In Florida she attended a Sunday morning church service, among more than 5,000 Christian worshippers, which featured rock music and strobe lights. In Texas she went to a Ten Commandments rally at the state house, where Evangelical Christians were urged to put God back into government. Back in Florida, in a soaring cathedral, with a Christian flag flying outside, she heard speakers laud the virtues of creationism.
Michelle Goldberg’s year of living Christianly was done for journalistic, not theological purposes.
A secular Jew from Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, a staff writer for the online magazine Salon.com, Goldberg spent a year at various Christian venues, mostly of the fundamentalist, Evangelical type, around the country doing research for her first book.
“Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism,” recently published by W.W. Norton & Company, describes the growing influence of the movement, which grew out of Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition political advocacy group.Christian nationalism, with uncounted supporters at grassroots levels of American politics and influence at the highest levels of the Bush administration, seeks to make its “revisionist” interpretation of U.S. history, that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, the law of the land, Goldberg says. That means opposition to such bedrock issues as abortion and gay rights; a narrow interpretation of separation of church and state; and support for the posting of the Ten Commandments in public places.
The movement has seized the hearts of believers in Middle America, but its extent is largely unknown on the largely liberal coasts, Goldberg says, nursing a cup of coffee in a café near her home. “Most people in the mainstream” —that is, non-Evangelical circles — “don’t know about it,” she says.
“A hidden America,” Goldberg, 30, calls it.
Which is why she decided to write about it. “I was initially interested in the cultural divide” between liberals and conservatives.
A native of Buffalo who has traveled extensively overseas and written about pop culture, she hit upon the book idea during a conversation with a literary agent in another Brooklyn coffee shop two years ago. “The conversation veered towards the parallel culture — an amalgam of extreme nationalism and apocalyptic religion — that seemed to be ascendant in much of America,” Goldberg writes.
She had already interviewed several of the Christian clergy members, activists and politicians featured in her book. To supplement that, she went to religious services, rallies, conferences and school board meetings.
If anyone asked about her religious affiliation, she identified herself as a Jew.
Most of the people she approached were cooperative. And friendly. “People always tried to convert me” to Christian belief, she says. “Always, always, always.
“I only had one anti-Semitic incident,” she says. One speaker had railed against Jewish attacks on Christianity. She went up to him afterwards. Discovering that Goldberg was Jewish, he asked, “So do you people talk about this stuff?”
“Do you mean a plan to destroy Christianity?” she asked.
“Well, do you?”
“I didn’t get the memo,” Goldberg answered.
Did the speaker get the sarcasm?
No, Goldberg says, he walked away.
A self-described agnostic, Goldberg says she wrote her book from primarily a liberal, not Jewish perspective. But, she says, “if you’re Jewish, you can’t help growing up with … an increased sensitivity about what it means to be a minority.”
“The stakes are high,” she writes. “Those who aren’t Christian, or who aren’t the right kind of Christian, can never be full citizens of the country the Christian nationalists want to create.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, calls Goldberg’s work “a very important book at an important time.”
“The topic is very important,” Foxman says, “Religion is becoming an everyday issue in this country. For the Jewish community it is important, because we are a minority in a majority Christian environment.”
Christian nationalists, naturally, disagree with the message of her book, Goldberg says. She has been invited on several Christian radio shows, where criticism was offered courteously, she says. “I was really expecting an attack.” Liberal Christians have praised her, she says.
Goldberg has already given several speeches about her book, mostly to sympathetic audiences. Next fall comes Jewish Book Month.
Does she expect to return, as an invited speaker, to the Christian nationalist churches and rallies she had attended as a journalist?
No, Goldberg says, shaking her head. “Certainly not.”