Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party
By Max Blumenthal
Nation Books, 2009
In his first book, released just last month, Max Blumenthal has written a scorching polemic in the muckraking tradition of George Seldes and I.F. Stone. As teabaggers, townhallers, and birthers rage against the machinations of the Obama administration, the arrival of a book that surfs the waves of revolt isn’t just timely; it is, well, prophetic. Republican Gomorrah is a Jeremiad, and while some Republican partisans will naturally be outraged, others will nod their heads in agreement. Democrats are already rejoicing at the prospect of the Republican Jericho crumbling.
Blumenthal spent years attending Christian Right events, tracking their leaders, and monitoring their media. The well-crafted book is packed with details, anecdotes, and vignettes assembled into a widely-accessible and logical sequence.
Republican Gomorrah opens with two chapters that explore the philosophical call to resistance by popular theologian Francis A. Schaeffer and the insurgent theocracy of Christian Reconstructionism developed by R.J. Rushdoony. This fascinating historic tour firmly establishes the foundation of the book’s main argument: that the Republican Party has been “shattered” by a right-wing political movement justifying its claim to secular power in theological arguments.
Schaeffer’s view was that two incompatible philosophies were vying for power in the modern world—Godly Christianity and godless secular humanism. From their base in Switzerland at the L’Abri Fellowship which they founded, Schaeffer and his wife Edith issued book after book calling for an intellectual revival of Christian activists. Their son Frank made a series of well-crafted and visually powerful films featuring his father and pediatric neonatal surgeon C. Everett Koop making equally powerful intellectual arguments about why Protestants needed to take up the cause of ending abortion. Koop went on to become Surgeon General of the United States under President Reagan.
Rushdoony argued that biblical law—especially Old Testament Levitical law—superseded the Constitution and Bill of Rights, as well as federal and state laws. Rushdoony thought he was extending the views of Schaeffer, who instead rebuffed Rushdoony’s overtures.
The turbulence in evangelicalism created by the clash of ideas put forward by Schaeffer and Rushdoony tantalized American conservative evangelical thinkers, and resulted in a broad tendency called “Dominionism” by its critics. It is the resulting claim that God has mandated devout Christian men to gain control over secular society that led to the takeover of the Republican Party by the Christian Right.
Schaeffer repudiated the conspiracist interpretation of his work, and was upset by the anti-intellectualism of some of his most ardent evangelical supporters in the United States. Schaeffer’s focus on confronting the sinfulness of secular society was later converted by Christian Right leaders (including Tim LaHaye and Pat Robertson) into a set of gothic and aggressive conspiracy theories that would make Stephen King blush.
Blumenthal covers this ground adroitly. The depth of Blumenthal’s understanding of Francis Schaeffer is supplemented by interviews with son Frank, who over time emerged from the evangelical subculture to become a forceful critic of the same Christian Right that his father inadvertently helped create. Now that’s a story of biblical proportions.
Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. (a major funder of the Christian Right) is the next profile, followed by Christian Right leader James Dobson of Focus on the Family. Blumenthal traces the influence of Schaeffer and Rushdoony, the godfathers of Christian Right Dominionism, not only on Ahmanson and Dobson, but also other well-known figures including Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson, Chuck Colson, and even Jack Kemp. Blumenthal traces the influence of Schaeffer on the founders of Operation Rescue, Randall Terry and Rob Schenck. Terry has described himself as a Christian Reconstructionist, and credits “Schaeffer as his inspiration,” reports Blumenthal.
The book has 25 brisk chapters. Part Two introduces more players, while Part Three focuses on the Republican Party itself. The chapters on the sexual peccadilloes of clay-footed leaders of conservative Christian evangelical political troops are deliciously served in cold dishes with hot sauciness. The hypocrisy of gay functionaries in Christian Right organizations (and the offices of elected representatives who toe their homophobic line) is revealed in paragraph after paragraph of relentless reporting.
Gomorrah Stumbles into the Centrist-Extremist Trap
In places, Blumenthal twists his ankles while hiking the convoluted landscape of American syncretic religious beliefs. There is undoubtedly a posse of academics hunched over their keyboards documenting chapter and verse of Blumenthal’s slips; each explication of which will take far more words that I have here, but will not reduce the value of the book by a mustard seed.
Where Blumenthal really falls down is with his social science paradigm, based on the work of Erich Fromm, Eric Hoffer, and Richard Hofstadter, among others. These observers of right-wing countermovements were ahead of their time. Alas, their time was 50 years ago. These men made many pioneering observations and some of their insights stand the test of time. Most scholars, however, now see their analytical views as based too much on psychological explanations, and their theories about why people join right-wing social movements have been displaced by more recent social movement theories in sociology and social psychology.
One of the earliest sociologists to challenge the paradigms of Fromm, Hoffer, and Hofstadter was Michael Paul Rogin at Berkeley, whose 1967 book The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter argued that centrist scholars sought to demonize radical ideas and thus developed theories about radicals and “extremists” of the left and right as being dangerous to civil society.
According to this “centrist-extremist” theory, “psychologically fit” people cluster in the political center, while unstable and dysfunctional “extremists” of the left and right populate the fringes of the political system. Furthermore, people with “authoritarian personalities” tended to cluster on the political right. That was the view of mainstream sociology until the mid-1970s. I was taught this paradigm in sociology classes in the late 1960s.
As participants in 1960s left-wing social movements garnered their sociology doctorates, the scholarly paradigm shifted with dramatic speed. First, scholars discovered no evidence that left-wing social movements demonstrated the madness of crowds or collective mob lunacy. It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that academics including Sara Diamond (Rogin was a mentor), Jerome Himmelstein, Kathleen Blee, and others pushed the boundaries further and found that right-wing social movements followed some of the same patterns as left-wing social movements. They also found that most right-wing activists were “strategic” and “instrumental”—or in popular language, they were not crazy or stupid, and could implement effective campaigns in political and social arenas. These right-wing folks elected Ronald Reagan, for example.
The idea of an authoritarian personality was updated and refurbished by Robert Altemeyer at Harvard, who described a more complicated phenomenon reflected in people in the political left, center, and right; and included both followers and leaders. Studies of right-wing populism by Margaret Canovan, Michael Kazin, Hans-Georg Betz, and others showed it to be a recurrent pattern of dissent not just in the United States but around the world.
Yet like mildew on a shower stall wall, centrist-extremist theory keeps reappearing as an explanatory concept. Our government, for example, is spending millions studying “radicalization” as leading to terrorism. The generally sensible Jonathan Alter echoes this frame in Newsweek, claiming we “live in a centrist country with a polarized Congress.” Alter excoriates the “right-wing jackasses,” and “Rush and the cable clowns who run the Republican Party.”
Intelligent left-leaning media hosts such as Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow get lots of laugh lines by mocking the teabaggers and townhallers. Web sites like Media Matters churn out terabytes of internet media products sneering at right-wing radio and TV commentators. The Democratic-centrist Democracy Alliance has raised tens of millions of dollars to fund a coterie of people whose main activity appears to be demonizing and belittling the very right-wing activists who have regularly out-organized them and other liberals and Democrats over the past 30 years. Who’s crazy now? Laura Flanders has explored this sad reality in her book Blue Grit, where she bemoans the lack of funding to build a progressive movement infrastructure to counter the well-funded social movements of the political right that yanked the Republican Party to starboard.
Blumenthal stumbles into the centrist-extremist trap, and all too often his rhetoric stoops to the type of acerbic demonization prompted by the liberal reliance on outdated centrist-extremist theories of why people join social movements
For example, the central role played by the reclusive Ahmanson in funding the Christian Right as a social movement is painstakingly traced in lush details never before disclosed. Yet the profile centers on placing “crisis-wracked individuals such as Ahmanson” on a soap opera set decorated with quasi-Freudian backdrops. For Blumenthal, the evangelical stage is populated by “socially withdrawn boys who lost their parents at an early age.” Writes Blumenthal, “Ahmanson’s identification with Tolkien’s here, Frodo, illuminates his sensibility.”
Thomas Frank’s coverage of the reelection campaign of George W. Bush in What’s the Matter with Kansas? is praised by Blumenthal as “penetrating, refreshing, and even pathbreaking.” According to Blumenthal, however, it was “incomplete” because Frank failed to note that the “appeal of Bush’s born-again experience” was the way his “escape from freedom” resonated with Bush’s conservative evangelical supporters. Their “powerful emotional affinity” for candidate Bush thus is less a Christian community’s embrace of a prodigal son than the result of a dysfunctional psychological syndrome propounded in 1941 by Eric Fromm in his book Escape from Freedom.
Republican Gomorrah, however, rises above these problems and still stands strong as a memorable example of investigative journalism and social narrative.
Dismiss the Christian Right at Your Own Risk
What Blumenthal has captured in chilling reportage is the reality that the Republican Party has been “shattered” by a sociopolitical movement that has raised political partisanship to the level of a cosmological struggle. Emilio Gentile, a political scientist in Italy, refers to this as the “sacralization of politics.” Not participation in political struggles by the religious, but the elevation of politics to the level of the sacred. For most in the Christian Right, if you are not working with God, then you are a witting or unwitting purveyor of ungodly sin. For the most apocalyptically-aroused participants in the Christian Right’s new political crusades, this involves the struggle against Satan in the End Times.
If you think that references to the Crusades are far fetched, consider that at the Christian Right’s 2009 Values Voter Summit in Washington DC, the exhibit hall had a table from the ultra-right Catholic group Tradition, Family, Property (TFP) for whom the Crusades and Inquisition were high points of Christian devotion. One earnest young man wore the ceremonial blood-red sash favored by TFP, recalling the red flags that accompanied Torquemada into a Spanish town and which preceded the condemned heading toward the flames at the stake. Not my brand of Christianity, thanks.
The Christian Right and its allies peddle a form of apocalyptic aggression that can be embraced by those anticipating Armageddon, those fighting corrosive sinful society, and secularists with a highly dualistic worldview. As sociologist Brenda E. Brasher has observed, in political struggles, dualistic apocalypticism “leaves no room for ambiguity in the stories told about the ‘Other.’ There is a real hardening of sides. We are good, they are evil. This is not a disagreement, but a struggle with evil incarnate, so there is no structure for a peaceful reconciliation.” The stories surfacing in the angry teabagger, townhaller, and birther movements reflect this aggressive apocalyptic dualism in both religious and secular forms.
Republican Gomorrah ends with a warning about the resilience of the Christian Right: when the country experienced the “worst economic crisis since the Great Depression… the entrepreneurs of personal crisis celebrated ideal market conditions for their next great crusade.”
Blumenthal’s book is a stirring trumpet call for those who have already written off the Christian Right as a powerful force on the political scene in the United States. The death of the Christian Right has been greatly exaggerated. By the end of Republican Gomorrah, it is clear the leadership of the Christian Right is composed of many highly motivated and skillful people. Disagree with them as you wish, denounce them if you must, but dismiss them at your own risk.