News

Pointing out the wrongs of the Right

Patrick T. Reardon [Chicago Tribune]

In the fall of 2003, Al Franken and other liberals, as if awakening from a deep sleep, charged onto the nation's best-seller lists to do battle page for page with the right-wing commentators long dominant there.

A year later, George W. Bush won re-election anyway.

Now, a much larger wave of books, written by authors ranging from moderate conservatives to social activists, is hitting bookstores -- just in time for the midterm elections in November -- with the Religious Right in their crosshairs.

Although some of the nearly two dozen works aim simply to explain the Evangelical movement, most are full-bore attacks, accusing conservative Christians of hijacking the Republican Party and of seeking to roll back the clock on freedoms many Americans take for granted.

At one end of the spectrum is former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, a Republican and Episcopal priest. In "Faith and Politics" (Viking), Danforth expresses deep shock at the willingness of the GOP to kowtow to radical religionists, particularly regarding Terry Schiavo and similar high-profile controversies. Yet, he also makes clear in an interview, "I don't want to, in any way, belittle anyone's religious beliefs."

At the other end is Chris Hedges, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times, who has titled his book, due in January, "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America" (Free Press).

Hedges, who attended Harvard Divinity School, acknowledges in an interview that "fascist" is an incendiary word. Yet, comparing the political growth of the Religious Right with Hitler's rise to power in Germany, he contends, "This is a potent and a ruthless mass movement that would like to dismantle American democracy."

While Hedges characterizes conservative Christian leaders as manipulative cynics, Mel White argues in "Religion Gone Bad" (Tarcher/Penguin) that they're especially dangerous because they're true believers.

White is an evangelical Christian who was a ghostwriter and speechwriter for many of those men, including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, until he came out as a homosexual. Much violence against gays and lesbians, he asserts, is directly due to fundamentalist rhetoric.

"Consciously or unconsciously," White writes, "fundamentalist Christians are using their anti-homosexual campaign to test how much intolerance the American people will tolerate."

Linda Bubon, co-owner of Women and Children First bookstore in Chicago, says the books critical of the Religious Right represent an important development. "As a feminist and a woman," Bubon says, "what (the leaders of the Religious Right) say about women and women's place in society and in the family is anachronistic. Next, it'll be: `Don't leave your father's house until you move into your husband's house.'"

However, Becky Anderson, co-owner of Anderson's Bookshops in the Chicago region, wonders about the audience for such books. "Conservatives aren't going to buy these," she says. "I'm not sure even a lot of liberals will buy these books."

The authors with well-known names, Anderson predicts, will do the best in the crowded field. And so far sales are bearing her out. Among the 2 million titles for sale at Amazon.com, Danforth's book ranked 298th on Monday followed by "American Theocracy" (Penguin) by best-selling political historian Kevin Phillips at 371 and "The Holy Vote" (Rayo) by Ray Suarez, senior correspondent with "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," at 2,464.

The present flood of books began as a trickle two years ago when Jim Wallis, a liberal activist and evangelical Christian, published "God's Politics" by (HarperSanFrancisco). (On Monday, the hardcover version ranked 3,427 on the Amazon.com, while the recently published paperback was 1,781.)

In the book, Wallis writes, "The religious and political Right gets the public meaning of religion mostly wrong -- preferring to focus only on sexual and cultural issues while ignoring the weightier matters of justice."

Yet, Wallis is also critical of "secular fundamentalists." In an interview, Wallis says, "The secular Left's barring of religion from the public square and barring speaking of moral values is a big reason why the Religious Right has been successful."

Also blaming the Left -- but for a different reason -- is Michelle Goldberg, a senior writer at Salon.com, who describes herself as neither a believer nor an atheist.

After several years of filing reports on the growing political power of religious conservatives, Goldberg began writing "Kingdom Coming" (Norton) two years ago because "it was very difficult to get people to take the movement seriously."

She writes that liberals need to borrow many of the bare-knuckled strategies of conservative Christians rather than seek to dialogue. "As long as the movement aims at the destruction of secular society and the political enforcement of its theology, it has to be battled, not comforted and appeased," Goldberg asserts.

Complicating matters, according to Brian Mann, a reporter for an Upstate New York public radio station, is the failure of liberals and moderates in metropolitan areas to realize that most rural people live in a mono-culture -- all white, all Christian. Diversity of any sort is a foreign concept in such places, he writes in "Welcome to the Homeland" (Steerforth).

They also don't recognize how visceral some issues are to Evangelical activists.

"Tens of millions of rural conservatives," Mann, a Methodist, writes, "believe that banning abortion and `defending' marriage are the moral equivalent of ending the Vietnam War or dismantling Jim Crow."

___

© 2006, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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