- If God Meant to Interfere: American Literature and the Rise of the Christian Right by Christopher Douglas
Christopher Douglas opens his book If God Meant to Interfere: American Literature and the Rise of the Christian Right with what he calls a "vivid literary snapshot" (2), one likely familiar to literary critics who have followed the rise of so-called postsecular literary studies. The snapshot in question appears in Don DeLillo's White Noise (1985); it is Jack Gladney's conversation with a nun while being treated for a gunshot wound to his wrist in a Catholic hospital. "As belief shrinks from the world," the nun tells him, "people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe" (qtd in. Douglas 1–2). Accordingly, Catholic nuns fulfill a kind of surrogate role in a secular age: "We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life" (qtd. in Douglas 2).
This world-weary sister is perfectly aware that many people regard her as a sort of walking anachronism, someone whose habit and vow of chastity necessarily remind them of a more devout age. As if nostalgic for certainty and blind devotion, unbelievers still need believers to believe. John A. McClure, Amy Hungerford, and others have read such postsecular ambivalence as evidence of a new sensibility, a new mode of being in the world that is skeptical about religious [End Page 182] doctrines while also resistant to secular constructions of reality. These partial faiths, to borrow McClure's useful phrase from the title of his Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison, represent a third way between religious dogmatism and secularism.
Yet Douglas reads the passage differently. "Perhaps caught in her own parochial enclave," he writes, "the nun seems unaware that many Americans continued to believe strongly in many of the ideas she derides, including God, the devil, angels, hell, heaven, and even the final battle between the heavenly host and Satan's forces" (2). Insofar as the nun is suggesting that such beliefs are in decline, she is "spectacularly wrong," as it turns out. Far from being in decline at the time DeLillo was writing White Noise, angels were in vogue, apocalyptic ideas were everywhere (even in the White House), evangelical churches were booming, and conservative reactions to changing cultural mores were spawning the culture wars. Indeed, for Douglas, the real question is how such an astute cultural observer as DeLillo could have missed the obvious religious resurgence of the period.
American writers and literary critics either failed to recognize or willfully ignored the rise of conservative Christianity in the late twentieth century, according to Douglas. As if stuck inside a secular bubble of their own making ever since the State of Tennessee v. Scopes trial of 1925, when Christian fundamentalists were ridiculed and stigmatized in the national press, many intellectuals were caught off guard by the fundamentalist revival a half-century later. As such, they missed "the most important national development in religion in that period" (2). If God Meant to Interfere seeks to understand not only how "the social and political empowerment of conservative Christianity" came about, but also why so many writers found it difficult to grasp its resurgence—or, at any rate, why they didn't write about it. By tracing the rise of the religious right as a largely "unrecognized religious context for US literary production since the 1970s," this book fills an important gap in our scholarship (3).
The most provocative claim of the book is that US writers most often represented the conservative Christian resurgence indirectly (when they did so at all). "The reasons for indirection and evasion were not just the unanticipated reversal of the master narrative of secularization, though that did play a part," Douglas contends, but also the fact that "multiculturalism and postmodernism became complexly intertwined with the resurgence" (4). The new evangelicalism of the 1970s and 1980s appropriated aspects of multiculturalism and postmodernism for its own purposes, thus realigning...