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Michelle Goldberg's Study of the Rise of Christian Nationalism, and Its Adherents' Strategy to Use the Courts to Further Their Agenda


Friday, Aug. 25, 2006

If more Americans would read works like Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, the longevity of our democracy, as we know it, would be more assured. I say this because the more people who understand the thinking and agenda of the growing forces of "Christian nationalism," the less likely it will be that these forces will succeed. Not many people want to go where Christian nationalists want to take the country.

Michelle Goldberg, a journalist who writes for Salon, defines Christian nationalism as the "Christian worldview" that envisions Christianity governing "every aspect of public and private life, and [holds] that all -- government, science, history, culture, and relationships -- must be understood according to the dictates of scripture." Christian nationalists have "biblically correct positions on every issue, from gay marriage to income tax rates."

These believers are also known as dominionists. Dominionism is a theology drawn from God's instruction to Adam in Genesis (1:26-27) to take dominion over the animate and inanimate world. As Goldberg explains, "dominionism is derived from a theocratic sect called Christian Reconstructionism, which advocates replacing American civil law with Old Testament biblical law."

In this column, I'll first share, by way of background, a few of many facts from Goldberg's work, which I have either quoted or paraphrased, including information she provided to me during a conversation about her book. Then I'll address what she reports is the underlying strategy of the Christian nationalists: to use the courts, state and federal, to implement their agenda.

Some General -- and Disturbing -- Information about Christian Nationalism

Christian Nationalists are a small but highly influential minority. They certainly do not represent a majority of Americans, or even a majority of evangelicals. Rather, when chatting, Goldberg compared them to neoconservatives, who are a small minority of conservatives, but a highly (if not a disproportionately) influential one. By way of further comparison, she explained that Christian nationalists operate and proselytize in ways not unlike those American Communists once used. (Based on my own research, I agree with her analogy.)

Christian Nationalists dominate today's Republican Party. Goldberg conducted her research much as an anthropologist might; she traveled to Texas, Colorado, West Virginia and other places to mix and mingle with Christian nationalists at the grass- roots level, in their churches, conventions and other places where they congregate. She asked questions and listened to answers. In her book, Goldberg cites a 2002 study regarding the "strong influence" of the religious right "in eighteen state Republican parties" and "moderate influence in twenty-six others." As she no doubt correctly suspects, "their control has only expanded since then."

Katherine Harris, President Bush's favorite Florida election official and now a Republican candidate for the Senate, recently provided a good example of Christian nationalist thinking, when asked what role people of faith should play in politics and government. She responded as a Christian nationalist might, including advice on how to evade the law that prohibits using tax free funds for political purposes.

(Similarly, political analyst Kevin Phillips discovered that many Republican Party state organizations in the South and Southwest have endorsed the "Christian nation party platforms" of the Christian Reconstruction movement. For example, the 2004 Texas GOP platform declares the United States "a Christian nation" and Christian nationalists take issue with "the myth of the separation of church and state." Phillips was amazed to find that no one has yet cataloged and listed the state GOP organizations adopting this radical political theology; he has no doubt, however, of their influence, noting that many in the religious right, though they deny they are Reconstructionists, do "admit to agreeing with some of their positions.")

Pat Robertson is a central figure, and probably the best known figure, in the development of Christian nationalism. Goldberg reports that it was Pat Robertson who encouraged "the idea that Christians have a God-given right to rule … at the center of the movement to bring evangelicals into politics." Robertson, however, was forced to remove the Christian-reconstructionist dean of his law school in order to get the school accredited.

D. James Kennedy, probably the least-known figure, is now a key player in Christian nationalism. When I spoke with Goldberg, she mentioned that James Kennedy should not be overlooked, as he often is. Indeed, I had never heard of him, and I have read widely about the religious right. In her book, she describes Kennedy as the leader of the evangelical Presbyterian Church in America -- which is not related to the mainstream Presbyterian Church, but rather serves as "the bridge" connecting many influential reconstructionists to the larger evangelical world. Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries is one of the "popularizers of dominion theology," Goldberg explains. Not surprisingly, these good Christians simply smear those with whom they disagree, most recently claiming a direct link between Charles Darwin and Adolph Hitler -- and the Holocaust.

Christian nationalists want to protect those who defy the federal courts, by stripping federal courts of jurisdiction over cases involving any state or local government's "acknowledgement of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government." In response to the removal of former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore -- for defying a federal court order to remove the 2.6 ton Ten Commandments monument he had installed in the Montgomery judicial building -- reconstructionists rallied to Moore's defense. Indeed, they sought legislation in both houses of Congress to prevent federal courts from exercising jurisdiction over such state or local matters. Indeed, it is the courts that Christian nationalists seek to rely on to impose their agenda on America.

Christian Nationalists Seek To Use the Courts to Implement Their Agenda

It's well-established that the religious right seeks to use the courts to outlaw abortion, to return prayer to the public square, and lower the barriers separating church and state. What was news to me, however, was Goldberg's finding that the "entire Christian nationalist agenda ultimately hinges on conquering the courts." Christian nationalists, who have been working with others in the conservative movement, have declared nothing short of a war on the federal courts.

Reconstructionist leaders see federal judges -- probably correctly, Goldberg notes -- "as the only thing protecting American secularism. They know that if they can take the courts, they'll have the country." Their strategy to take the courts is twofold, although, as Goldberg notes, it's also "somewhat contradictory" -- and it envisions a protracted battle.

First, Christian nationalists plan to pressure politicians "to pack the bench with their ideological allies," and they are "training a new generation of home schooled jurists who will approach the law with a Christian worldview." Christian nationalists are among the strongest proponents of home schooling, with somewhere between one and two million children now being so educated. One of the handbooks of the Christian nationalists, which Goldberg found at a convention for home-schoolers, was How to Dethrone the Imperial Judiciary by Edwin Vieira, who has alluded, Goldberg reports, "to Stalin's purges as a way of dealing with liberal judges."

If any home-schooled jurist has reached the federal bench, it escaped my fast perusal of recent appointees. So these plans have yet to be fully implemented, to say the least.

Second, accompanying the attempt at court-packing, Goldberg reports that Christian nationalists are "trying to strip the courts of much of their current authority" while "railing against judges who override the popular will." Or as Goldberg nicely summarizes Christian nationalists' strategy, they "are simultaneously fighting a war for the judiciary and a war on it."

Goldberg cites two right-wing judges nominated by President Bush as the kind who would satisfy the court packing plans of the Christian nationalists. Both judges -- William Pryor and Janice Rogers Brown -- initially provoked Democratic filibusters. Unfortunately, my quick search of the debate in the Senate on these two highly controversial nominees does not reveal that anyone in the Senate opposing these nominees was aware that behind them, lurked the hand of the Christian nationalists.

This is not surprising. The Christian nationalists often operate by stealth, and others in the religious right who support them, also do so quietly. Accordingly, members of the Senate, and their staffs, could profit from consulting Michelle Goldberg's fast paced walk through the world of Christian nationalists -- for she points out both the signposts, and many of the players, in the movement.

If ever there was a good reason to filibuster a judicial nominee, it would be because of his or her endorsement from any of the individuals or organizations Goldberg discusses in Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. After all, how can a nominee who seeks Christian dominance enforce the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of our Constitution? While these folks are fully entitled to their beliefs, they have no right to impose them on others.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the President.

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