themselves to producing speculative treatises that map contemporary events onto Micah or Revelation, today’s apocalyptic authors and televangelists are much more engaged with the debates and personalities in Washington.
The veteran preacher Hal Lindsey tells his television audience to support Israel unconditionally, secures exclusive interviews with neocon favourite Benjamin Netanyahu and urges the US government to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran. John Hagee has created a huge lobbying organisation to take the support-Israel/ bomb-Iran message directly to Congress and has told his followers that a US strike on Tehran may initiate the sequence of apocalyptic events related in Ezekiel 38 and 39. Joel Rosenberg, who used to work as a political consultant to Steve Forbes and Netanyahu, now tours the studios of CNN and Fox imploring Americans to take note of the danger from Iran and Russia (Ezekiel provides him with his intelligence about the threats). You can watch Hal Lindsey on America’s leading Christian TV networks. John Hagee’s recent book urging the US to attack Iran sold more than 700,000 copies in a few months. And Joel Rosenberg will send the latest Bible prophecy news to your Blackberry.
American Fascists, like many recent attacks on the religious right, assumes a unity of purpose and a level of organisation among evangelicals that just don’t exist. This still leaves the question of how to engage with biblical literalists and prophecy believers, especially when they lobby for more conservative legislation or insist that the White House reconciles its Middle East strategy with the Book of Daniel. In the past few months, Christopher Hitchens has been shouting at many of these people on conservative talk shows. Keith Allen, who travelled to Kansas earlier this year to make a Channel 4 programme about the founders of the ‘God Hates Fags’ website, ended up screaming ‘Fool!’ at his host. Hedges tells us that ‘debate is useless’ and warns that ‘tolerance coupled with passivity is a vice.’ It seems unlikely that any of this will encourage evangelicals to become more moderate. For the prophecy enthusiasts in particular, liberal invective merely fuels their belief that the great deceiver is on his way. A more productive strategy would be to note the faultlines among religious conservatives, to point out the inconsistencies (often scriptural) that confound even the most scrupulous literalist and to look for common ground with the majority of evangelicals.
Although it has hardly been a progressive force in American history, patriotism may yet be the lingua franca that enables liberals and religious conservatives to keep talking to each other. On my travels last year, I found little enthusiasm for a theocracy among conservative Christians. Although I invited evangelicals to disparage the separation of church and state, very few obliged. (One of my interviewees told me that Mitt Romney’s candidacy demonstrated why the United States benefited from a ‘secular government’.) Instead, America itself is an object of veneration and evangelicals still admire the constitution, the Founding Fathers, the legacy of popular presidents like Lincoln and Reagan and the achievements of Americans during the wars against Nazism and Communism. Tapping into this form of political religion comes with its own risks for liberals, not least since it encourages a blindness to the darker moments in American history. But I’m less convinced than Chris Hedges that patriotism and theocracy are natural bedfellows. It would take a good deal of home-schooling and curriculum revision – or a very large bomb – to upset the currents of American mythology, which lead away from a frigid theocracy and towards a soupy consensus of inclusion and liberty.