A Case of the Mondays: Kingdom Coming is Optimistic

Crossposted to Abstract Nonsense

The account of Dominionism given in Kingdom Coming, featuring a massive umbrella of Christian fundamentalist organizations united in their drive to establish a theocracy in the United States and by extension the world, sounds like a very depressing story. This is at least what every review I’ve found says: the reviewers who agree with Michelle Goldberg call her vision chilling, and the few who do not say she is excessively alarmist.

The truly chilling thing about Kingdom Coming is that it’s actually fairly mild and optimistic. Goldberg pauses every few pages to say that no, the United States will probably not become theocratic, because of the strength of its laws and Constitution and legal system. And she concentrates only on local fundamentalism, without talking about its mutually-reinforcing connections to warmongering and state surveillance, both staples of totalitarianism. She suggests that the gradual discrediting of American neoconservatism will lead to a resurgence of a more populist brand of fundamentalism, complete with Populist-style anti-Semitism. However, apart from that she says nothing about the intersection of neoconservatism and fundamentalism, except for one remark toward the end about a war between Christianity and Islam.

In fact, the most worrying future trends are the ones the book spends little to no time on. The formation of the Dominionist front is crucial to expose, and so is the stealth network of would-be theocrats: Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism, Ralph Reed’s comment about painting his face and operating under cover of darkness, the wink to the religious right inherent in Bush’s “compassionate conservative” comment. The book’s greatest success is in documenting that network without lapsing into conspiracy theories.

But at the same time, it is just as important to explore the analogy between Dominionism and other totalitarian ideologies further, and quoting Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism is not enough. The United States has a democratic tradition, but it also has a tradition of ignoring civil liberties whenever it’s at war; now that the view of anti-terrorism as a protracted war has taken root among most of its people, liberal democracy is in especial danger. And while Goldberg is right that most Americans may not want a Christian Taliban, most Germans never wanted the Holocaust, either—most never even voted for the Nazis in free elections.

To look at the prospects of a totalitarian ideology, it’s good to look at the factors that raise one to power, and, separately, the factors that keep one afloat. Economic depression certainly helps extremists come to power, especially if liberal democracy is seen as the source of the problem. The most plausible depression scenario in the United States revolves around defaulting on the debt; this will likely be viewed as the fault of excessive government spending, but the popular solution will likely be gutting social spending rather than raising taxes or curtailing military spending. Alone such a scenario would favor corporatists rather than fundamentalists, but not only are the two groups mutually reinforcing, but also the poverty that will ensue will be a breeding ground for religious evangelism masquerading as charity. Religious charities use poverty to their advantage everywhere in the world; that’s how Hamas and Hezbollah are not right-wing fringe parties in their respective nations.

Goldberg does in fact mention this scenario in passing, although she takes it in a somewhat different direction: she posits a more domestically-minded fundamentalism building on economic populism. This is plausible, but is not how totalitarian governments came to power in countries with strong ties between corporations and conservatives: Germany, Italy, Spain. Her scenario fits a grassroots communist-like movement better, and one of the most important things to realize about American Dominionism is that it’s anything but grassroots.

The other issue, war and its effect on civil liberties, is even more important to any discussion about Christian fundamentalism. Right now, the United States only tortures or imprisons without trial people who it thinks might possibly look like Islamist terrorists. Under an explicitly Dominionist government, this national security apparatus can easily expand to disenfranchise and imprison people of the wrong sexual orientation or active in the wrong political movement.

But when I say Kingdom Coming is optimistic, the single most critical point I’m thinking of is not Goldberg’s neglect of some of the broader angles concerning conservative fundamentalism. Rather, it’s the repeated assertion that no, it cannot be that bad, because the Constitution will still protect freedom. Ironically, the book itself contains ample of evidence why it won’t, documenting the rise of the “Christian nation” myth. And yet, it doesn’t make the requisite conclusion that just like Hitler never abolished the Weimar Constitution, which remained in effect until the end of World War Two with few Nazi amendments, so can American theocrats rise to power without repealing a single word of the Bill of Rights.

In one of the articles I once read about Christian nationalism, I saw a reference to a quote that went roughly, “We can pass unconstitutional laws faster than the courts can overturn them.” Unfortunately, I don’t remember who said it and in what context. But from Kingdom Coming and other articles, I can tell the American right’s sentiments are rarely that explicit; in most cases, it will claim to defend the Constitution, even while it pushes to abolish its self-enforcement mechanisms, especially judicial review. And so far, it has been doing a fairly successful job at that, considering that separation of church and state remains a sham, and the federal courts are still not protecting homosexuals from discrimination.

Indefinite totalitarianism requires three things: a motive, or a suitably totalitarian ideology; a means, or a modern state apparatus able to surveil and thereby oppress its citizens; and an opportunity, or a crisis of democracy abetted by lackluster opposition. Pessimistically, the United States has Dominionism, the national security  state, and the Democratic Party. Kingdom Coming understandably focuses on the motive, which is why it’s so detached from the means and the related issue of warmongering. Its greatest naïve optimism then lies in understating the degree to which the Dominionist movement has the opportunity to advance.

The internationalist note the book finishes on begins with an excerpt from an interview with Iranian secularist Marjane Satrapi, in which she says, “The secular people, we have no country. We the people—all the secular people who are looking for freedom—we have to keep together. We are international, as they are international.” While an international coalition can easily backfire—in Europe, even one-superstate liberalism is ailing, let alone one-world liberalism—an intranational one can be robust.

A good optimistic note to end any discussion of American religious fundamentalism on is this: if it continues advancing, it will reach a tipping point, so that it will be easy for secularists to use its fascism as a wedge issue. The Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, and the rest of the Dominionist organizations in the US are strong, but they can’t achieve anything without allies. The smart anti-fascist will deprive them of these allies by using such historical examples as Nazi Germany to drive wedges into the heart of the conservative coalition. The motive and means of totalitarianism will remain, but this active opposition can greatly diminish its opportunity.