An Untold Tale: American Fiction vs. The Religious Right

A portion of a manuscript page from Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead"

What inspired you to write If God Meant to Interfere: American Literature and the Rise of the Christian Right?

I really wanted to figure something out: what the surprising, strange, unexpected return of conservative Christianity meant for American literature in the last half century or so. The book’s argument is that the social resurgence of conservative Christianity is one of the most important transformations in the U.S. religious landscape in the last several decades, and that this is the context within which we need to understand religiously inflected fiction.

We had been led astray by what social scientists call the secularization thesis: that as societies become more modern, they become less religious. Many writers, readers and academics expected that this must be occurring in the U.S., and we continued to believe it, long after it became evident that the U.S. wasn’t following the pattern that might be true in parts of Europe or Canada. I wanted to understand what it looked like as writers tried to register the unforeseen return of politically muscular religion—how they recognized it or misrecognized it, and, as [people who are] generally secular and liberal, tried to criticize its politics.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

If God Meant to Interfere is about learning to listen to our literature for its sometimes subterranean attention to the religious upheavals going on around it. The diversity of religiously interested fiction today is astounding. The novels I examine involve themes of religious conspiracies, faith and wonder, slavery and imperialism, evolution and extraterrestrial contact, alternate histories and ancestral spiritualities. [Fiction] writers today are our version of Hebrew and classical prophets: they try to speak to society, to diagnose our social and spiritual condition.

I read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, for instance, as the search for a Christian political alternative to the Christian Right—and so she turns to the historical terrain of Christian abolitionism for her story. At what might be the other end of the theological spectrum, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian takes up the old question of God’s role in human and animal suffering—perhaps reframed by the evolution-creationism debates while he was writing.

The Christian Right is restless, its coalition in abeyance since the George W. Bush presidency and thrown off-balance by the rise of Donald Trump, who split evangelical voters. But the major themes of the Christian Right—the Christian nation, traditional gender roles, racialized faith traditions, the sinfulness of abortion and homosexuality, science’s disturbing conclusions—continue to permeate our cultural politics. Religiously inflected literature since the 1970s should be understood in the context of this unfinished resurgence of conservative Christianity that continues to realign the literary and cultural fields.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

I had to leave out lots! I wish I had more space to examine David Foster Wallace, Alice Walker and John Irving, for example. My book is about serious literary writers, although I make a couple of exceptions when I discuss the science fiction novel Contact by Carl Sagan, and Dan Brown’s popular religious mystery thriller, The Da Vinci Code.

Sagan has a reputation as a proto-New Atheist, but his novel suggests he was intensely sympathetic to religious experience and authority. By the end of his novel he has his scientist protagonist embark on a career of “experimental theology” after she has discovers the “signature” of God in the very structure of the universe. At the same time, Sagan was not impressed by the creationism of Christian fundamentalists in the 1980s. He was searching for a middle ground.

The Da Vinci Code, meanwhile, vilified the Catholic Church, but I show that it should better be understood as an attack on Protestantism, and particularly on the authority of the Bible. It was a woefully ill-informed attack on the Bible, but its target was the reliability of Scripture, which is far more important to fundamentalist Protestants than it is to Catholics.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

One big misconception is that the literary paradigms of multiculturalism and postmodernism would be natural antagonists of the Christian Right. It turned out that conservative Christians could love aspects of both these things. Teaching evolution in public schools, for instance, has been likened to a genocide of Christians, disrespectful and murderous of Christian identity.

Writers like Barbara Kingsolver (in The Poisonwood Bible), Marilynne Robinson (in Gilead), Ishmael Reed (in Mumbo Jumbo), Gloria Anzaldúa (in Borderlands/La Frontera) and Philip Roth (think The Plot Against America) translated their critiques of conservative Christian politics into the language of multicultural disrespect for identities. But as it turned out, this language was also being used by conservative Christians themselves, as with the notion that the religious sensibility of bakers is being offended when they have gay customers ordering a wedding cake.

Although liberals often think that identity politics has been a great driver of progress, I try to remind everyone that it’s actually through human rights claims–not identity claims–that progress has been made in the courts on desegregation, teaching evolution, reproductive rights, and now gay marriage. The success of multiculturalism in literature and academia made us misrecognize the rise of the Christian Right for what it was: it was a minority social movement, but one that made particular legal claims on people outside of it. When writers used the logic of multicultural identity to critique the politics of the Christian Right, they were misapprehending the phenomenon.

The same holds true for postmodernism. It’s too easy to think of the uncertainties and indeterminacies of postmodernism as being naturally opposed to the theological certainty of the fundamentalism that is the backbone of the Christian Right. But what I try to show in my book is that postmodern uncertainty is not an obstacle to faith, but an invitation to it.

This is the lesson of a novel like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, a metaphysical detective story that shows us how being uncertain about our knowledge and the world forces us all to make faith decisions. In fact, there are a number of issues—evolution, Bible criticism, climate change, sex education, even supply-side economic policy—where conservative Christians have embraced the postmodern uncertainty undercutting consensus expert knowledge. In If God Meant to Interfere I try to show how postmodern literature couldn’t really face down the Christian Right, since it was already entangled with what I call “Christian Postmodernism.”

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I tried to write this book for a general audience—anyone who likes contemporary American fiction and is interested in religion and politics.

I try to be fair in my treatment of the Christian Right, but obviously there will be arguments and ideas in my book that conservative Christians will disagree with. They won’t like that I point out that the historical genealogy of the Christian Right lay back in segregation, and before that, in slavery. Writers like Toni Morrison are aware of this fact, and it’s the reason that one outsider who examined the Christian Right—Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale—was paying such close attention to slave narratives when she imagined her Christian totalitarian dystopia.

Readers among the so-called (and somewhat invisible) “Christian Left” would find a lot to appreciate in the book. I pay a good deal of attention to Marilynne Robinson, who is arguably the greatest Christian literary writer in the U.S. today. I love her work. It’s not just secularists and liberal writers who responded critically to the rise of the Christian Right. I make the argument that we should understand Robinson’s Gilead as a representation of the road not taken in American Christianity—that we could have had a wiser, more theologically nuanced, more social justice-oriented political Christianity than the version we ultimately got. I think Robinson’s pal Barack Obama would agree.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

Readers will laugh and cry! They will be informed and entertained! There will be some pissed off readers, and not just among conservative Christians. I suggest that sometimes liberal writers and literary critics have somewhat misunderstood the religious transformation that was going on around them, and some won’t like my argument that sometimes novels are “wrong” in their approach. Roth is a great writer, but growing up as irreligiously as he did ill-prepared him for the religious energy that overtook the nation during his career.

What alternative title would you give the book?

I thought of God Gap Fictions for a little while, but not enough people knew what the God Gap was. (It’s the measurable difference between more-religious Republicans and less-religious Democrats.) I thought of Postmodern Designs & Multicultural Grafts. I thought of neat Biblical quotations, like Scattered Among the Heathen or By Faith Ye Stand. I think the title I finally chose is pretty good. It’s a quotation from one of the novels I examine in detail—I’ll let RD readers discover which one.

How do you feel about the cover?

I love it. The top left corner is William Blake’s illustration of God speaking to Job from the whirlwind. Job is an incredibly important book in the Bible for the theological question of pain and human suffering. Job comes up in three novels I talk about—Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and the evangelical bestseller The Shack, by William Paul Young, which is sort of a Book of Job meets Criminal Minds and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit novel.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

There are lots of great books on American literature and religion—Tracy Fessenden, Amy Hungerford, and John McClure have done great work. Susan Harding has an amazing cultural anthropology of Jerry Falwell’s church and movement, and Kevin Kruse has a great history of, as he puts it in his subtitle, How Corporate America Invented Christian America. Where would we be without Frank Schaeffer’s insider, semi-apostate account of growing up evangelical and helping to form the Christian Right? I wish I had Bart Ehrman’s expertise in early Christian traditions or was learned enough to write a book of big religious ideas like Robert Bellah or Charles Taylor.

What’s your next book?

I’m not sure yet. I think I’d like to examine conservative evangelical fiction like The Shack or the Left Behind series in more detail. Evangelical fiction could be considered the literary arm of the Christian Right—which was modeled in some ways on other minority social movements, as strange as that may seem. I’d like to examine this body of work without losing sight of the “serious” American literature interested in religion—as with writers like Walker, Wallace, Irving, or E. L. Doctorow.