Fred Rich is an attorney in New York who has just published his first novel, Christian Nation. In this intriguing “what if,” Rich presents an alternative version of recent U.S. history: It’s an America where the McCain/Palin ticket wins the 2008 election, and McCain’s death shortly thereafter leads to a Palin presidency and a slide toward theocracy.
Rich discussed the book with Church & State recently.
Q. You’re a successful lawyer who specializes in project financing. This is your first novel. What possessed you to write this book?
A. John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin shocked me. When she started insisting that America is a “Christian Nation” where all laws are and should be based on “God’s law” and the Bible, I started to do some research about what she meant. It was then that I found out about the breadth and depth of Christian nationalism, what the movement really wants and how profoundly they have influenced American politics. I felt I needed to do something and decided to try to tell the story in a different way.
Q. You obviously know a lot about Religious Right groups and how they operate. What non-fiction sources did you use to educate yourself while writing Christian Nation?
A. My primary sources were American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America and Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle both by Chris Hedges; Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg; The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power by Jeff Sharlet; American Theocracy by Kevin Philips and Republican Gomorrah by Max Blumenthal. In promoting my novel, I have done everything possible to direct people to these important books.
Q. Talk about the title of your book. Here at Americans United, we hear all the time that America was founded to be a “Christian nation.” Why isn’t it?
A. Political pundits have started to use the term “dog-whistle politics” to refer to the use of language that is assumed by the majority to mean one thing, but is only truly “heard” or correctly understood by a particular group. “Christian Nation” is one of those terms. When Palin, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry and others say that the U.S. is a “Christian nation,” most Americans think that simply means that over its history the majority of Americans have been Christian, and thus that Christianity has given our country many of its traditions and influenced its culture – all of which is, of course, true. But that’s not what it means at all, or what is understood by the broad evangelical community. To them, it means the realization of America’s destiny to be a shining “city upon a hill,” a godly Kingdom in which God’s law as revealed in the Bible remains the source of all law.
It is a country in which politicians like Palin talk to God and tell the rest of us what He wants. To certain extremists, it also means a country in which Christians – evangelicals in particular – have “dominion” over all institutions of civic and political life, which they believe is a predicate to the second coming of Christ.
Q. Two obvious literary antecedents to your book seem to be Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Were there other fictional works that inspired you?
A. Those were the main ones but also Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, where he uses a counterfactual – Charles Lindbergh becoming president in 1940 instead of FranklinRoosevelt – to animate his alternate history. I suppose the book is most like Lewis’ book, since it is written contemporaneously with the problem and constitutes a plea to “not let it happen here.” My book differs from Margaret Atwood’s haunting book in that it outlines a practical path to the theocratic future, as opposed to just being set in a strange and unlikely future and leaving you to wonder how we got from here to there.
Q. People probably tell you all of the time that while your book is entertaining, it’s too fantastic and the scenario outlined could never happen in America. How do you respond to that?
A. It’s interesting – only people who have not read the book tell me that. That’s the mental place where we all start – it’s where I started. It’s where the characters in my book start. I don’t argue with that or tell readers they are wrong. Instead, chapter by chapter, incrementally, with the ebb and flow of politics – with an unlucky combination of bad decisions and bad luck – a scenario starts to unfold under which the broader group of the “Christian Right” (perhaps 70 or 80 million Americans) buys into the agenda of the fundamentalists, the legal protections against authoritarianism are ever so gradually eroded and before long we find ourselves in a bad place. Most people who read the book find it totally credible, not believing that it will happen but convinced that it could happen.
Q. Some political analysts believe that American society is changing and that the Religious Right is on the ropes. What are your thoughts on this?
A. Too many of us in the big cities and “blue states” indulge in the wishful thought that the 2012 elections signal at long last the ebb tide of Christian fundamentalism in American politics. I certainly hope so. But that’s not what it looks like in much of the country. In what Garry Wills has called the “great bait and switch,” Tea Party politicians elected to tame deficits have instead unleashed a tsunami of conservative social legislation in the state legislatures, including by his count – in the first quarter of 2012 alone – 944 separate bills and amendments dealing with abortion and contraception. And most disturbingly, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports what they called a “stunning” rise in extreme right hate groups and militias.
Q. Days before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality, several prominent Religious Right leaders issued a statement asserting that any ruling furthering same-sex marriage would be illegitimate and implied that they would strongly resist it. How far do you think these groups might go?
A. The “Freedom Federation,” a broad spectrum of about 200 groups, wrote, in part, “While there are many things we can endure, redefining marriage is so fundamental to the natural order and the true common good that this is the line we must draw and one we cannot and will not cross.” And what does not crossing that line involve? They explained: “[I]f the government redefines marriage to grant a legal equivalency to same-sex couples, that same government will then enforce such an action with the police power of the State. This will bring about an inevitable collision with religious freedom and conscience rights. We cannot and will not allow this to occur on our watch.”
The Christian right is telling us that gay marriage and its “enforcement” by the state is an act that contravenes their own “religious freedom and conscience rights.” When a gay couple gets married and lives in happy monogamy for the rest of their days, they argue, this constitutes a constitutionally and morally unacceptable infringement of the “religious freedom and conscience rights” of fundamentalist Christians, and thus something against which we can expect them to struggle – righteously – until they are once again “free.” How far do I think they will go if they succeed in redefining the issue as an infringement of their own rights of religious freedom? All the way.
Q. Have you had any reaction from followers of the Religious Right?
A. Putting aside internet rants and insults, there have been a few comments challenging the idea that the evangelical political movement’s goal is theocratic. I understand these. Many self-identified “evangelicals” and “born-again” Christians do not share the agenda of the fundamentalists. I acknowledge this. But one of the lessons of history is that fundamentalists pose the greatest threat to their co-religionists – moderate Christians may have the most to lose by not calling out fundamentalists as the fanatics they are. I have been really pleased that so many moderate Christian ministers and theologians have praised my book.
Q. What can Americans do to prevent the kind of scenario outlined in Christian Nation from happening?
A. First and foremost, take it seriously. Everything depends on that. No one will be motivated to vote, speak or act to stop Christian fundamentalism if he or she believes they are a bunch of cranks. Listen to what they say, consider the possibility that they mean it, think about how fanatical movements have seized power throughout human history, and accept that our democracy, which strong, is not invulnerable. You will have noted that the book’s web site, www.readchristiannation. com, has a page called “Take Action,” in which I urge readers to join AU and similar organizations and do something. I will be very disappointed if a reader finishes my book and is not motivated to act.
Q. Is there anything you would like to add?
A. Only to thank everyone at AU for being among the first to understand this problem, for being relentless in their defense of separation of church and state and for doing what they do every day.