The Literary Politics of the Christian Left – by Christopher Douglas

If we want to think about the literary politics of American religion, we might imagine an informal Christian Right alliance between George W. Bush, whose presidency was the apex (so far) of the Christian Right’s political ascendency, and Tim LaHaye, co-author of the most famous evangelical best-sellers, the Left Behind novels. This is not to say that Bush was a devotee of the 60 million-copy series of apocalyptic End Times, or that Bush and LaHaye necessarily met or consulted (though they may have when Bush addressed LaHaye’s Council for National Policy in 1999 as he was seeking the Republican nomination). But it is to say that both were broadly involved in the political resurgence of conservative Christianity in the last couple of decades and shared a general conservative evangelical theology. We could think of conservative evangelical fiction like the Left Behind novels as the literary arm of a broader social-political movement that culminated in the Bush presidency. That movement seemed in temporary abeyance with Donald Trump’s initial splitting of the evangelical vote, but he now appears to have sealed the deal, polling at 78% among white evangelicals, higher than Mitt Romney’s share in 2012.

Pete Souza/White House
Pete Souza/White House

A parallel but more explicit alliance for the generally-invisible Christian Left became clear last fall with the mutual admiration of Marilynne Robinson and Barack Obama. Their admiration has been growing for years; Robinson’s Iowa home sported an Obama sign back in 2008, and Obama cited Robinson’s most famous novel, Gilead, as among his favorites in 2009. Obama also awarded Robinson the National Humanities Medal in 2012. The alliance most surprisingly broke out into the open with the unprecedented spectacle of a sitting president interviewing a living author in a two part New York Review of Books interview in November 2015. It was remarkable for many things, but partly for its context: this was the president, after all, whom over half of Republican voters believe is not a Christian at all; voters who have now embraced the birther-in-chief Donald Trump himself as their next nominee.

What is Left rather than Right about this Christian coalition is that it eschews the hot button cultural issues we usually associate with high religiosity in the culture wars of the last three decades or so. Robinson’s fiction, after all, is not concerned with policing boundaries of premarital sex, abortion, or homosexuality, preferring a faith characterized by wonder, grace and mystery. There are no declarations of literalist and inerrantist Biblical interpretation amid the plenty of references to scripture, and no advocacy for Bible-reading or prayer in school. Robinson’s fiction rather accentuates – as in her interview with Obama – the importance of loving one’s neighbor. It is a politics that emphasizes agape, that imagines a positive role for government, that places limitations on the right to bear arms, that prioritizes environmental stewardship, and that foreswears an alliance between religion and big business.

But there is another sense, a strange sense, in this Christian-Left view of American history, one that makes the novel an odd choice as the President’s favorite. Gilead is, like its companion novel Home, a deeply nostalgic novel, a nostalgia that verges on an adoration of a time that never was. The high point in American history, from Robinson’s point of view, was the Christian abolitionist movement: a moment in time when Christians most vividly saw and opposed the evil in the land, making a lasting contribution to the country’s commitment to freedom. Accordingly, the moral terrain of Gilead is that of Midwest abolitionism, as its narrator recalls the philosophical struggle between his militant abolitionist preacher grandfather and his pacifist abolitionist preacher father. The political theology of this struggle is echoed, in the narrator’s time, by questions of informal segregation and miscegenation in 1950s Iowa, and whether his best friend’s prodigal son is going to be able to bring his secret mixed-race family home to the fictional town of Gilead. Although there are no African American main characters in the novel, it is not a stretch to say that the novel’s themes of grace and forgiveness, moral clarity and Christian commitment, turn on the nation’s enduring historical black presence.

All of which may partly explain the President’s sympathy for this white Christian writer’s seriousness of purpose in grappling with the big questions of race and religion in America. Yet the novel is curiously silent on the religiosity of its imagined opponents, those practicing what escaped slave and abolitionist author Frederick Douglass called, during the time, “Christian slavery.” Because the fact of the matter is that the debate between abolitionism and slavery in mid-nineteenth-century America was really an intra-Christian debate, with split denominations citing different Biblical passages supporting their rival practices and values. The literary record confirms the seriousness of religious purpose in the slaveholding South; in fact, abolitionist escapees like Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Solomon Northup asserted that highly religious slaveholders were among the most dreaded.

For example, Douglass recounts his early hope, on hearing that his master had become born again at a Methodist tent revival meeting during the Second Great Awakening, that he might manumit his slaves after his conversion. But he is dismayed to discover that his treatment of his slaves became worse, not better: “Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.” Indeed, conversion entailed in part greater familiarity with Scripture, and his master could now cite Biblical sanction while whipping his slaves, as with his quotation attributed to Jesus, “He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes” (see Luke 12:47).

Omitting this history matters for the literary politics of the Christian Left because it is the origin of its opponent, the Christian Right. The Christian South did not understand its military defeat during the Civil War as a divine refutation of its slaveholding theology; in fact, Christian slavery led quite directly into practices and institutions of Christian segregationism, with churches sometimes leading the way. Noah’s curse on Ham had been used to justify slavery; now, it was used to justify segregation. And Christian segregationism, in turn, was the ancestor of today’s Christian Right. As Susan Harding has shown, Jerry Falwell began his career as a Christian segregationist, decrying the mixing of politics and religion in Christian Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. It was both a tribute to and a reaction against the African American-led movement when he, changing his tune on mixing politics and religion, founded the Moral Majority with Tim LaHaye in 1979 in order to get conservative (white) Christians more involved in politics. The continued racialism of the Tea Party and the white nationalism evident among many Trump supporters today, including evangelicals, have their antecedent in the Christian Right’s formation out of Christian segregationism.

It may seem unfair to criticize a novel for what it omits rather than what it contains. But this historical backdrop is the invisible context for Robinson’s Gilead. I believe that when its elderly preacher narrator bemoans the “jackrabbit” theology of emerging (in 1956) radio ministries, Robinson partly has her eye on this otherwise unremarked history of American Christian theology that was on the brink of exercising its political muscle. In its wise and loving protagonist, she is saying that there might have been a kinder and gentler religious awakening than the one that Falwell and LaHaye helped build. But it matters for the Christian Left to see and understand the historical origins of today’s Christian Right. To be silent on the religiosity of supporters of slavery and then segregation is to participate in one of the signal tropes of the Christian Right’s historical revisionism: that the Founders attempted, as Michelle Bachman and others have suggested, to eradicate slavery but that secularist forces kept slavery in play in the Republic. Less religious contemporary writers addressing slavery – one thinks of Toni Morrison in Beloved, or Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale – have done a better job of recognizing the religious dimensions of the abominable institution.

To be sure, it is theologically troubling to dwell on the way in which Christianity supported both sides of the slavery-abolition debates in the mid-nineteenth century. But if there is such a thing as the Christian Left today, its mission is not well-served by avoiding this problematic history and the theological questions it provokes. Robinson’s silence on the history is all the more troubling, given that her novel’s moral kernel is its question of race and religion during slavery and segregation. There is plenty of evidence that less religious writers of a left or progressive bent have had their eye on the rise of the Christian Right in the last 40 or so years, and attempted to grapple with its strange and unexpected emergence. But it is not possible for a Christian Left to really understand contemporary conservative Christianity without examining its racialized origins with as clear eyes as it can.