Jeff Sharlet has been coming at us over the past several years with a series of studies which should scare the pants off any small-d democrat. He reveals myriad ways in which fundamentalism is succeeding in changing American politics and culture.
We see fundamentalists as a relatively contained group of self-righteous crackpots who are tiresome to deal with on local school boards and, god knows, in the White House. After all, we're smarter than they are. But winning majorities in both houses of Congress last week should not comfort us with the belief that the nation has returned to "normalcy," that Bush has been disarmed, that the fundamentalist leadership has suffered a setback.
The threat of fundamentalist persistence – and in his latest article in Harper's,* Sharlet reveals the taste for violence in his subjects – is not behind us. America is not more sane now than it was a month ago. As Sharlet writes in his latest piece for Harper's, fundamentalists are not “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 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.
We all have our theories as to where fundamentalism came from and where it’s going. We are wising up, we think, about the character or personality defects which lead people to follow fundamentalist leaders. Sharlet thinks we’re wrong.
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 1933, 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.
We’re not only wrong, we’re at risk of becoming dangerously unwary. The new fundamentalist movement is using everything from new curricula to promises of mind-blowing orgasms to persuade parents and their children to follow a new path.
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 looking for a hero to lead them; they're building biblical households, every man endowed with "headship" they promise sacred sex to those who couple properly – orgasms more intense for young Christians who wait than those experienced by secular lovers.
Jeff Sharlet has immersed himself in the new curricula of fundamentalism. One of the most potent tools is a very ordinary one used by every American classroom – the retelling of history. Let's face it: history has been conveniently altered in American schools since the nation came into being, and not just by fundamentalists. But now Christian fundamentalists making careers of rewriting history – and science – to “prove” they are right, and have been right all along.
The cause behind every effect, says fundamentalist science, is God. Even the inexorable facts of math are subject to His decree, as explained in homeschooling texts such as “Mathematics: Is God Silent?” Two plus two is four because God says so. If He chose, it could just as easily be five.
It would be cliche to quote Orwell here were it not for the fact that fundamentalist intellectuals do so with even greater frequency than those of the left. At a rally to expose the "myth" of church/state separation I attended this spring, Orwell was quoted at me four times, most emphatically by William J. Federer, an encyclopedic compiler of quotations whose “America's God and Country” – a collection of apparently theocentric bons mots distilled from the Founders and other great men, “for use in speeches, papers, [and] debates" has sold half a million copies. "Those who control the past," Federer said, quoting Orwell's) 984, "control the future." History, the practical theology of the movement, reveals destiny.
They’ve got the “separation of church and state” argument wrapped up. Public schools without religion are an invention of the 1930's and – thanks to recent appointments to the Supreme Court – they will soon be gone. Sharlet reminds us:
Well into the nineteenth century, most American schoolchildren learned their ABCs from The New-England Primer, which begins with "In Adam's Fall/We sinned all" – and continues on to "Spiritual Milk for American Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of both Testaments." In 1836, McGuffey's Eclectic Rentiers began to displace the Primer, selling some 122 million copies of lessons such as "The Bible the Best of Classics" and "Religion the only Basis of Society" during the following century.”
Homeschooling and fundamentalist schools are growing and with them a burgeoning industry producing " educational materials.
Who, knowing the facts of our history," asks the epigraph to the 2000 edition of “The American Republic for Christian Schools,” a junior-high textbook, "can doubt that the United States of America has been a thought in the mind of God from all eternity?" So that I would know the facts, I undertook my own course of homeschooling. In addition to “The American Republic,” I read the two-volume teacher's edition of “United States History for Christian Schools,” appropriate for eleventh graders, as well as “Economics for Christian Schools,” and I walked the streets of Brooklyn listening to an eighteen-tape lecture series on America up to 1865 created for Christian college students by Rousas John Rushdoony, the late theologian who helped launch Christian homeschooling and revived the idea of reading American history through a providential lens.
Military history – and the godliness of savage war – is a big part of fundamentalist teaching. Sharlet reports from the front.
One afternoon last year I found in my mail an unsolicited copy of "The Vision Forum Family Catalog," a glossy, handsomely produced, eighty-eight-page publication featuring an array of books, videos, and toys for "The Biblical Family Now and Forever." This catalogue, I think, is as perfect and polished a distillation as I've found of the romance of American fundamentalism, the almost sexual tension of its contradictions: its reverence for both rebellion and authority, democracy and theocracy, blood and innocence. The edition I received was titled "A Line in the Sand," in tribute to the Alamo. There, in 1836, faced with near-certain annihilation at the hands of the Colonel William. Barret Travis rallied his doomed men by drawing said line with his sword and challenging them to cross it. All who did so, he said, would prove their preparedness "to give their lives in freedom's cause."
A boy of about eight enacts the scene on the catalogue's cover. He is dark-eyed, big-eared, and dimple-chinned, and he's dressed in an idyllic costume only a romantic could imagine Lieutenant Colonel Travis wearing so close to his apocalyptic end – a white planter's hat, a Confederate gray, double-breasted jacket, a bow tie of black ribbon, a red sash, and shiny black fetish boots, spread wide. The young rebel seems to have been Photoshopped in front of the Alamo at unlikely scale: he towers over a dark wooden door, as big as an eight-year-old boy's imagination.”
War is celebrated. In a meeting at Danbury, Connecticut – chosen because it was the site of a church which received a letter from Jefferson in 1802 first using the phrase “wall of separation” – Sharlet witnesses a Christian revival, a mourning for the “oppression” suffered by fundamentalist Christians in America.
Rusty began the day's preaching, pacing back and forth between Danbury Baptist's foundation stones. He looked like an exclamation point – tiny feet in thin-soled black leather shoes, almost dwarfish legs, and a powerful torso barely contained by a jacket of double-breasted gray houndstooth. But he had one of the most nuanced preaching voices I've ever heard, a soft rasp that seemed to come straight from a broken heart "We are here to start a gentle revolution," he whispered. "To reclaim the godly heritage." He sounded sad, for his sin and mine – we were all guilty of turning our backs on the lessons of history. But then he growled up to a full fury that made even the flaxed-hair pastor beside me literally blink before leaning forward into Rusty's thunder.
'"And when you go to war in your land'" – Rusty recited from the Book of Numbers– "and make no mistake about it, we are in a war– “
"Amen!" hollered Reverend Flip.
'"And when you go to war in your land,'" continued Rusty, "'against an adversary who oppresses you”’ – and here he interrupted himself. “How many besides me are vexed by what is happening in the United States of America today?"
The crowd, shedding jackets and coats beneath a wan but warm spring sun, murmured amens.
"Your soul is vexed," Rusty moaned. Then he cried out: "We are under oppression!"
"AMEN!" responded the crowd, rising up to match Rusty's increased volume. The bill of grievances was hard: "Are we not in mourning?" Rusty asked, repeating the question and drawing it out as the women among us closed their eyes and said, plain and simple, Yes. “Are we not in mournnnning?” he moaned. “As terrorism strikes us from without, corruptions from within?" Yes, said the women, the men seemingly shamed into silence. “How many know we’re losing our children?" Yes. "Our marriages are failing!" YES....
... "There's going to have to be a great fundamental shift," Rusty preached near the end of his sermon. Not just in society but among the believers. There is a "mothering" church, he said, and a "fatherhood" church, separate but equal aspects of God. The mother church nurtures and holds a child when he's done wrong; the father church is the church of discipline. The mother church feeds the poor, comforts the dying, attempting to remind nations of righteous behavior. But to Rusty the lesson of American history – the lesson of Valley Forge and Shiloh; Khe Sanh and Baghdad; Dallas, 1963; Roe v. Wade, 1973; Manhattan, 2001 – is clear: this nation is too far gone to be redeemed by mercy alone. It is the father church's time.
Nothing illustrates the perfervid belief which produces the self-righteous militancy of fundamentalists better than the place of Stonewall Jackson in their American history books.
In the pantheon of fundamentalist history, the man revered above all others is General Stonewall Jackson of the Confederacy, perhaps the most brilliant military commander in American history and certainly the most pious. “United States History for Christian Schools” devotes more space to Jackson, "Soldier of the Cross," and the revivals he led among his troops in the midst of the Civil War, than to either Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant; “Practical Homeschooling” magazine offers instructions for making Stonewall costumes out of gray sweatsuits with schooling "fun day." The Vision Forum catalogue offers for men a military biography and for the ladies a collection of Jackson's letters to his wife; both books extol his strategic and romantic achievements as corollaries to his unparalleled love of God.
Fundamentalists even celebrate the Confederate hero as an early civil rights visionary, dedicated to teaching slaves to read so that they could learn their Bible lessons. For fundamentalist admirers, that is enough; this fall saw the publication of “Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man's Friend,” by Richard G. Williams, a regular contributor to the conservative Washington Times. Jackson fought not to defend slavery, argues another biographer, but for religious freedom; he believed the North had usurped the moral jurisdiction of God. "The North seemed to be striving to alter basic American structures,” writes James I. Robertson Jr. "Such activity flew in the face of God's preordained notion of what America should be."
Jackson's popularity with fundamentalists represents the triumph of the Christian history that Rousas John Rushdoony dreamed of when he discovered, during the early 1960s, the forgotten works of the theologian Robert Lewis Dabney. including “Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson (Stonewall Jackson). Dabney had served under Jackson, but more important he was a theologian in the tradition of John Calvin – that is, he believed deeply in a God who worked through chosen individuals – and he wrote the general's life in biblical terms. Rushdoony imagined the story as transcending its Confederate origins, and so helped make it a founding text of the nascent homeschooling movement.
In 2003, Vision Forum sponsored a national essay contest and awarded first prize to a pretty, freckle-faced young woman named Amanda Freeborn for her essay, "How Stonewall Jack- son Demonstrated a Biblical Vision of Manhood." "There is a name," writes Freeborn, “that casts upon the screen of our imaginations the image of the personification of godly manhood. That name is Stonewall Jackson... His life was a testimony to the world of what God can do through a man consecrated to his purposes...
...Civil War buffs study his military maneuvers and wonder whether, had he not been mistaken for a Yankee and shot by his own men in 1863, he might have outflanked the Union Army and fought the North to a standstill. But Freeborn chooses as case study not a Civil War battle but his first victory as a lowly lieutenant out of West Point. Sent to the Mexican War, he defied an order to retreat, fought the Mexican cavalry alone with one artillery piece, won, and was promoted, later commended by General Winfield Scott, commander of the U.S. forces, for "the way in which [he] slaughtered those poor Mexicans."
Many of the poor Mexicans Jackson slaughtered were civilians. After his small victory had helped clear the way for the American advance, Jackson received orders to turn his guns on Mexico City residents attempting to flee the oncoming U.S. army. He did so without hesitation – mowing them down as they sought to surrender.
What are we to make of this murder? Secular historians attribute this atrocity to Jackson's military discipline – he simply obeyed orders. But fundamentalists see in that discipline, that willingness to kill innocents, confirmation of Romans 13:1; "For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God." Obeying one's superiors, according to this logic, is an act of devotion to the God above them.
But wait – fundamentalists also praise the heroism that resulted from his defiance of orders to retreat, his rout of the Mexican cavalry so miraculous – it's said that a cannonball bounced between his legs as he stood fast – that it seems to fundamentalist biographers proof that he was anointed by God. Is this hypocrisy on the part of his fans? Not exactly.
Key men always obey orders, but they follow the command of the highest authority. Jackson's amazing victory is taken as evidence that God was with him – that God overrode the orders of his earthly commanders. And yet the civilian dead that resulted from Jackson's subsequent obedience of those very same earthly commanders are also signs of God's guiding hand. The providential God sees everything; that such a tragedy was allowed to occur must be evidence of a greater plan. One of fundamentalist history's favorite proofs comes not from Scripture itself but from Ben Franklin's paraphrase at the Constitutional Convention: "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”
To put it in political terms, the contradictory legend of Stonewall Jackson – rebellion and reverence, rage and order – results in the synthesis of self-destructive patriotism embraced by contemporary fundamentalism.
The problem doesn’t just lie in the contradictions of fundamentalist teaching about Stonewall Jackson. It recurs now, today, in the Pentagon. Sharlet sees “a joyous disregard for democracy.”
The most striking example is a short video on faith and diplomacy made in the aftermath of September 11,2001, by Christian Embassy, a behind-the-scenes ministry for government and military elites. It almost seems to endorse deliberate negligence of duty, Dan Cooper, an undersecretary of veterans' affairs, announces that his weekly prayer sessions are "more important than doing the job." Major General Jack Catton says that he sees his position as an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a "wonderful opportunity" to evangelize men and women setting defense policy. "My first priority is my faith," he says. "I think it's a huge impact.... You have many men and women who are seeking God’s counsel and wisdom as they advise the Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs] and the Secretary of Defense." Brigadier General Bob Caslen puts it in sensual terms: "We're the aroma of Jesus Christ." There's a joyous disregard for democracy in these sentiments, for its demands and its compromises, that in its darkest manifestation becomes the overlooked piety at the heart of the old logic of Vietnam, lately applied to Iraq: In order to save the village, we must destroy it.
How that plays out will depend on how many Americans go along with fundamentalist Christian leaders who believe “we may need another 9/11 to bring about a full spiritual revival.”
We are nothing if not confused as a nation and a culture. Liberals don’t own the past (or the truth) either. Sharlet reasons:
Fundamentalism embraces its mythic past; our more comfortable, liberal histories declare their own myths simply a matter of record. The imagination with which we, the levelheaded masses, view the demigod Founders and the Civil War, the "Good Fight" against Hitler and the American tragedy of Vietnam (the tragedy is always ours alone), is almost as deeply mystical as that of fundamentalism's, thickened by destiny, blind to all that does not square with the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a nation. There are occcasional attempts at recovering these near-invisible pieces, "people's history" and national apologies and HBO specials about embarrassing missteps in the march of progress, usually related to race and inevitably restored to forward motion by the courage of some key man of liberalism: Jackie Robinson at first base, 1947; Rosa Parks on the bus, 1955; Muhammad Ali refusing to fight in Vietnam. But such interventions are not much different than fundamentalism's addition of Martin Luther King to its pantheon; they are attempts to persuade ourselves that the big "We" of nationalism was better than the little people of history actually were.
The actual past no more serves the imagination of secularism than that of fundamentalism. Liberals like to point out that many of the Founders were not, in fact, Christian but rather deists or downright unbelievers. Fundamentalists respond by trotting out the Founders' most pious words, of which there are many (Franklin proposing prayer at the Constitutional Convention; Washington thanking God for His direct hand in revolutionary victories; etc. etc. ). Liberals shoot back with the Founders' Enlightenment writings, and note their dependence on John Locke; fundamentalists respond that Locke helped the Carolinas write a theocentric constitution. But fundamentalist historians can also point, accurately, to the subsequent instances of overlooked religious influence in American history – not just Sergeant York's Christian trigger finger and Stonewall Jackson's tragic example but also the religious to convert or kill Native Americans, the violent piety of presidents – not just Bush and Reagan but also Lincoln and McKinley and Wilson and even sweet Jimmy Carter, die first born-again president, led by God and Zbigniew Brzezinski to funnel anti-Communist dollars to the bloodthirsty Salvadoran regime.
The dupes, the saps, and the fools – the believers – prefer their re-enchanted past, alive to the dark magic with which all histories are constructed. For them America’s past merely charts God's love, its meanings revealed to His key men, presidents and generals, preachers and a goy with a shofar. The rest of us are simply not part of the dream. Fundamentalism is writing us out of history.
*Not available online
Earlier posts about Jeff Sharlet's research: