Having a difficult time making sense of the religious right? If so, you are far from alone. It is alien territory for many Americans in its religious, political and public policy aspects. But it is a big, powerful, political movement that will be with us, in all of its many manifestations for a very long time, no matter what happens this election year.  If we are going to be able to have useful conversations about the politics of the Christian right, it helps to have some foundational knowledge.
I did a round-up the other day of some of the best and most important blog posts about the religious right from the past week. And as I did, it occurred to me that even as most people find it difficult to learn about the religious right, let alone have a thoughtful conversation about it, it is also hard to figure out how to learn the things that are most important to know. Blogs are helpful, but it is hard to get a foundation of knowledge from blogs alone. And since there are few conferences in any field that even a focused panel discussion on the subject, if you recognize the seriousness of the situation, you just have to do it for yourself.

But I will help.

Over the next little while, I will do a series of posts that can be your own personal home school curriculum on the subject. To start, here are five basic books (among many on the subject) that, taken together, provide a good foundation of knowledge that I think will be helpful in the run-up to this year’s elections, as well as the elections of 2008. This foundation will also help to make sense of ongoing news reporting and blog posts you may encounter, and to provide some common knowledge,language, and concepts among people who share your concerns about this powerful political movement.

Dr. Clarkson’s Old Fashioned Home School Curriculum requires that anyone who wishes to consider themselves well informed and able to hold their own in political conversation ought to have read three of the five books below.

Rightwing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, by Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons, Guilford, 2000.

This book is used as a text in college courses around the country. It is a history of the sociology of rightwing populism in the U.S. in its religious, secular and racist dimensions. It is a highly recommended background for understanding the roots of contemporary conservative movements. The official book summary states:

Right-wing militias and other anti-government organizations have received heightened public attention since the Oklahoma City bombing. While such groups are often portrayed as marginal extremists, the values they espouse have influenced mainstream politics and culture far more than most Americans realize. This important volume offers an in-depth look at the historical roots and current landscape of right-wing populism in the United States. Illuminated is the potent combination of anti-elitist rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and ethnic scapegoating that has fueled many political movements from the colonial period to the present day. The book examines the Jacksonians, the Ku Klux Klan, and a host of Cold War nationalist cliques, and relates them to the evolution of contemporary electoral campaigns of Patrick Buchanan, the militancy of the Posse Comitatus and the Christian Identity movement, and an array of millennial sects. Combining vivid description and incisive analysis, Berlet and Lyons show how large numbers of disaffected Americans have embraced right-wing populism in a misguided attempt to challenge power relationships in U.S. society. Highlighted are the dangers these groups pose for the future of our political system and the hope of progressive social change.

Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, by Frederick Clarkson, Common Courage Press, 1997.  

This book was talking about the theocratic elements of the Christian Right years before it was cool, and I am pleased to report that it has stood up quite well over time, and remains surprisingly current. This book discusses some major points and players in the development of the Christian Right political movement that brought us to where we are today. It also discusses the significance of the theocratic Christian Reconstrucionist movement in the context of the broader Christian Right, especially the antiabortion movement, and explains how it is foundational to many religiously motivated homeschoolers. I take the view that unless you understand the role of Christian Reconstuctionist movement, and seminal thinker R.J. Rushdoony, you can’t understand the rise of the Christian Right or what animates its “Biblical worldview.” One of the founders of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority stated that without Rushdoony’s books “none of us would be here.” I think that statement is exactly right. This is not to say that everyone in the Christian Right is a reconstructionist; far from it. Rather, the ideas of Christian Reconstructionism have had everything to do with powering this contemporary political movement to the pinnacle of power in less than a generation.

Among other central tenets of the Christian right, this book explores and debunks the myth that America was founded as a Christian nation, and suggests specific ways that the Christian Right can be countered. Another feature of the book is a chapter exposing the bogus theories to two prominent academics that unfortunately became popular in Democratic and liberal circles in the 1990s. One of the authors was a barely closeted Christian Rightist posing as a neutral scholar. It is important to read books that are reliable sources of information and analysis — that is, if you want to win. That is one reason why the books mentioned here are important.

Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg is just out this month from W.W. Norton. Goldberg will be making personal appearances in New York, California, Massachusetts and Washington, DC in May and June in connection with the release of the book.  This book is a logical follow-up to Eternal  Hostility. I have read an advance copy and will more formally review it at some point. But suffice to say it is a must read.  Goldberg deftly integrates her understanding of Christian Reconstructionism into the broader narrative of current events, notably an entire chapter on the Dover, Pennsylvania federal court case over intelligent design. There are also lucid and well documented discussions of the war on the federal judiciary and more broadly, the meaning of Christian nationalism as it permeates Christian Right political culture.  

It was an ordinary spring school board meeting in the small bedroom community of Dover, Pennsylvania. The high school needed new biology textbooks, and the science department had recommended Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine’s widely used Biology. But Bill Buckingham, a new board member who’d recently become chair of the curriculum committee, had an objection. Biology, he said, was “laced with Darwinism.” He wanted a textbook that balanced theories of evolution with Christian creationism, and he was willing to turn to his town into a cultural battlefield to get it.

“This country wasn’t founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution,” said Buckingham, a stocky, gray-haired man who wears a red, white and blue crucifix pin on his lapel. “This country was founded on Christianity and our students should be taught as such.”

With God on Their Side:  How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W. Bush’s White House, by Esther Kaplan, New Press, 2004. Now out in paperback.

This is the definitive book on what happens when religion trumps science in politics and public policy as exemplified by the outrageous policies of the Bush administration. While the books previously metnioned tell us how we got to where we are today, this book focuses on the consequences of their policy ideas in hair-raising detail, particularly in the areas of AIDS policy and reproductive health of women.

American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, by Kevin Phillips, Viking, 2006.

This book is also a must read in this political season. It is emblematic of the growing chasm between conservative writers like Phillips, and the rabid alliance between neoconservatives and the religious right that has defined the Bush administration. Phillips shows rather convincingly that there is a strong historical correlation between the rise of religious zealotry and the decline of great nations and empires. He sees the rise of the American Christian Right in this context and relates the problems posed in connection with other major political and economic trends. (The book draws on work by me and by Esther Kaplan in making his argument.) While it is not without flaws, (that I will discuss in a formal review sometime soon), these are outweighed by the strength of his general argument. That Phillips’ books is getting so much national attention across the political spectrum also means that it is a must read as it will contribute significantly to the contemporary conversation on these subjects.

The frequent by-products of religious fervor in the later stages of the previous powers– zealotry, exaltation of faith over reason, too much church-state collaboration, or a contagion of crusader mentality– shed light on another contemporary U.S. predicament. Controversies that run the gamut from interference with science to biblically inhibited climatology and petroleum geology and demands for the partial reunion of church and state have accompanied the political rise of Christian conservatism. Such trends are rarely auspicious.

The essential political preconditions fell into place in the late 1980s and 1990s with the emergence of the Republican party as a powerful vehicle for religiosity and church influence, while state Republican parties,most conspicuously in the South and Southwest, endorsed so-called Christian nation party platforms. These unusual platforms, as yet nationally uncatalogued, set out in varying degrees the radical political theology of the Christian Reconstructionist movement, the tenets of which range from using the Bible as a basis for domestic law to emphasizing religious schools and women’s subordination to men. the 2004 platform of the Texas Republican party is a case in point. It reaffirms the status of the United States as “a Christian nation,” regrets the myth of the separation of church and state,” calls for abstinence instead of sex education, and broadly mirrors the reconstructionist demand for the abolition of a large group of federal agencies and departments, including the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.

(Oh yeah, and four of the five authors mentioned above blog at Talk to Action.)