As far as alternative histories go, Christian Nation (W.W. Norton) by Frederic C. Rich is uncomfortably believable. It’s also, for me as an atheist, terrifyingly dystopian. Part of the fear I get when reading it is wondering how many people see this particular near-future vision as something positive.
In Christian Nation, a hypothetical future is explored in detail: what if McCain/Palin had won in 2008, and then McCain died and we got Palin as president? What might follow from that?
When I read a book, I look at two main things: the quality of the writing and the value of the ideas. Christian Nation excels in both of these aspects. Rich, a partner with a New York-based law firm, has done a lot of writing besides his lawyering, and he writes (and/or has been edited) elegantly. I found none of the major goofs that I often come across in books of ideas, in which the ideas take precedence over all other considerations.
Rich uses a lot of quotes in the epigraphs at the head of each chapter and throughout the narrative. I found them an enriching aspect of the novel. All the quotes from pre-2008 are genuine. Would-be leaders usually announce what they’re going to do, he points out, and then when they have the power, they do exactly what they’ve said. Such as, in 2010, Palin said, “[To] declare that America isn’t a Christian nation. . . it’s mind-boggling.”
One of the main characters is gay, and there is a lot of homophobia and homosexual oppression, even brutality, by the new extremist Christian government. The only major female character is a social climber, an ambitious player, wholly unsympathetic, which allows her to be dispensed with fairly quickly. I detected what seemed to me to be a homo-erotic charge between best friends Greg and Sanjay, though it’s never acknowledged as such.
WARRING FOR CHRIST (FOR A CHANGE]
Following a war by the Christian Feds against the secular states, ending in Manhattan, losers are sent to re-education camp. Those scenes are eerily realistic and wrenching, evoking not-so-distant history and classic fiction about how dictatorships eliminate the opposition.
Different kinds of activists play a role in opposing the extremists: Sanjay is all in at the start, but he’s made a lot of money from a business and thus money and time are no object for him now. Greg, the narrator, is slowly drawn into the opposition, not immediately ready to give up his lawyerly career ambitions. As a matter of principle, he finally does what he believes is the right thing, as risky as it is.
A detailed section describes “The Blessing,” which is the set of rules for the new Christian society. Honestly, it nauseated me. I know too much about history — its various inquisitions, crusades, pogroms, and genocides– to read it without a deep sense of foreboding. The urge to undo millennia of social and intellectual progress is blatant. The new leaders even burn books, though the narrator finds a dangerous way to safeguard a few of the crucial ones. And then he writes this one, to help future citizens understand why the crazy stuff happened.
My only quibble is that there is far more telling than showing, and perhaps a few too many lengthy explanatory speeches. Rich does a good job interweaving the speeches into the narrative, but I would have edited them down a bit more anyway.
I’m curious as to whether non-extremist Christians might read this and think, “It wouldn’t be so bad if all this came to pass, but of course without the torture and killing.”
Christian Nation is intended as a warning, and thus isn’t totally without hope for a better future. I, for one, would not choose to die for my non-beliefs (a choice given to many in this book’s scenario). Would you?
- On the site for Christian Nation, you can watch a trailer for the book, learn more about the author, and read about the main groups working to defend separation of church and state: Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Secular Coalition of America.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry