Book Review: Christian Nation: A Novel, Frederic C. Rich (2013)

August 28th, 2013 4:49 pm by Kelly Garbato

I really wanted to like this book…

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. )

I really wanted to like this book. I really did. I mean, it’s right up my alley: Speculative fiction. The rise of an American theocracy. The erosion of civil liberties and rights. The misuse of technology by the government to spy on its citizens and force them into submission. Misogyny taken to its logical extremes. When I first read the description on the book jacket, it brought to mind some of my favorite dystopian classics: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is an obvious one, as is George Orwell’s 1984. While these books do share some similarities, what sets Christian Nation: A Novel apart is that it’s surprisingly boring.

Caution: Minor spoilers ahead!

What might have happened had John McCain and Sarah Palin won the 2008 election? In Frederic C. Rich’s vision of one possible America, a McCain/Palin victory is the first step on the path to an American theocracy. Not long after his inauguration, President McCain drops dead of a cerebral aneurism while giving a speech in Moscow. In a nightmare scenario, the ill-prepared Sarah Palin is swiftly sworn in. During her presidency – which lasts two terms, thanks to a series of especially brutal and conveniently-timed terrorist attacks on American soil – Palin begins to lay the groundwork for what will become the unraveling of American democracy. Among other things, Palin declares martial law, and with her leadership, Congress passes previously unthinkable pieces of legislation, including the Houses of Worship Act, the Constitution Restoration Act, and the Defense of Freedom Act – most of the provisions of which are upheld by a Supreme Court now dominated by conservatives.

Palin is succeeded by her mostly-invisible adviser, Steve Jordan, under whose leadership America undergoes a radical transformation. On July 4th, 2017, he introduces a series of fifty proposed rules organized around ten assertions. Based on an evangelical Christian reading of the Bible and collectively called The Blessing, these are to act as each citizen’s covenant with God, as well as the basis for more concrete state and federal laws. The Blessing is a sort of conservative Christian wishlist: among other things, it establishes “God’s law” as the law of the land; restricts judgeships to born again Christians; expels the UN from US soil and nullifies existing international treaties; solidifies marriage as between one man and one woman; outlaws abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, adultery, pornography, and “sexual perversion”; eradicates hate crimes legislation; establishes abstinence-only education as the only legal form of sexual education; and demands that wives must obey their husbands and children, their fathers. While Jordon doesn’t unilaterally enact The Blessing – it comes up for a vote in Congress, much like any other piece of legislation – it easily passes in a House and Senate dominated by conservative Christians (many of whom were swept into power with the help of politically active churches, thanks to Palin’s Houses of Worship Act).

Though fourteen blue states – led by New York’s Governor Bloomberg – secede from the Union, they’re eventually beaten and bombed into submission by Jordan’s superior military forces. The island of Manhattan holds out the longest – enduring a winter siege – but its citizens are easily captured in the Battle of Battery Park. The male survivors are sent to a “re-education camp” on Governor’s Island; the females, to a converted summer camp on Staten Island. All resistors are sentenced to death, a punishment which is temporarily stayed for three years. During this time, anyone judged to have accepted Jesus Christ as his or her lord and savior is spared and reintegrated into a society now radically changed. All citizens carry “Devices” (made by Apple, natch) which record their every move, and Jordan’s “Purity Web” collates data culled from surveillance cameras, satellites, and the internet to ensure total compliance with The Blessing.

Christian Nation is primarily told in the form of a memoir. A survivor of the siege of Manhattan, in his former life Greg was a partner at a prestigious law firm. Once Sarah Palin takes power and begins to break down the wall of separation between church and state, Greg abruptly quits to join his college friend Sanjay’s non-profit, Theocracy Watch. During the country’s rapid descent into darkness, Sanjay emerges as the public face of the opposition movement; fundamentalists quickly identify him as the Antichrist. Eventually they both become close confidants of Governor Bloomberg. After the fall of Manhattan, Greg serves nearly two and a half years at Governor’s Island, where he is psychologically tortured – and witnesses the physical torture of other inmates, including Sanjay, whose death by stoning is televised for all to see. With just months left to spare, Greg eventually fakes his own conversion and is transferred to a “halfway house” in Manhattan. There he procures a job at the Christian Nation Archives, weeding out “sinful” books for destruction. Occasionally, he mislabels subversive books in order to rescue them from the incinerator; this is one of the few forms of rebellion left to him. That is, until newly arrived co-worker Adam, a member of the underground Free Minds movement, recruits him to write his memoir, hopefully to inspire further rebellion against theocrat Jordan.

There’s a lot to like in Christian Nation. Those who follow the news with any regularity will no doubt recognize a number of real-life individuals and themes: Roy Moore, Christine O’Donnell, Tony Perkins, Rick Warren, and Ted Cruz; Fox News’s merger with the Faith & Freedom Network; gay reorientation camps; book burnings; state militias and Joshua Brigades; Democratic capitulation; widespread apathy and disbelief. For example, the legislation proposed by Palin is based on existing legislation proposed by actual members of Congress. A thorough fact checking of every speech and bill appearing prior to 2008 – the point at which history and fiction diverge – is beyond the scope of this review, but a few random searches suggest that much of it is based in fact. “They said what they would do, and we did not listen. Then they did what they said they would do.” The quotes and ideas found in Christian Nation are not figments of the author’s imagination; rather, they’re straight from the mouths of evangelicals.

(Unfortunately, these incidents culled from real life don’t come with references to reinforce their veracity; as unbelievable as some of them are, I think Rich would have been well-served to include a reference list in the appendix. I’d prefer footnotes, but they probably would have distracted from the story even further.)

Rich’s portrayal of a conservative Christian culture on the rise is frightening in its believability. And yet, in his attempt to explain the possible legal basis for these power grabs, the story becomes bogged down in details. Pages upon pages of constitutional analyses make for tedious reading – that is, unless you’re a legal nerd or policy wonk. But I am neither and, while I agree that it’s important for all American citizens to have a strong grasp of Constitutional law (in this regard, I especially appreciated Sanjay’s delineation of a constitutional democracy vs. a popular democracy), it makes for a rather dry piece of fiction. While indeed chilling on an intellectual level, Christian Nation lacks the raw, visceral emotion of The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 – or even Teri Hall’s recent, lesser-known New Zapata. (Driven by fundamentalist Christians, Texas has seceded from the Union in order to institute a theocracy similar to Jordan’s Christian Nation. The plot revolves around a young woman trying to procure a life-saving abortion after she’s raped and impregnated by her abusive husband.)

Also disappointing is the scarcity of female characters. Greg’s girlfriend Emilie gets the most face time by far; and yet, she’s an utterly unlikable human being, with few or no redeeming qualities. She’s a vain, money-hungry, power-grabbing social climber who lapses into a fit of hysterics when Greg quits his job without first consulting her. Then she immediately kicks him out of their shared apartment, and he (and the readers) never sees her again. Her character is sloppily written; she vacillates between outright rudeness and bouts of ADD, ending controversial conversations as abruptly as she starts them. An intelligent young woman, she nonetheless seems disinterested in and willfully ignorant about everything going on outside her sphere of influence (banking). I suppose she’s supposed to represent the Everyperson, so busy living day to day that she doesn’t take notice (or even care to) when her rights are stripped away, one at a time. This might be okay, if Rich included any other women of note. But not so much. Even Sarah Palin, POTUS, serves as little more than a handy historical entry point for the larger story. Throughout her presidency, she functions as a tool for her own personal Dick Cheney, Steve Jordan; he’s the real antagonist of the story. Greg, Sanjay, Jordan, Bloomberg – everyone who actively pushes the plot forward is a man. The lack of gender diversity is especially egregious given that Rich takes a stab at diversity in other areas: Sanjay, for example, is a gay man of Indian descent, and Adam is African American.

Because the story is told from a male perspective, the impact of The Blessing on women remains mostly unexplored. Along with other populations vilified by fundamentalists – gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people; those of other religions, and no religions; immigrants and people of color – women are particularly vulnerable under such a regime. It is women who are forced to carry and bear children, and women who must obey their husbands in addition to the government. Since every citizen who fails to marry by the age of 30 is presumed homosexual, opting out of marriage is a risky proposition at best. While this mandate holds true for men as well as women, only men can demand sex from their partners. Furthermore, contraception is prohibited – thus all but guaranteeing an endless cycle of rape, forced pregnancy, and birth. While everyone suffers in a totalitarian society, not everyone suffers equally.

In this vein, abortion is mentioned several times in passing – but truthfully, I think the Terri Schiavo debacle merited the same amount of attention. (Rich seems borderline obsessed with Schiavo.)

That said, Rich isn’t altogether an unskilled writer; his portrayal of a young, gay Buddhist monk who, after escaping religious persecution in Myanmar, immolates himself in front of the White House in protest of the newly enacted Deviancy Regulation, was incredibly touching. Likewise, I greatly enjoyed the scenes of a self-sustaining Manhattan under siege, lawns, roofs, and formerly concreted spaces converted to urban gardens. But chicken coops, really? Even when faced with starvation and civil war, Americans are unable to let go of animal agriculture, as unsustainable as it is. (Sure, you can eat the chickens and their eggs – but how much do you have to feed and water the chickens? The input is greater than the output – do the math!)

Christian Nation begins with an interesting premise, but in Rich’s attempt to delineate “the how” in compelling and convincing detail, the author mostly lost my interest. In the Acknowledgements, Rich credits several texts for informing his portrayal of a Christian Nation: American Fascists and Empire of Illusion, both by Chris Hedges; Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming; The Family, by Jeff Sharlet; Kevin Philips’s American Theocracy; and Republican Gomorrah by Max Blumenthal. I suspect that readers who’d like to learn more about the Christian right would be better served by one of these books instead. Michelle Goldberg’s work, in particular, is much more lively and engaging than the tale found here.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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