Edited by Spencer Ackerman
Spencer here. This one’s written by Sam, who, unlike me, is equipped to make some observations about the Christian communities he grew up in. Without further ado...
ONE OF THE ODDER ALLIANCES of the pre-Trump epoch in the War on Terror was between secularist public intellectuals and the strident white Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists who formed the bedrock of the Republican Party. Their shared enemy was a fantasy of militant Islam: something they saw not as a minority sect trying to increase its market share through violence, but as the very essence of the religion – an insidious presence always on the cusp of doing another 9/11. To people like Christopher Hitchens, “fascism with an Islamic face” was the enemy of the Western liberal’s “emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state.” For all that they sparred publicly, white elite Christians and white elite Atheists shared a mysterious bond.
Hitchens was perhaps the most perfect example of this tendency. His distaste for Catholics was widely read as a generalized dislike of Christians, but that simply wasn’t the case: he saw American folk theology, like that of George W. Bush, as the natural ally of his brand of militant cosmopolitanism.
“George Bush may subjectively be a Christian,” he crowed in 2004, “but he – and the U.S. armed forces – have objectively done more for secularism than the whole of the American agnostic community combined and doubled.” To advance “secularism,” in his telling, was to destroy Muslims, whom Hitchens claimed to be liberating from the scourge of their faith. Here was a man whose sympathy for the Iraqis was expressed in his zoological mourning of “the pitiless destruction of the independent habitat of the marsh Arabs near Basra” while in the same breath deploring creeping Sharia in “Londonistan.”
Conservative Christians disliked the New Atheist movement – especially Hitchens, who was clearly unserious in his criticism. Despite Hitchens’ august reputation, there is no rigor or heft in writing like God Is Not Great, only charming demagoguery and wry anecdote, which many found pretty insulting in a book that purported to undo their entire religion. By the time he died in 2011, at least a few understood what allies he and like-minded pundits had been.
Evangelical theologian Douglas Wilson traveled the US debating Hitchens, the Generals to Hitchens’ Globetrotters, and the men became friends; there’s a documentary about it. Wilson is the author, with fellow Christian minister and former League of the South board member Steve Wilkins, of Southern Slavery: As It Was (which described chattel slavery as “a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence”). Wilson wrote a glowing obituary for Hitchens in the pages of Christianity Today that ends with a lengthy fantasy about Hitch’s potential for a deathbed confession. (This should be understood as a compliment.) Wilson, too, was concerned about creeping Sharia in his own homeland. It was one of the many points of agreement the two men found.
THE SALUTARY EFFECTS ON GLOBAL SECULARISM of this Christian/atheist alliance have blunted somewhat in the years since Hitchens declared victory. But the partnership served conservative white Christians, who spent the Obama era in deep fear of Muslims, very well.
Once the horror of the Iraq war curdled evangelical enthusiasm for it – though supported by many leading U.S. evangelical figures, the war became a charnel house for actual Iraqi Christians – fighting Islam at home became part of the catechism of Republican politics.
Politicians ran for office and won by declaring that Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya. State legislatures passed a score of “anti-Sharia” laws forbidding judges to rule from the bench based on secret allegiances to the Koran; hundreds more were proposed, and these were often written or backed by evangelical-aligned groups like the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) and anti-Muslim groups like Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy. As these laws passed, cosmopolitans who wanted to demonstrate their Seriousness through fair-minded respect for the right were happy to spew chaff: They warned their readers not to dismiss Sarah Palin and the Tea Party on intellectual grounds. Meanwhile, conservatives pursued further legislative excesses.
And with the presence inside legislative chambers of the kinds of fringe conservatives that calmer eras might have rejected, those excesses were unfettered. Perhaps the most vital question that arises from the text of these bills is what the fuck the people who sponsor them think they’re doing. A lot of legwork went into forbidding judges from handing down decisions secretly based on Islamic law instead of the U.S. constitution, as if this was ever a real possibility. Gaffney’s outfit drafted model legislation that has been used and reused across the country.
The answer seems to be that Republicans, especially those aligned with conservative Christians, were now running a legislative playbook that had nothing to do with the operation of government – it wasn’t about making sure roads were paved, parks were kept up, the sanitation guys were paid on time, the libraries were in good order, and the schools were solidly staffed and supplied. Instead, it was about fundraising using the success of getting meaningless anti-Muslim laws onto the books, assuaging the fears of constituents whose favorite pastime had become scaring themselves. These were the Christians who had spent the Clinton administrations in the fever swamps of conspiracy, going to gun shows and talking about Ruby Ridge and whether or not it would be moral to hide Eric Rudolph from the Feds. I know they were doing this because I was there and I heard them; I’m a white evangelical from a town of 600 people in North Carolina where my grandfather pastored the Presbyterian church. I remember very clearly the ethical debates about bombing abortion clinics.
America was already gone, so far as the Christians who had mobilized for the anti-abortion, anti-gay right in the 1980’s and 90’s were concerned. America had sunk so far that Obama was president, and they needed protection from what America had become. Initially, they were concerned with imaginary foes like sleeper cells of jihadist judges, but they also found real ones. They preferred enemies who couldn’t fight back.
After decades of failing at completely taking over the judiciary, conservatives spent the Obama years drafting state-level anti-abortion legislation, prohibiting medical abortions after 20 weeks, and misapplying fetal homicide laws, usually used to throw the book at a domestic abuse convict whose violence caused a miscarriage, but now used to prosecute women who have miscarriages themselves. There was also the explicit extension of “conscience clause” laws to pharmacists who don’t want to give out birth control or Plan B in a dozen states. So much for Hitchens’ exhortations to protect emancipated women.
More recently still, there are “bathroom bills,” forbidding trans people from going to a toilet that cis people of their gender also use. Then, unexpectedly, the evangelicals got Trump, who gave them a right-wing majority of Supreme Court justices and a slew of district and circuit judge appointees. These judges seem likely to uphold most of these laws. The combination of legislative action and enthusiastic enforcement has given the U.S. a legal regime that straightforwardly forces conservative religious beliefs on the populations of whole states.
THERE’S NO SCIENTIFIC OR LOGICAL BASIS for any of this legislation. Challenging the stated rationale behind one of the bills is like throwing a fastball through a spiderweb. Some of the laws don’t even do anything, in legal terms, at least not yet. Instead, they promote a morality that is not derived from American democratic consensus, but from the most conservative interpretation of religious laws in the Christian Bible, heavily weighted in favor of straight, white, cisgender men.
It’s not just new forms of culpability we’re seeing, either. It's impunity. Groups like the HSLDA have fought for freedom from general laws regulating education and childcare for Christian homeschool teachers (they had the ear of Betsy DeVos in the last administration), and conservative churches have joined the right-wing crusade against COVID-19 safety measures as the cessation of in-person services threatens to drain the collection plate.
Bigots disguised themselves as tolerant Christians and crusading secularists forged an alliance of convenience at the beginning of the War on Terror. But secularists as well as liberal Christians in the U.S. currently suffer under the yoke of religious laws far stricter than anything that could ever have been broadly imposed on this country by its small, diverse, and horribly persecuted Muslim population. Whatever their fears, the conservative Christian way of life was never in danger from persecution. In this country, the only thing that could possibly threaten its cultural dominance is peace.