Weekly Read: One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America

I was born in 1973, so I kind of came into political puberty in the mid 1980s. As a result, the Religious Right has been a part of my political scene essentially my entire life. My impression of them then, and still today, is that they’re mostly culture warriors, fixated generally on the sexual behavior of others (to steal Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”). It seemed like a natural reaction to the “free love” of the 1960s and, so, I figured that’s where it’s all come from. I’ve also read some theories that the operatives of the Religious Right largely came out of losing side in the battle over segregation, as they searched for new wedge issues in the culture.

In One Nation Under God, historian Kevin Kruse argues differently. His thesis is right there in the subtitle: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. The Religious Right isn’t an organic outgrowth of grassroots fervor. Rather, it’s the result of some careful calculation of big business interests searching for foot soldiers in their fight against the regulative state. What’s funny is that while they got the movement, it just never delivered on the goal they really wanted it for.

In Kruse’s telling, the Religious Right got its start in the 1930s as business leaders sought to combat Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. This was all prompted by the Great Depression. More directly, it was that Roosevelt dared to use the Federal government to try and lift the nation out of poverty, ushering in an expansion of power at a national level. It really was the birth of the modern regulatory state, which is something big business couldn’t deal with. But simply making their case – to the impoverished masses to whom some government regulation of the industry that drove the country into the ditch in the first place was a good thing – wasn’t really working.

Nor was it enough to fall back on paeans to the Founding Fathers and the American way which, to be fair up to that point, had involved a lot of lightly regulated capitalism. Again, it couldn’t really cut through the economic reality. That’s when religion appeared and alliance formed between politically minded preachers and leaders of industry to turn capitalism not just into the American way, but God’s way, too.

One of those preachers was Billy Graham. While not involved at the very start in the 1930s, he quickly became part of the new religion/business alliance. He was particularly important to bringing Eisenhower around on the whole idea, going to far as to write bits for some of Ike’s speeches (he’d do the same for Nixon later). The idea, floated somewhat when Graham died a few years ago, that he wasn’t part of the Religious Right as a political entity is, thus, complete bullshit. He wasn’t the only one, of course, but he was part of the cadre of religious leaders who turned the White House into a kind of religious bully pulpit.

As skeevy as the entire operation was, it does have a huge sense of irony about it, thanks to Eisenhower. He was the first President (and presidential candidate) to really embrace the idea of “ceremonial deism” and the canard that Christianity is the foundation of the Constitution. So, when he was in office and running things (and becoming the first President baptized while in office), the money men who put him there expected to finally be able to cash in on all their work and get the New Deal dismantled. Ike, however, balked, recognizing that dismantling popular New Deal programs would be political suicide, noting that the party that got rid of Social Security and unemployment insurance would shortly cease to exist. All that work and no reward!

Nevertheless, the movement these guys had birthed shuffled on into the culture war crusaders we know them as today (the first big fights were over school prayer). There is definitely a certain feel from the story Kruse is telling that the Frankenstein’s monster got loose and beyond its masters’ control, but one thing he doesn’t address is whether these guys were true believers in the first place. My natural cynical inclination makes me think they were doing whatever they thought was necessary to bolster the bottom line (co-opting eager religious leaders in the process), but I’m not beyond thinking they were getting high on their own holy supply, too.

“Ceremonial deism” – the idea that there’s no First Amendment issue with public officials invoking the name of God so long as it’s in a squishy non-sectarian (within limits) way – certainly has taken on a life of its own. As Kruse lays out, a lot of what we consider foundational parts of this – “In God We Trust” on money, “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance – are fairly recent inventions based on spurious readings of history pushed by these early crusaders. It didn’t take even a generation, though, for them to be evidence to prove the very “ceremonial deism” they were created to birth in the first place.

While Kruse makes a compelling case, I do have two beefs with how he does it. First, he refers to most of these captains of industry as “Christian Libertarians,” which doesn’t seem to fit to me. For all the things “libertarian” can mean it has to at least mean freedom from the state trying to dictate religious belief, which is essentially what these guys were (and are) pushing. I think “Theocratic Capitalists” would be a better fit. Secondly, with a couple of exceptions, Kruse doesn’t bother diving into how untethered from reality most of the arguments were that these folks made. He does discus it it somewhat in the epilogue and highlights an early example of how they selectively edited part of the Declaration of Independence (which has nothing to do with the law of this nation, by the way) to make it fit their agenda better. These folks are prototypical liars for Jesus but aren’t called on it enough.

Those small quibbles aside, Kruse has done important work here. In the modern world, where a little sleuthing can easily unmask the actual source of astroturfed “grassroots” political movements, we sometimes get lulled into thinking such campaigns are a fairly recent development. They’re not and it’s worth knowing the kind of long-term impacts they can have, even if they don’t meet their initial goal.

The Real Here or Somewhere Else?

A great thing about writing fantasy and science fiction is that you can set a story wherever you like, be it a far flung future or a galaxy far, far away. It can be a place that never existed or that exists but not in the form it does for your story. The possibilities are endless. But sometimes you want to tell a story in what, for better or worse, we’ll call the “real” world – the one that exists when you’re writing your story (or sometime before). If that’s the case, should you set it in a real place or make one up?

I grappled with this when I wrote Moore Hollow. It’s set in the “real” world, to the extent that zombies exist in the real world. The main character, Ben Potter, lives in London and visits family in Leeds before and after he travels to West Virginia. He rents a car at Yeager Airport in Charleston! All real places.

But when it came time to set the main part of the book, I was caught. I originally intended to set the story in one of the real counties deep in coal country – Mingo, McDowell. I thought that would help the story by giving a real sense of place, to ground the more fantastical elements.

The problem with using real places, of course, is that it limits your story somewhat. I needed some specific locales for Moore Hollow, places that, it turned out, didn’t really match the lay of the land any particular place in southern West Virginia. Thus, Vandalia County and its county seat, Jenkinsville, were born. All of a sudden I had unlimited freedom to fit the landscape to the story I wanted to tell.

We tend to see that kind of thing a lot in TV shows, as they cobble up settings as the show goes on. The best example, probably, is The Simpsons, which has for years given Springfield all the things it needs for the stories they tell, whether they really make sense or are found in a single location in the real world. Need a nuclear power plant? No problem. An ever burning tire fire? Have one of those, too. A city with a minor league baseball team but big enough to host a thriving entertainment industry (you think all those Krusty shows beam in from Hollywood?)? It’s got everything you need!

You get the point – when you’re making up the location as you go along, you can give it whatever the story needs.

There’s a price to pay for that kind of flexibility, though. The story you’re telling might feel more divorced from reality than you’d like.

By comparison, I just finished reading another of the Dresden Files novels. In no way is that series set in the real world – unless there are wizards, spirits trapped in skulls, and all manner of fantastical beasties out there that manage to stay off social media in 2021. That said, it is set in the very real place of Chicago and benefits for it. It adds a gritty reality to the stories that helps the “he’s a PI, but a wizard” concept really take off. If they’d been set in a fictional city that was, for all intents and purposes, Chicago, I don’t think it would be the same. Not that everything is scrupulously “real,” but then, neither is the setting of any literary novel that takes place in the real world.

Ultimately, I decided to create Vandalia County in Moore Hollow because no real place had all the things I wanted the place to have for the story. For future stories in that universe (a sequel novel and sequel-to-that novella have been drafts), I’m leaning toward trying to set them in real places, whenever possible. I might not be able to hold myself to that, but I want to try. One thing’s for certain – the decision about where to set your story has consequences. Think them through and do what’s right for your story.

Weekly Watch: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

It’s unfair to judge a film by what you want it to be, particularly documentaries. Filmmakers are trying to do something specific and to say “I would have done it that way” doesn’t mean much as criticism. Taking the project at face value, however, and concluding that it doesn’t really work is more fair game. Those who made The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, to their credit, tried to do something other than the usual whodunit true-crime story. Unfortunately, that winds up pulling the series in so many different directions that it doesn’t really work as a whole.

The titular vanishing is that of Elisa Lam, a young Canadian woman who was on a solo vacation of the California coast. She checked into the infamous Hotel Cecil in Los Angeles – reputed to be haunted and the inspiration for the hotel in American Horror Story: Hotel and probably the Hotel Hyperion in Angel – and never left. A few days after she disappeared, her naked body was found in a water tank on the hotel’s roof (her clothes were in the tank, too). There was no sign of foul play.

That mystery would make a neat single episode, but to stretch it out to four, the filmmakers try to weave in a couple of other threads. The first is a survey of the Hotel Cecil itself and its place in the ecosystem of its Los Angeles neighborhood, the defining feature of which is Skid Row. Thousands of homeless people live on Skid Row, semi-permanently (one guy interviewed lived there for six years, IIRC), and the challenges of those who live there and how they might be helped could make an interesting documentary. It’s mostly used here for atmosphere, the home of the outcast existing next to the haunted hotel, so it doesn’t really amount to much. To their credit, there’s never any hint (from the filmmakers or police) that any of these homeless folks were the cause of Lam’s disappearance – there doesn’t appear to be a “round up the usual suspects” moment – so that’s something.

The other thread aside from the whodunit/what happened is the one that I thought would be the most interesting. Lam’s disappearance attracted a host of amateur sleuths, most working on YouTube and other social medial sites, who tried to figure out what happened to her. Perhaps not surprisingly, they lapse into baseless conspiracy theories and even publicly accuse a death metal singer of murdering Lam because, well, he writes songs about death and water (better round up the Marillion guys, too!) and stayed at the hotel. However, easy research shows that his stay at the hotel was a year before Lam’s disappearance and at the time she went missing he was in a Mexican recording studio working on an album.

All of that could have been teased out more, with an eye toward why these people all over the world felt compelled to investigate the case and then, as answers started to emerge, disregard them in favor of their already considered pet theory. It’s almost a paradigmatic case of apophenia, but the filmmakers aren’t really interested in going down that road. Whether that’s because the internet sleuths are the ones who take up most of the talking head time in the doc – and thus they’re not going to be probed to harshly – I can’t say. They still come off as, at best, people with too much time on their hands and, at worst, unhinged, so it’s hardly a flattering portrait.

So, ultimately, Vanishing isn’t a disappointment because of what it doesn’t do, but because of what it fails to do on its own terms. It’s a worth attempt at something a bit different – which should always be encouraged, even if the end result doesn’t live up to its promise.

The International Misery Film Festival

Did you ever have the kind of weekend where you fell into an impromptu film festival? Naturally a festival has to have a particular theme, right? This past weekend, the wife and I fell ass over teakettle into a series of largely depressing, but mostly good, movies about various historical horribles. An International Misery Film Festival, if you will.

First up was a recent HBO documentary, The Art of Political Murder.

It’s about a Guatemalan priest and human rights advocate, Juan José Gerardi Conedera, who was murdered in 1998, two days after he announced the release of a report on abuses during that country’s civil war that implicated the government in various atrocities. The film works through the investigation and ultimate conviction of several perpetrators (army officers and a fellow priest), although it stops before diving into why they did it or if someone higher up the authorial chain ordered them to do it. The film tries to play like a whodunit, but it wastes time on alternate theories that don’t pan out, almost like it needs to delay the inevitable conclusion. Recommended for shedding light on an incident I wasn’t familiar with, but could have been better.

From Guatemala we next travelled to Cambodia. When the wife and I honeymooned in Cambodia we stopped for a day or two in Phnom Penh between stints exploring ruins around Ankor Wat and some beach days at Kep. That gave us time to experience the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, as well as the nearby Cheung Ek “killing fields.” It was a thoroughly heart wrenching experience. At Tuol Sleng we met one of the few survivors of the prison/torture facility the Khmer Rouge ran there, which it called S-21.

Turns out, the man and another survivor were central to our next film, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine.

Low budget (it was shot on video, I’m pretty sure), but harrowing and powerful, this doc brings those two survivors together at Tuol Sleng with a host of men who worked there for the Khmer Rouge – guards, torturers, drivers. A large part of the doc is given over to these men explaining what they did at Tuol Sleng and, in some cases, pantomiming their crimes and daily routines. What’s most amazing, to 21st century ears, is that while one of these men voices the expected “just following orders” defense, they don’t make any attempt to euphemize what they did. The word “torture” is used repeatedly, rather than, say “enhanced interrogation techniques” (the Khmer Rouge waterboarded, too!). They go to Cheung Ek and cold describe mass murder. The limitation of a doc like this is there’s very little understanding of what made people do this to one another, but on its own terms it’s very worth watching.

From the 1970s in Southeast Asia we moved to something influenced by what was happening in that region at the same time, The Baader Meinhoff Complex.

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This German film briskly covers the rise and fall of the first iteration of the Red Army Faction (sometimes known as the Baader Meinhoff Gang, after two of its leaders) from about 1968 to 1978. An outgrowth of the West German student protest movement, the RAF conducted a series of bank robberies, assassinations, and bombings in hopes of sparking a Marxist revolution. What was really interesting was how much motivation came from American activities in Vietnam and having military bases in West Germany. Indeed, some of the group’s bombings targeted American military installations, killing a handful of American soldiers.

There are issues that resonate with the modern world throughout the film. It begins with a demonstration by students against the visiting Shah of Iran. Once he and his wife leave the scene, the protestors are attacked by Iranian supporters, while West German police standby (they later join in, beating protestors and, in one case, shooting and killing one). It’s impossible not to watch that now and think of the police response (or lack thereof ) to various protests (and worse) in the US over the past few years. That the main RAF members wind up in solitary confinement pending their trial echoes in debates of how often that’s used in our modern penal system.

That said, the most interesting facet of the film is Horst Herold, the head of the West German police, played in a clever bit of casting by Bruno Ganz, the Hitler of Downfall fame. On the one hand, Herold does what you’d expect of a police chief chasing a band of murderous criminals and pulls out all the stops to catch them – at one point, he puts every police officer in West Germany on the street on a single say performing checkpoints, patdowns, and searches. Yet, he also recognizes that to combat terrorists you need to understand their motivations, which usually stem from legitimate concerns. That his more enlightened thoughts don’t carry the day point out a fundamental irony of the whole thing – in violently reacting to what it perceived as the West German police state, the RAF gave the state the justification it needed to really crackdown.

The film’s major problem is that it just has too much ground to cover. Intent on cramming as much action in as possible, it doesn’t spend enough time with some of the ancillary characters who drop in for an operation then disappear. It also doesn’t provide any idea of what happened to the RAF after its founding members died in prison. Still, a good watch and highly recommended.

I wish I could say the same about our sojourn in Ethiopia and London, Sweetness In the Belly.

Based on the novel of the same name, this tells the story of a British girl who is abandoned at a Sufi shrine in Morocco by her parents (who were probably killed over some kind of drug debt). She becomes devout, goes to Ethiopia just as the civil war there starts, and winds up a refugee resettling in London. There are issues of representation here – the story of African refugees told through the eyes of a white British woman – but the film’s biggest sin it that it’s just not very compelling. Lily, the main character, is a complete bore whose attractiveness to the two doctors of color she comes across (one in Ethiopia, the other in London) is completely inexplicable. The film fares better when it focuses on Lily’s bonding with another refugee in London, but that only goes so far. Not recommended.

Our final stop was the Soviet Union, via England and Wales, for Mr. Jones.

The title character is Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist who, in the early 1930s, was also an advisor to British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George. After scoring an interview with Hitler (the result of which is alarm that wasn’t fully heeded), Jones wanted to do the same with Stalin. Cut loose from the government due to budget cuts (it was the Great Depression, after all), he makes it to Moscow. He doesn’t get to talk to Stalin, but the murder of another journalist (allegedly during a robbery) and the fact that reporters are being restricted to Moscow, make him curious. He manages to sneak to Ukraine where he bears firsthand witness to the Holodomor, the man-made famine that killed millions of people and may (depending on who you ask) been an act of genocide. The Soviets had been covering the whole thing up until Jones’ reportage came out.

The film keeps its point of view close on Jones, which is effective for the most part, but it robs the Holodomor of any real context. We see the horrors of it – even if (according to his family) the real Jones didn’t experience all of them (such as cannibalism), as he does in the film – but don’t get more than a few passing mentions about how and why it happened. There’s also a frame story with Orwell writing Animal Farm and it just doesn’t work. I get it – Orwell’s fable is a takedown of Stalinism – but it seems like it’s just stuck on to Jones’ story, particularly given that there’s a scene where the two meet and talk about what they’re writing! Flawed, but ultimately worth a watch. So, there we are. This weekend, I’m thinking some mindless comedies to balance things out.