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chilling and personal indictment of a radical fringe
on June 7, 2009
This is a good look at what the fundamentalist Christian right believes and is trying to impose on the rest of the country. Goldberg has a shrewd eye as a reporter, has read a fair amount of academic material, and written with genuine passion and concern.
For those who have not had contact with the fundamentalist Christian right, much of what she describes will seem frightening to the point of disbelief. Yes, there are people in the US who want to impose a rigid version of Christianity onto the rest of the nation. They believe in the literal truth of the Bible as the original source of all wisdom and truth, and they are convinced in their righteousness to the point that some would sanction legal execution and even murder for their cause. Their mentality is cloistered - to block different perspectives from getting them to question their beliefs - and paranoid and wholly unaware of their own hypocrisy. They believe that the US is sinful and needs to become christianized, to live in strict accordance with their interpretation of the Bible. The mandate, in their view, comes directly from God, hence there is no room for compromise - their beliefs are absolute and indivisible. Their belief is also impervious to logic and evidence: my uncle, when confronted with the fact that there is fossil evidence in favor of evolution, merely replies that "the devil puts that there."
I believe Goldberg's characterization of their wacky world view is essentially correct, because there are people in my own family - cousins - who are involved in the movement. (We are somewhere on the atheist-agnostic spectrum, definitely the "urban secularists" whom Goldberg wishes to protect.) While my closer cousins are tolerant of our beliefs (as we strive to be of theirs) and share a strong bond with us, we recently met some more distant cousins and it was a frightening encounter. As their children were homeschooled, they regarded mine with suspicion that exploded into vicious accusations that they were "in league with the devil". It was genuinely shocking and personally offensive to us.
What Goldberg accomplishes in this book is look at them as a highly organized force that wants to take over the country, a political movement. They began to gather steam from the time of President Reagan, when they were incorporated as a voting block and core of highly motivated grassroots activists into the GOP. They want to ban abortion, restrict the teaching of evolution via legislation (i.e. the world is 6000 years old, etc.), outlaw homosexuality, and restrict sexual freedom outside of marriage; they also wish to subvert the US Constitution so that religion can dominate the state. Up until the time of Bush II, they had made great progress, from the nomination of judges that favor their view to battles on school boards in favor of teaching "intelligent design" as a scientific alternative to neo-Darwinism, and the campaign for sexual abstinence outside marriage (i.e. against disseminating basic knowledge on women's reproductive health). There are armies of these believers in mega-churches, in "home schools" to keep their children free of the taint of public education, and in innumerable political groupings. Then, under Bush, they entered the government mainstream for the first time to systematically subvert science policy, got grants under the faith-based initiatives - government funds to provide social services AND proselytize - and enter the judiciary in greater numbers than ever before.
That is where the book stops, in early 2006 (at least in the hard cover edition). What Goldberg has reported is valuable, but I have a number of criticisms of her approach. First, with the 2006 and 2008 elections, it is clear that the book is somewhat out of date. With the Terry Schiavo controversy and other issues tied to Bush II, the country has decisively rejected the fundamentalist Christian right, at least for the time being.
Second, I believe that Goldberg over-estimates how far the fundamentalist Christian right can go. In other words, once their beliefs and true agenda are better known, I am sure that more Americans will reject them. The recent Tillman assassination, for example, will expose many of their true colors. However, Goldberg is much more frightened than I am: she repeatedly labels them as nascent fascists, worries that they will continue to grow and gain influence, and will never compromise.
Third, Goldberg's tone is over-heated and near hysterical in her creation of a dichotomy between fundamentalist ruralists and urban secularists. From within my own family, I know that the lines cannot be that sharply drawn. While my close cousins say and believe certain things, they respect diversity and love to travel and were as experimental (in a manner of speaking) as the rest of us when young. I am convinced that it is only an infinitesimal minority that are so fanatic (like my more distant relatives). Indeed, they are somewhat like the Taliban vis-a-vis the rest of Islam, in my view. The book verges on, but never quite becomes, a polemic.
Fourth, for all its breathless exposes, there is often a lack of density to Goldberg's writing. She has done good reporting work, but there was something callow about the book, like much of it was thrown together and not very deeply reflected upon. For example, she repeatedly refers to Hannah Ardnt's Origins of Totalitarianism (in my reading an abstruse and obscure book of impossible syntax and unfiltered facts) as a source on the rise of mass demagogic movements as if to explain the similarities between the rise of Hitler and the fundamentalist Christian right. (I do not believe Hitler is a good rhetorical benchmark.) I often felt disappointed in her summaries of points of view and her musings.
All this being said, Goldberg's book is worth the read. She is a young writer, who will mature into a far better one. (My apologies if this sounds condescending - I do not mean to disrespect the many accomplishments of this book.) The reporting is valuable, she strives to be fair, and fearlessly presents a point of view. But this book is only a beginning and may already be outdated.
Recommended with these caveats.