Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Flag and the Cross
The other day, I was out somewhere and saw the following bumper sticker, with a quote attributed to novelist Sinclair Lewis: "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross."
(And, I might add, backed by a poll that says some percentage of the population is OK with it. There are dueling polls out right now suggesting that A) two-thirds of Americans are OK with the latest round of domestic wiretaps and B) that half of Americans are not OK with the latest round of domestic wiretaps. If ever there were a situation where you need to examine both the questionnaire and the methodology to determine the credibility of a poll, this is it. But the mighty Billmon has decloaked himself this weekend to make the point that the validity of our civil rights is not subject to approval or disapproval by a poll. That's what makes rights rights--we're entitled to them no matter what.)

Sinclair Lewis would recognize the thing he feared in the Christian Reconstructionists--a religiously inspired movement that wants to take control of every facet of American culture, society, and government under Old Testament principles. When I first started studying these people, in the mid 1990s, it was mostly because they seemed to be such entertaining loons. Back then, even they didn't think their kingdom was close at hand--one of their leading thinkers estimated it might be a thousand years away. But in the last 10 years, things have speeded up considerably.

Michelle Goldberg has written a book about the movement, and an excerpt appeared at Salon yesterday. It's the sort of thing that inspires open-mouthed, they-can't-be-serious awe--followed rather swiftly by the chilling realization that these people are absolutely serious, and on fire with the devotion of the truly committed.

I wonder, though, whether the United States, and specifically the great big squirming, wiggling, vibrating and vibrant bag that is our culture--art, science, education, socialization, money, sex, sports, commerce, the totality of it, however you'd like to describe it--is remotely containable on the scale the Reconstructionists suggest. It's possible to imagine Reconstructionists getting control of a state government--there's actually a formal movement to do just that in South Carolina--but even if they were to succeed in one state, the border would not be all that far away, and those who chose to flee could flee. To see them successful at clamping down on the entire country requires a flair for paranoid invention even I have trouble summoning up, and I'm a lot more paranoid about Christian nutbags than most people.

What would it take? Even the kind of surveillance of telephone calls that was revealed this week isn't likely to be enough. The Reconstructionists are, at bottom, thought police, and how they might get inside the heads of 298 million Americans to police what they're thinking, I'm not sure. Even George Orwell's telescreens couldn't tell what you were thinking. And short of putting half the population in uniform to police the activities of the other half, I can't seem them succeeding to the extent they imagine.

Of course, they won't need to succeed to that extent to make life difficult and unpleasant for millions of us. Their ethos--the idea that only they know what's right and moral, and that people who don't share their views are not fit to live in America--is already afoot in the ranks of conservative America. It may be in a somewhat dishwatery form compared to the Reconstructionists' 180-proof version of it, but it's there. And as long as they keep soldiering on, it's likely to get stronger. Maybe not strong enough to reach the critical mass they dream of, but strong enough to make this country even harder to live in than it is now.

Recommended Reading: You remember the Desiderata, of course ("Go placidly amid the noise and the haste"). And you may remember National Lampoon's "Deteriorata" ("You are a joke of the universe/you have no right to be here.") At Orcinus, David Neiwart presents Deciderata.

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