Through a Glass, Darkly: How the Christian right is reimagining U.S. history
Posted on Wednesday, January 10, 2007. Originally from December 2006. By Jeff Sharlet.
We keep trying to explain away American fundamentalism. Those of us not engaged personally or emotionally in the biggest political and cultural movement of our times—those on the sidelines of history—keep trying to come up with theories with which to discredit the evident allure of this punishing yet oddly comforting idea of a deity, this strange god. His invisible hand is everywhere, say His citizen-theologians, caressing and fixing every outcome: Little League games, job searches, test scores, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, the success or failure of terrorist attacks (also known as “signs”), victory or defeat in battle, at the ballot box, in bed. Those unable to feel His soothing touch at moments such as these snort at the notion of a god with the patience or the prurience to monitor every tick and twitch of desire, a supreme being able to make a lion and a lamb cuddle but unable to abide two men kissing. A divine love that speaks through hurricanes. Who would worship such a god? His followers must be dupes, or saps, or fools, their faith illiterate, insane, or misinformed, their strength fleeting, hollow, an aberration. A burp in American history. An unpleasant odor that will pass.
We don’t like to consider the possibility that they are not newcomers to power but returnees, that the revivals that have been sweeping America with generational regularity since its inception are not flare-ups but the natural temperature of the nation. We can’t conceive of the possibility that the dupes, the saps, the fools—the believers—have been with us from the very beginning, that their story about what America once was and should be seems to some great portion of the population more compelling, more just, and more beautiful than the perfunctory processes of secular democracy. Thus we are at a loss to account for this recurring American mood.
Is “fundamentalism” too limited a word for a belief system of such scope and intimacy? Lately, some scholars prefer “maximalism,” a term meant to convey the movement’s ambition to conform every aspect of society to God. In contemporary America—from the Cold War to the Iraq War, the period of the current incarnation’s ascendancy—that means a culture born again in the image of a Jesus strong but tender, a warrior who hates the carnage he must cause, a man-god ordinary men will follow. These are days of the sword, literally; affluent members of the movement gift one another with real blades crafted to medieval standards, a fad inspired by a bestselling book called Wild at Heart. As jargon, then, “maximalism” isn’t bad, an unintended tribute to Maximus, the fighting hero of Gladiator, which is a film celebrated in Christian manhood guides as almost supplemental scripture. But I think “fundamentalism”—coined in 1920 as self-designation by those ready to do “battle royal for the fundamentals,” hushed up now as too crude for today’s chevaliers—still strikes closest to the movement’s desire for a story that never changes, a story to redeem all that seems random, a rock upon which history can rise.
If the term “fundamentalism” endures, the classic means of explaining it away—class envy, sexual anxiety—do not. We cannot, like H. L. Mencken, writing from the Scopes “monkey” trial of 1925, dismiss the Christian right as a carnival of backward buffoons jealous of modernity’s privileges. We cannot, like the Washington Post, in 1993, explain away the movement as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.” We cannot, like the writer Theodor Adorno, a refugee from Nazi Germany who sat squinting in the white light of L.A., unhappily scribbling notes about angry radio preachers, attribute radical religion—nascent fascism?—to Freudian yearning for a father figure.
The old theories have failed. The new Christ, fifty years ago no more than a corollary to American power, twenty-five years ago at its vanguard, is now at the very center. His followers are not anxiously awaiting his return at the Rapture; he’s here right now. They’re not envious of the middle class; they are the middle class. They’re not looking for a hero to lead them; they’re building biblical households, every man endowed with “headship” over his own family. They don’t silence sex; they promise sacred sex to those who couple properly—orgasms more intense for young Christians who wait than those experienced by secular lovers.
Read the rest of this astonishing piece here.