Not Even A Festivus For The Rest Of Us…

Unlike most Americans, I was never a big “Seinfeld” fan, but many of the sitcom’s jokes became widespread–none more than its promotion of “Festivus for the rest of us,” a “celebration” for those who don’t celebrate Christmas.

What brought that mythical holiday to mind was a very unfunny report from Talking Points Memo about America’s growing Christian Nationalist movement, a movement that–if successful–will leave no room for alternate (i.e. nonChristian) holidays. The sub-head really says it all: “From traditional Christian-right figures to secret societies envisioning a ‘national divorce,’ a growing contingent of radical activists is planning for Christian supremacy.”

The report was written by Sarah Posner, a journalist who has covered the Christian Right for two decades.

Over the past three years, I began to more frequently use the term “Christian nationalism” to describe the movement I cover. But I did not start using a new term to suggest its proponents’ ideology had changed. Instead, the term had come into more common usage in the Trump era, now regularly used by academics, journalists, and pro-democracy activists to describe a movement that insists America is a “Christian nation” — that is, an illiberal, nominally democratic theocracy, rather than a pluralistic secular democracy.

To me, the phrase was highly descriptive of the movement I’ve dedicated my career to covering, and neatly encapsulates the core threat the Christian right poses to freedom and equality. From its top leaders and influencers down to the grassroots — politically mobilized white evangelicals, the foot soldiers of the Christian right — its proponents believe that God divinely ordained America to be a Christian nation; that this Christian nation has come under attack by liberals and secularists; and that patriotic Christians must engage in spiritual warfare to rid America of demonic forces, and in political action to restore its Christian heritage. That includes taking political steps — as a voter, as an elected official, as a lawyer, as a judge — to ensure that America is governed according to a “biblical worldview.”

Those of us who occupy a far more secular America have been laboring under the misapprehension that religious wars are things of the past. Those of us who are comfortable in a society formed in large part by changes introduced during the Enlightenment–respect for science and empiricism, belief that governments derive their powers from the people, not from deity–have a hard time recognizing, let alone understanding, a worldview that remains rooted in the 16th Century. But that is the worldview that has spawned today’s politically active megachurches, and what the article calls “culture-shaping organizations like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council.

These “Christian soldiers” want governance according to their vision of a biblical worldview. They oppose church-state separation, want expanded rights for conservative Christians, are dead-set against abortion and LGBTQ rights, and are extremely hostile to trans people and trans rights. (Here in Indiana, Jim Banks–currently the unopposed Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, often called “Focus on the Family’s man in Washington, is a perfect example of a Christian Nationalist “warrior.”)

Posner and several others have noted the prominence of Christian iconography at the January 6 insurrection, and the growing willingness of MAGA Christians to tolerate, even welcome, virulent racists, anti-Semites and other extremists in their midst. As she writes, “Their entire alliance with Trump is one of sharing political and ideological space with the overtly antisemitic, racist, Islamophobic, nativist extremists he elevated to mainstream status in the GOP.”

Posner describes the various strands within Christian Nationalism, but notes commonalities as well: they “believe they are restoring, and will run, the Christian nation God intended America to be — from the inside.”

They will do that, in their view, through faith (evangelizing others and bringing them to salvation through Jesus Christ); through spiritual warfare (using prayer to battle satanic enemies of Christian America); and through politics and the law (governing and lawmaking from a “biblical worldview” after eviscerating church-state separation). Changes in the evangelical world, particularly the emphasis in the growing charismatic movement on prophecy, signs and wonders, spiritual warfare, the prosperity gospel, and Trumpism, has intensified the prominence of the supernatural in their politics, giving their Christian nationalism its own unmistakable brand.

Every single MAGA politician elected in November will be a foot-soldier for Christian Nationalism. A Trump victory would give them free reign to remake America in accordance with a “Godly” vision–a vision that was expressly rejected by the nation’s Founders.

The world that these Christian Nationalist politicians inhabit (and want to impose upon all of America) is pre-modern, intolerant, anti-science, anti-democracy. It has no room for “the rest of us.”


Fundamentalist Religion And Politics

If you are looking for an explanation of America’s current, toxic political tribalism, you can find plenty of theories from which to choose. There’s the yawning gap between the rich and the rest, the ability–facilitated by our fragmented media environment–to find “facts” that are congenial to your political preferences, the craven behavior of too many political figures…the list is extensive.

That said, the major element of today’s culture war is religion. Not the specifics of religious belief or theology, but the role fundamentalists and Christian Nationalists believe religion should play in modern society and governance.

I spent six years as the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, and experienced first-hand the consistency and ferocity of efforts to ignore America’s Constitutionally-mandated Separation of Church and State. I lost count of the number of panels and discussions devoted to (hopefully patient) explanations of the First Amendment, and why–despite the fact that the exact word “separation” doesn’t appear–the history and clear meaning of the Amendment require recognition of the Founder’s intention to keep religion and government in their proper lanes.

But today’s battles are different from that older, persistent effort to erode operation of the First Amendment’s religion clauses.

The rise of Christian Nationalism is part and parcel of the angry, knee-jerk fundamentalist reaction to cultural change. That reaction is what’s behind the morphing of what used to be a political party into a cult frantically trying to return the country to a time they largely misremember. Just as the racists among them are reacting to demographic changes eroding Whites’ majority status, fundamentalist Christians are reacting to the decrease in public performative religiosity and to what has been termed the “rise of the nones”– to the loss of Christianity’s cultural hegemony.

I rarely make predictions, because I’m not very good at them (mine tend to be based more on hope than evidence). But I feel fairly confident that efforts to turn the U.S. into a fundamentalist Christian theocracy are doomed. The public reaction to court decisions based on religious dogma rather than legal precedent–Hobby Lobby, Dobbs, and the recent Alabama ruling equating embryos with children, among others–is telling.

The argument for injecting religion into the broader culture, rather than honoring the right of individuals to determine their own belief structures, is almost always based on assertions that religiosity equates to morality. An allied charge is that, absent rigorous religious grounding, children will grow up to be selfish and immoral. Neither of these assertions is supported by evidence.

Quite the contrary.

I recently came across a fascinating study suggesting that raising one’s children without religion may be a healthier alternative.

Gone are the days of the unyielding God-fearing mother as the archetype of good parenting, suggests a recent article from the Los Angeles Times. According to multiple reports, research has shown that a secular upbringing may be healthier for children. According to a 2010 Duke University study, kids raised this way display less susceptibility to racism and peer pressure, and are “less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian, and more tolerant, on average, than religious adults.” But the list of benefits doesn’t stop there.

Citing Pew Research, the Times’ Phil Zuckerman notes that there’s been a recent spike in American households who categorize themselves as “Nones” — their religious affiliation being “nothing in particular.” According to Zuckerman, modern nonreligious adults account for 23 percent of Americans. As early as the ’50s, that figure was only four percent. And with godlessness on the rise, researchers have begun analyzing the benefits of nonreligious child rearing more closely.

“Far from being dysfunctional, nihilistic and rudderless without the security and rectitude of religion,” writes Zuckerman, “secular households provide a sound and solid foundation for children, according to Vern Bengston, a USC professor of gerontology and sociology.” Bengston oversees the Longitudinal Study of Generations, the largest study of families and their religious affiliations in America. After noticing an uptick in nonreligious households, Bengston added secularism to the study in 2013. “Many nonreligious parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the ‘religious’ parents in our study,” said Bengston in an interview with Zuckerman. “The vast majority appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose.”

Little by little, that dreaded “cosmopolitanism” is undermining the fundamentalist battles that historically triggered wars and currently fuel so much social discord.

Both secularism and the more liberal iterations of Christianity, Judaism and Islam that increasingly characterize today’s culture are signs of social and human progress. Despite the current blowback, I predict they’ll prevail.


Then And Now

A week or so ago, my husband and I watched an American Experience episode titled  “Nazi Town”–a PBS documentary about the extent of pro-fascist opinion in the United States in the run-up to World War II.

The documentary left me both saddened and (unexpectedly) hopeful.

I  was saddened–to put it mildly– to learn of the enormous numbers of Americans who had embraced Nazi ideology. Until recently, I had assumed that the great majority of Americans actually believed in democratic government and the protection of civil liberties. I knew, of course, that a minority of my fellow-citizens harbored less comforting views, but I had no idea of the extent to which the American people endorsed truly horrific hatreds and were ready–indeed, eager–to hand the country over to a strongman who would relieve them of any responsibility for political decision-making.

In the 1930s, the nation had dozens and dozens of “Nazi camps,” where children were indoctrinated with White Nationalism. The German-American Bund enrolled hundreds of thousands of Americans who affirmed the notion that the country was created only for White Protestant Christians, and endorsed a “science” of eugenics confirming the superiority of the Aryan “race.” Racism and anti-Semitism were rampant; LGBTQ folks were so deep in the closet their existence was rarely recognized.

All in all, “Nazi Town” displayed–with scholarly documentation and lots of footage of huge crowds saluting both the American flag and the swastika –a very depressing reality.

But the context of all that ugliness also gave me hope–even in the face of the MAGA Trumpers who look so much like the Americans shown giving the “heil Hitler” salute.

I’m hopeful because we live in a society that is immensely different from that of the 20s and 30s.

During those years, the country experienced a Depression in which millions of Americans were jobless and desperate.  America was also in the throes of Jim Crow, and most White and Black Americans effectively occupied separate worlds. Thousands of people–including public officials– wore white robes and marched with the KKK. Europe’s age-old, virulent anti-Semitism had not yet “matured” into the Holocaust, and Hitler’s invasion of Poland–and knowledge of what came after–were still in the future. Few Americans were educated beyond high school.

World War II and discovery of the Holocaust ultimately ended the flirtation with fascism for most Americans, and in the years following that war, the U.S., like the rest of the world, has experienced considerable and continuing technical, social and cultural change. As a result, the world we all inhabit is dramatically different from the world that facilitated the embrace of both fascism and communism. (In fact, it is the extent of those differences that so enrages the MAGA culture warriors.)

Today, despite the contemporary gulf between the rich and the rest, America overall is prosperous. Unemployment has hit an unprecedented  low. Many more Americans are college educated. Despite the barriers that continue to face members of previously marginalized populations, people from different races and religions not only live and work together, they increasingly intermarry. Many, if not most, Americans have gay friends, and some seventy percent approve of same-sex marriage. Television, the Internet and international travel have introduced inhabitants of isolated and/or homogeneous communities to people unlike themselves.

Although there is a robust industry in Holocaust denial and other forms of racial and religious disinformation (I do not have a space laser), Americans have seen the end results of state-sponsored hatreds, and even most of those who harbor old stereotypes are reluctant to do actual harm to those they consider “other.”

The sad truth is that many more of my fellow Americans than I would have guessed are throwbacks to the millions who joined the KKK and the German-American Bund. The hopeful truth is that–even though there is a depressingly large number of them–they are in the minority, and their numbers are dwindling. ( It’s recognition of that fact, and America’s changing demography, that has made them so frantic and threatening.)

I firmly believe that real Americans reject the prejudices that led so many to embrace Nazi ideology in the 20s and 30s.

Today, most of us understand that real Americans aren’t those who share a preferred skin color or ethnicity or religion. Real Americans are those who share an allegiance to the American Idea–to the principles enumerated in the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights.

In order to send that message to today’s fascists and neo-Nazis, we need to get real Americans to the polls in November.


They Aren’t Even Pretending

It’s an election year, and we are already–predictably–being inundated with commentaries exploring the roots of MAGA devotion to a mentally-ill would-be dictator. The punditry digs into sociology, political science research–even psychiatric diagnosis– and the result is to obfuscate and excuse what most honest Americans recognize as the roots of MAGA’s attraction: racism and a fear of  Americans who can be considered “Other.”

As the more complicated (and generous) “analyses” mount, however, so does the evidence of the bigotry and White Christian Nationalism that is powering support for Trump. There are a lot of areas of our common lives that are genuinely complex, but evidence abounds that Trumpism/MAGA is not one of them.

This blog has frequently highlighted that evidence, and today I am offering yet another example of the willingness of bigots to be “out and proud.” Increasingly, they are willing to be forthright about the world they are trying to create, and candidly, I find it terrifying.

This report from the Guardian is the latest example:

A venture fund and a real estate startup – both with links to far-right organizations – are promoting a residential development in rural Kentucky as a haven for fellow right-wingers.

The promoters have presented the planned development as an “aligned community” for right-wingers who want to “disappear from the cultural insanity of the broader country” and “spearhead the revival of the region”.

The move is the latest effort by the far-right to establish geographical enclaves, following in the footsteps of movements like the so-called “American Redoubt”, which encourages right-wingers to engage in “political migration” to areas in the interior of the Pacific north-west.

Unsurprisingly, the development was announced on X, which is being turned into a racist and anti-Semitic cesspool by Elon Musk. It was also announced  in a special edition of the “New Founding” by Joshua Abbotoy, who is described as the “managing director of venture fund New Founding and principal of real estate developer Kentucky Ridge Runner LLC.”

According to Abbotoy, “Most of the leadership is going to be led by Protestant Christians.” (Take that, Catholics!!)

The Guardian contacted Abbotoy via email, asking whether he reserved the right to refuse to sell parcels to prospective purchasers who weren’t members of the “aligned community” and on what basis. He didn’t respond.

Actually, this appeal–closely targeted to a White Protestant Christian market–is a fascinating amalgam of market capitalism and bigotry.

“Utopian communities have long been a feature of the American landscape, but this may be more of a money-driven land speculation project with a culture war angle than an effort to create a utopian project in the classic sense”, said Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers, a key book on Christian nationalism.

There are two “aligned community” developments underway, and The Guardian calculated the profits if lots sell at the asking prices: in one, the company paid around $6,011 an acre, but buyers will pay up to the equivalent of $88,500 an acre for unimproved lots, or up to fourteen times the rate HRP paid. In the other, sellers will collect a total of at least $2.27 million on 550 acres of land for which they paid $900,000.

Nice work if you can get it….

It’s hard to escape the suspicion that pious Right-wing folks are seen by these enterprising developers not as comrades in utopian “aligned communities,” but as patsies.

The website advertising the lots says the developers seek to “build and back companies defined by American ideals and a positive national vision”,  and adds that it “explicitly oppose[s] DEI/ESG and the bureaucratization of American business culture” and targets “customers disfavored by corrosive ideologies.”

The explicit rejection of “diversity” and “inclusion” telegraphs the basis for the appeal.

Financial matters aside, Stewart said the move tracked with the preferences of the contemporary far right.

“This is typical of the far-right’s emotional need for a ‘safe space’,” she wrote.

“It’s not just that some members of this extremist cohort disagree with liberals, feminists, or any number of people who don’t share their views; it’s that they really can’t stand having those people anywhere nearby,” Stewart added.

“The mere existence of people not like them counts as an insult.”

I used to believe that such people were a small percentage of the American public. Now, I’m not so sure. The good capitalists who are targeting them obviously think they comprise a substantial and thus-far untapped market.

It’s scary.


A Double-Edged Sword

This blog tends to highlight the negative aspects of religion–or, more accurately, the negative aspects of the misuse of religion. Lest readers come to see me as an indiscriminate and cranky critic of all people of faith (granted, I am cranky), I have obtained permission to share a recent column by Phil Gulley, who leads a local Society of Friends. (I’m told that Quakers don’t use the term “pastor.”)

Phil is someone whose writing (and the wisdom that writing reflects) I have long admired.

Today, you get Gulley rather than Kennedy…


The Rise of Religion and Why I Fear It

My parents took me to church when I was two weeks old and thereafter every Sunday until I turned 14, which in my family was the age of religious emancipation. I stayed away for two years, then discovered the Quakers, where I have remained ever since. When I returned to the church as a teenager, my father was pleased, pointing out that religion was good for the country. I once thought the same, but now wonder, in light of the rise of Christian nationalism, whether America continues to be well-served by religion, and more specifically the strain of evangelical Christianity so prevalent these days.

There is something inherently dangerous when a fervent subgroup in any country believes themselves ordained by God to tell the rest of us how to think and live. Thank you, but no. I’ll take my chances with freedom, democracy, reason, and the rule of law, all of which have been the targets of religion. Today, we are witnessing firsthand the tyranny of abusive religion when pregnant women, whose very lives are imperiled, are forced to travel far afield for the medical care they need. If America has never had a Taliban, it most certainly does now. If you doubt that, just ask Kate Cox of Texas if she has been well served by religion when Texas hospitals were prohibited from helping her after she experienced a reproductive medical emergency. When religious extremists are placed in charge, misogyny, ignorance, and tyranny are sure to follow.

When I was a child, my friends and I would play a game we called, “If you had to live anywhere but the United States, where would it be?” The game never lasted long, since we all said we’d rather be dead than live anywhere but here. I don’t feel that way anymore. Religious extremism, aided and abetted by the Republican Party since the days of Reagan, has dimmed my affection. Christian reactionaries had no sooner acquired power, than they used it to diminish ours. According to the CATO Institute, the United States ranks 23rd on the human freedom index. The embrace of totalitarianism is fueled in no small part by fanatical Christians determined to make the rest of us bow the head and bend the knee. Today, the five leading nations in freedom are Switzerland, New Zealand, Estonia, Denmark, and Ireland. What do those countries have in common? They are all post-religious nations, where Christianity has a diminishing role. Even Ireland, once ruled and roiled by religion, is experiencing an uptick of secularism, especially among the young. We can only conclude that as a country grows less religious, its liberties expand.

Isn’t it ironic that nations are better served when religions are on the wane? Wherever religion has gained the power to govern, progress and freedom have slowed to a halt. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Religions can just as easily champion justice, equality, and progress. Why so many don’t bears testimony to the religionist’s love of power and privilege. I remain in religion to speak the truth about its excesses, to challenge its tendency to dominate, to elevate the good and noble in it, to remove the dross from its gold. Don’t give me that old-time religion. Give me the hundred years after it, when the superstitions of regressive religion have been finally and totally defeated, and only the good remains.


To which this atheist says, AMEN.