goldberg.jpgMichelle Goldberg, Brooklyn resident and senior political reporter for, recently published her first book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, a detailed examination of the rise of Christian Nationalism. Her research took her outside the largely secular NYC, and even further afield from the liberal ideology of which New Yorkers have grown so accustomed. In her book, Goldberg details the actions and intentions of the Christian right and presents a clear picture of politics under an evangelical president.

Where did you grow up and what is your educational background?
I grew up in Buffalo. Hating high school, I graduated early and went to SUNY Purchase outside of New York City when I was 16, then transferred to SUNY Buffalo two years later when I realized, somewhat reluctantly, that I couldn't get a better education at any other state school. I went to graduate school at the UC Berkeley J-school. So I'm one of the few journalists I know who is purely a product of public universities.

What sparked your interest in Christian fundamentalism? Was there a particular event or person that brought the idea to the foreground for you?
I was in high school when the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue came to Buffalo to try and shut down all the abortion clinics. I used to go do clinic defense before homeroom, which is where I first encountered militant Christian fundamentalism face to face. Activists used to go and link arms around the clinics to keep them open, and these very angry, violent men would sometimes try to charge the lines. The Army of God manual, which was essentially an anti-abortion terrorist handbook, used to circulate among some of the protesters.

In some ways, though, that gave me a distorted view of politicized Christianity. Years later, after I had finished graduate school, I did a series about the ex-gay movement -- a movement that purports to "cure" gay men through the power of Christ. I found I had a lot of sympathy for the people I met -- they were good, earnest men and women in a hellish situation, believing their only choices were trying to will themselves straight or exiling themselves form their families, communities and religion. Hanging out with them was my introduction to the "mainstream" Christian right -- an all-encompassing parallel reality with its own pop culture, revisionist history, news media, education system and pseudo-scientific infrastructure.

During the first Bush term I saw this parallel reality enveloping more and more of America and encroaching onto public policy, and that's what I explore in Kingdom Coming.

In all of your experiences with fundamentalists while working on this book, which was the most shocking / disconcerting?
Probably seeing Janice Crouse from Concerned Women for America at the United Nations. One thing Bush has done is put people like her and Christian radio host Janet Parshall on American delegations to UN conferences, where they work to scuttle agreements on women's rights and reproductive health services. I'd been following all this for a while, and I kind of thought I'd grown incapable of being shocked by antics of the Christian nationalists. In 2005, though, Crouse -- who was attending that time as an accredited NGO, not an official member of the delegation, gave a presentation that really stunned me. I describe it at the end of my book:

Her bizarre slide show compared feminism to communism by interspersing pictures and quotes from Mao Zedong ("All power comes from the barrel of a gun") and Josef Stalin ("A single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic") with one of Betty Friedan ("Women, all you have to lose, is your vacuum cleaner"). And then, the climax -- a slide of bodies piled up at a Nazi concentration camp, followed by a picture of fetus's hand reaching out of an incision in a woman's womb.
The audience was split between American evangelicals, Latin American Catholics and Muslims from the Middle East and Asia. Addressing them, Crouse made it as clear as any feminist could have that banning abortion means curtailing women's autonomy: "To what end has this plague of abortion, this massacre of innocents, been directed?" she asked. "The pursuit of hedonistic pleasure? Women's' liberation? Liberation from what? So that a woman can engage in the pleasure of sexual intercourse without the demands of motherhood? No, this horrible slaughter has little to do with pleasure, but it has a great deal to do with the demands of motherhood. Radical feminists accurately see abortion as a women's ultimate weapon in the battle to escape the control of men. The issue is of power, of having the power to call the shots. With abortion as an option, a woman can escape pregnancy. Abortion gives her the power to escape giving birth to a man's child, a child she would otherwise be connected to for that child's whole life, and who would likewise connect her to the child's father."
The blatancy of her appeal to patriarchy surprised me, because in speaking to American audiences Christian nationalists usually imitate the language of female empowerment. What shocked me, though, were Crouse's comments during the Q&A following her performance. A Turkish woman in a headscarf stood up and declared that American culture and communism are "the same," because both are colonialist forces that assault traditional cultures. And amazingly, Janice Crouse agreed.
"I think you're very much on target when you say that modern day feminism is colonialism in disguise," she said. "I get very short-tempered with American feminists today, because I see much of what they emphasize as importing decadent Western culture into third world nations." Frantz Fanon -- or Osama bin Laden -- couldn't have said it better. The crowd applauded.

Did your research, which seemed to be extensive, change your initial point of view at all?
I would say it left me more sympathetic to some of the individuals in the movement, and more alarmed about the movement as a whole. The anxieties people are dealing with, and that people like James Dobson speak to, are very valid. A lot of people are in despair. Our culture is crass and vulgar and nihilistic. Families are falling apart -- especially in the most right-wing states, where divorce rates tend to be highest. Many long for a country in which it would be unthinkable for their husband or wife to leave them, so rhetoric about "defending marriage" resonates. At a reading in Boston last night, a woman in the audience said that Tipper Gore was right when she took on violent, misogynistic rap lyrics. I'm still a first amendment absolutist, but I've come to think that, although I don't want to see Democrats move right on social issues, they need to make it clear that they are not the party of libertinism, and that they understand peoples' desire for wholesomeness and familial security.

Still, just because many people who are part of the Christian nationalist movement are essentially decent, that doesn't mean that the movement itself is not dangerous, and the more I delved into it, the more I was struck by its scope and reach.

Though the book has a mostly objective tone, you do use some foreboding language, describing the current wave of fundamentalism by saying, "...something dark is loose..." and describing liberals as lobsters in a pot, "with the water heating up so slowly that you don't notice the moment at which it starts to kill you." Is the political horizon really as ominous as it sounds?
It's difficult to convey the menace without sliding into hyperbole. I write repeatedly that I don't think some kind of theocratic takeover is imminent, or even that most people's lives are going to be significantly affected. Rather, I see a slow process by which things that once seemed impossible become possible. For example, through the faith-based initiative, billions of taxpayer dollars are going to fund social service jobs that explicitly only hire Christians. Here in New York, the Salvation Army, which gets about $50 million in government contracts, received tacit permission from the White House to Christianize the agency. People came in and demanded lists of gay employees and mandated that all employees fill out forms detailing their church attendance for the last decade. Anne Lown, a Jewish woman who had run the children's services division for more than twenty years, was driven out because she refused to cooperate. I find this astonishing -- and the paucity of media coverage is almost equally striking. As incidents like this happen, and become an accepted part of the way our country operates, America moves farther and farther from its ideals. The change is subtle, but it's also profound.

Do you think that the Christian fundamentalist movement is doing some genius misdirection, overloading the media with superficial though inflammatory issues such as the Terri Schiavo case and the Janet Jackson 'incident' while downplaying issues such as the federal money being given to religious social service organizations?
The GOP leadership cynically manipulated the outrage over both Janet Jackson and Terri Schiavo, but at the grassroots it was very real. To the Christian right, both incidents seemed symbolic of a country given over to callous decadence. You have to remember that, for people existing in the parallel reality of the Christian nationalist movement, Schiavo wasn't in a persistent vegetative state. In my book, I write about a speech that David Gibbs, the attorney for Terri Schiavo's parents, gave to a banquet of leading Christian nationalists. He described her sobbing in her mother's arms after the courts condemned her to death. "Terri Schiavo was as alive as any person sitting here," he said. "Anything you saw on the videos, multiply times two hundred. I mean completely animated, completely responsive, desperately trying to talk." People in the audience were crying as he spoke.

It's media that is responsible for letting such issues dominate the discussion, while ignoring things like the faith-based initiative, which has been one of the most under-reported stories of the last few years. It's amazing how few educated, attentive people know that their tax dollars are going to groups like Youth for Christ and Pat Robertson's Operation Blessing, and that these outfits are now permitted to refuse to hire non-believers for publicly-funded social service jobs.

You cite home-schooling as key in the rising of Christian Nationalism. Are the large number of home-schooled Christians going to be truly competitive with their traditionally educated counterparts?
Some of them, sure, especially if there's a right-wing political structure in place that they can operate in. Many home-schooled students are getting far more individual attention than some of their peers in public schools, and within the Christian nationalist movement, they're being trained for political combat from a very young age. They may be learning bogus science and history, but they're learning genuine hardball politics and ideological commitment.

How will Christian nationalism play into the next presidential election? Will the GOP put up an even more evangelical candidate than Bush?
Well, Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee -- a former Baptist minister -- seems to be a strong possibility, and he's definitely more closely aligned with the evangelical right than Bush is. Actually, though, the influence of Christian nationalism will be easiest to see in who the GOP doesn't nominate. John McCain would probably be the strongest candidate in a general election, but I think the Christian right will effectively veto him.

The illegality of gay marriages and abortions are high in the Christian agenda. Do you think they will eventually succeed?
I don't think they'll ever pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, or ultimately halt the growing acceptance of gay people and their relationships. But in the short term, gay people in certain states are going to suffer. A lot of these state anti-gay amendments do more than make marriage off limits -- they also strip gay couples and families of a host of legal protections they'd already won, including the right to share health coverage and child custody, and to make medical decisions for each other.

Similarly, I don’t think we're likely to see a nationwide ban on abortion. But Roe is very, very vulnerable, and a host of statewide anti-abortion regulations have made it almost irrelevant in much of the country. In conservative states, abortion will be increasingly inaccessible, even if it's legal, and if Roe falls, I think we'll start seeing women and doctors being prosecuted. Roe aside, the continuing chipping away at abortion rights has been a gradual, piecemeal process, which is why it doesn't provoke the kind of massive opposition that a sudden, blanket nationwide abortion ban would.

Why has the term 'liberal' taken on such a negative connotation in this country?
Liberalism used to be the dominant creed in American politics -- in 1950, Lionel Trilling famously wrote, "In the United States at this time, liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation." What happened? It's a really long story, but it has a lot to do with the association of liberalism with the Vietnam-era counterculture, along with a systematic campaign of demonization by the right.

You suggest that in order to compete with Christian Nationalism, liberals need to find a way to be more organized and rely less on the courts. Is this a possibility? Are liberals just individualistic by nature?
Liberals were organized in the labor movement, the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement. The problem today isn't individualism -- it's the absence of an overarching ideology to motivate them, and a vision of the kind of world they wish to create. There's also a need for a social infrastructure -- liberalism today doesn't offer its adherents the kind of identity and community that Christian nationalism does, and people are hungry for those things.

How can the Electoral College be made to better represent the whole of the population? Or should it just be eliminated entirely?
I'd love to see it scrapped, though I'm not optimistic.

Would you ever move to a 'red state' in order to help the spread of secularism?
No. I'd be a terrible evangelist, and I'd be absolutely miserable if had to leave NYC. Anyway, I'm not interested in spreading secularism per se. Most Americans are religious, and I certainly don't want to take that away from them. What I'd like to spread is respect for a secular, pluralistic society -- a small difference, but an important one.

Would you support the secession of NYC from NY State?
Yes, because it would give us two extra senate seats, and right now urbanites are vastly underrepresented in the senate. The remainder of New York State might elect a mix of Democrats and Republicans, but even the Republicans would probably be on the moderate side.

Where do you see the country in ten years, with an increased amount of religion in government, increased secularism or at a stand-off between the groups?
I have no idea where the country will be in a decade, but I would guess that we'll see an increasingly hostile stand-off. The two groups that are growing the fastest in America are evangelical Christians and people with no religious affiliation. That's a recipe for political polarization.

What is the one thing you wish every secularist knew about the Christian right?
That it's not simply a mob of ignorant rubes. The people at the forefront of the movement are often very smart. They've developed a rich, self-reinforcing parallel world and a powerful political ideology, and even if they lose a few elections, I don't see them giving up any time soon.