Cover Image: Unholy

Unholy

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I received a reviewer copy of Unholy by Sarah Posner from the publisher Random House from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

What It’s About: This book explores why Evangelicals support Trump in such an unconditional way despite the fact that he is an adulterer, rapist, and white supremacist. This book gives a history of the founding of the Christian right and also traces Donald Trump's rise to the Presidency. However, it also covers international politics and the influence the Christian right there. The author interviews a lot of big figures in the Christian right. 

What I Loved: This book is very academic and so I learned a ton about the history of Conservative politics and the birth of the Christian right. This book is alarming and doesn't let people off the hook for blatant racism. This book is thoroughly researched and is important read to understand a movement that is taking over our country. 

What I didn’t like so much: This book is very academic and sometimes reads that way. Additionally at points the book is repetitive and seems unnecessary (there are parts that were already covered in a previous chapter). I also wish the author had talked to Evangelicals who didn't support Trump and the impact to their lives, I felt like it presented it as every Christian person fit this profile. 

Who Should Read It: People who want to understand the shifting of the political winds in the country and the world. 

General Summary: An academic study of the Evangelical support of Donald Trump
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I know a lot of very serious Christians who scoff at the mention of Trump's name.

But that's not unusual -- he's a thrice-married serial philanderer, liar, and cheater from the seamy world of porn stars, casinos, and reality TV. What could be more off-putting to a group of people who have continually rejected even the blandest candidates for the fatal crimes of being not committed and not Christian enough?

What is unusual is that I know a LOT MORE very serious Christians who voted for him, and continue to praise him, and will vote for him again.

Where is this coming from? Establishment types like John McCain and Romney, and even candidates on the more extreme side of "family values" like Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum were throwaways, but this guy is the one? For dedicated culture warriors who have bemoaned for decades our culture's slide toward rampant immorality and decadent selfishness to back Trump, who practically idealizes that trend in one person, seems like the height of hypocrisy.

I was hoping this book would delve into this baffling phenomenon, and help me understand. It... sort of did, and sort of didn't.

Because it's a little difficult to find, here is the author's thesis up front:

"His 'base' is not an accident of his unconventional foray into politics, or a quirk of this particular political moment. The vast majority of white evangelicals are all in with Trump because he has given them political power and allowed them to carry out a Christian supremacist agenda, inextricably intertwined with his administration's white nationalist agenda."

The first chapter or two go right to the heart of the matter with a matter-of-fact exploration of the "religious" figures Trump surrounds himself with. I have spent the last four years looking away from politics and generally wincing, so most of this was new to me. I had wondered, when news like the Paula White "satanic pregnancy" speech breaks, where he was getting all these insane people; it makes sense that they're all prosperity gospel televangelists.

The nature of televangelists is to be snake oil salesmen, and turn defrauding the vulnerable into something praiseworthy. It's a good gig, too -- in what other business can you blatantly enrich yourself off the backs of others and claim it's a sign of your faith? It makes perfect sense how Trump would fall in with these people, since they are cut from the same cloth.

As the author says:

"Trump has succeeded in captivating white evangelical voters not just because he has befriended certain high-level leaders in the evangelical world. He has succeeded because there is virtually no leader in the evangelical world he wouldn't welcome by his side--as long as that leader pledged allegiance to him."

Sickening, but probably true. These hucksters are perfectly willing to hail him as the divinely anointed savior of America, and he is perfectly willing to be called so. A match made in heaven, and then on the ground all the middle-aged women get to share poorly-made meme graphics on Facebook praising Trump for having prayer meetings in the White House. "Most will be too afraid to repost the truth. Share if you're praying for our leader!!!"

This book overall is written in a flat style that reads, in some places, more like a dense list of names and facts than anything else. Still, it starts off strong, tying Trump and the televangelists together with undeniable insight. Next, the book turns its focus to the other piece of the puzzle: the alt-right. Its portrait of the mixed coterie of old guard political racists, veterans of the segregation fights, and the young up-and-coming neo-fascists tired of the oppression of "political correctness" and filled with a deep anxiety about their place in the world is stirring and scary.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is one of the most powerful political trends lately, and probably the biggest thing all of Trump's base would agree on. It's clear how both the "white pride" of the alt-right and the anti-Islamic, anti-Mexican (sometimes anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish) feelings of the white evangelical voters stem from the same place: fear of losing power.

After the first chapter covering the alt-right, though... the book gets even denser. I waded deeper and deeper into the soup of political history, hoping that eventually the framework of a tight argument would become clear, but it didn't. The author relates, essentially, the history of the rise of the modern conservative political establishment. She excavates its roots in pro-segregation activism, claims they never cared about abortion as much as they say, dives into NGO after NGO, think tank after think tank, journalism and activism over the decades since the sixties -- all this to paint a picture of the powerful right-wing apparatus that stood ready to drive into action, reshaping the government in its own image, as soon as anyone was brave or stupid enough to give them the chance.

Trump was that someone, the author claims, and it's not even about Trump. Going back to the thesis laid out in the epilogue, it's about the power.

I haven't even touched on the chapters about the right wing's global affinity for nationalist strongmen, which were interesting (if a little bit mind-numbingly thorough.) This author is an experienced journalist and considered an expert on the religious right. She clearly has spent decades marinating in these particular circles, which is interesting because she seems to have absolutely no regard for any of their beliefs.

This book is not an argument about whether anything claimed about Trump or his followers is true or not true. Trump's racism and lies are presupposed facts. The undercover Planned Parenthood videos are "deceptive." Religious freedom is a crock argument put forward today by the same conservatives and for the same reasons as they wielded it against racial integration of schools.

"Religion, though, is just a cover for the endgame," says the author.

But is it? Certainly, she makes an excellent case that at the national level, anyone arguing religion is just doing it because it serves their rhetorical purposes. I do believe her that it's all about the power. But on the ground, in our homes? Is the everyday white evangelical voter watching the news and thinking to himself "I'm so glad all this 'God' claptrap is putting us back in power so that we can destroy democratic institutions around the globe." Not the ones I know.

I'm still mostly mystified as to what these people ARE thinking. So, while I got quite the political history education from this book, unfortunately I didn't accomplish my goal.

I might have to do my own research and then write my own book. Some things I can tell you already. There is an amount of genuine fear of legal persecution. There is a vast amount of genuine moral outrage at issues like abortion. There is an amount of blended nationalistic-anxiety-racism-nostalgia about what inevitable demographic changes will mean. And the author was absolutely right about one thing:

IT IS ALL. ABOUT. THE SUPREME COURT.
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An exhaustively researched and immensely detailed account of the rise of Trump and the concerted forces of "fringe" right movements that placed him there. Posner has put a ton of work into this account, and it's incredibly dense. I found myself only able to read a few pages at a time as it's so packed with information on different right figures, movements, events, and histories. Incredibly disconcerting and depressing, Posner weaves together what seems like separate incidents and movements to illustrate what is clearly a larger, orchestrated march towards fascism. Devastating. Unfortunately, I doubt the people who need to see it most will read it, but I'm grateful someone put the effort in to catalogue our descent into madness.
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For the Christian right, Trump is no ordinary politician and no ordinary president. He is anointed, chosen by God “and sanctified by the movement, as a divine leader sent to save America.” Trump has manipulated the Christian right into supporting him despite everything, because he gives them everything they want. He gives their pastors direct access to the White House and the Oval Office, and they dutifully inform their flocks of how wonderful he is and how influential they are. In Sarah Posner’s hardhitting Unholy, support for Trump is total. The book is an apocalyptic view of American politics, not religion.

The book is a component by component view of how the Christian right is infiltrating the federal government, and changing it to its own worldview. It has been building up to this for decades – since the end of the Nixon administration. It has been a purposeful campaign to build “think tanks”, lobbies, Political Action Committees and ecclesiastic pressure, most visibly from televangelists. Their reward is government positions, selfies with the president, foreign influence in autocratic Christian hotspots like Hungary, Moldova and Ukraine, and money, from unconstitutional tax breaks to bookselling and everything in between. It’s the best time to be in the God business, the way Posner structures it.

It is all based on racism and white supremacy. It’s there, out in the open among the preachers of Trump as the anointed one:
-“(Historian Randall) Balmer told me the religious right had come ‘full circle to embrace its roots in racism,’ and ‘had finally dispensed with the fiction that it was concerned about abortion or family values,’” Posner says.
-According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Christians’ rights are traditional, and natural. LGBTQ rights are newly manufactured and therefore of lower status.  
-His predecessor at State, Rex Tillerson, moaned that promoting human rights and democracy abroad could often be an obstacle in advancing American interests. 

They are all about autocrats, hoping Trump will take charge like the Putins, Xis and Orbans of the world. Anything that smacks of democracy is suspect. They applaud gerrymandering, closing down media that isn’t 100% with them, and building bigger government to accommodate and impose their program on the American people:
-Republican congressmen demand investigations into funds for democracy initiatives in eastern Europe, while praising the power grabs of Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin, who figured out years ago that the harmless Christian church is the perfect tool for implementing their takeovers, and who have lavished funds on them to kick it all off and keep it going. There is nothing to criticize; they are simply bringing back traditional values.
-Despite the stated goal of small government,  Trump has been placing religious zealots in key positions, such as the Office of Civil Rights of the Health Department, where Roger Severino has created a whole new division for protection of religious freedom (in health and human services). This allows Americans to deny healthcare to each other based on religion, sex and “conscience”. The new division pushes Americans to complain about infringements.  It threatens to shut off all federal funding for the entire state if someone complains about hearing the word abortion, for example. All this is of course, the exact opposite of the stated purpose of the Office of Civil Rights. And goes totally against supposed Republican values of shrinking government.
-This is happening all over the federal government at Trump’s insistence.

They are all about taking power, and Trump, with no network of his own to draw on, fills judgeships, civil service posts and diplomatic postings with sycophants whom he knows will do his bidding, whatever that is as it changes from day to day. They will forgive everything he says or does that goes directly against the constitution, theirs or America’s, because they are thrilled to be in power at long last, according to Posner.

What comes through most strongly, at least to me, is that the alt-right, the new right, evangelicals and conservative Christians all look at the world as zero sum. There is only so much wealth, right and privilege available, and any raising of the levels for non-whites or non-heterosexuals somehow diminishes the rights and privileges of white Christians. This is the driving force behind anti-busing, anti-immigration, anti-civil rights, anti-Equal Rights Amendment, anti-textbook, anti-gay, anti-abortion, religious freedom for tax deductibility - and pro-Trump. No one is allowed to match the status of white Christians.

As Posner demonstrates ever more clearly and precisely, Trump and his unholy minions are heading the United States into a state of inequality it has never known. Different ethnic groups will have different rights from white Christians. Jews will have less rights than whites (Posner, an Ashkenazy Jew, has had her religion pointed out to her numerous times over the years of dealing with the right. It lessens her in their eyes and puts her on her guard). Muslims will have no rights at all, and gays could face the death penalty if some get their way. Different religious groups will also be demoted, perhaps nominal Christians falling somewhere below evangelicals but ahead of say, Mexican Catholics. This dystopian future is well on its way, and can be seen in various stages in countries like Russia, Hungary and Brazil, where the president has declared immigrants “the scum of the earth.” Bolsonaro and Trump praise each other to the skies.

As in Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, it is striking how low quality the players are. They are Nazis (some not even ex), fraudsters, crooks, sex fiends and hypocrites. They are mean and vicious. Posner says ex-con Jim Bakker told his televangelist crowd the day Representative Elijah Cummings died that God struck him down for leading the committee to impeach Trump. They all insist there was not the slightest pretext to impeach, that it was all purely a ploy to deny them, white Christians, their vote.

Posner has been living this beat for decades. She attends the conferences, interviews pastors and televangelists, and is generally well known in these circles. Not to mention well read. The result in terrific insight, rationally laid out for the reader to appreciate in its true depth. It is all politics in the world of Unholy.  The quotes will not be disputed. Nor will the goals and ideals. There is an agenda, and it doesn’t matter who gets hurt in its implementation. It is clearly holy war, with Donald Trump shuffling the players on and of the board.

They are always the victim, and time is always running short. Influence is measured by the amount donated. Such is the Unholy world Sarah Posner has lived. And unless Americans change their votes in 2020, so will the whole country.

David Wineberg
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I had to take a DNF on this one because this book ventured into territory that went off topic too much.
I was hoping for more about why Evangelicals went off the cliff to worship DT who considers himself far superior with his grandiose ego and narcissistic charm.
Instead, there was too much of everything else and I lost interest completely in the first 50-100 pages.
I dislike leaving negative books and I'm not a DT fan so I was hoping this would offer up some additional avenues not yet explored in terms of a religious perspective as many narcs hide behind this leadership/authoritative role.
The pedestal placement and the loyal harem started off ok but quickly went downhill to other issues that I didn't care to address here.
Thank you to this author and publisher for this ARC from NetGalley.
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I'm rather ambivalent about it. Overall, I did not enjoy it, but I appreciate that it discusses a few uncomfortable truths that have been long swept under the rug.

Full disclosure: I am a devout Christian and left-leaning politically. I have a lot of friends/family who lean right, with whom I just don't talk politics, and know devout Christians from all places on the right/left spectrum.

The good: A lot of people don't realize that the religious right as it exists today did not come to fruition over the issue of abortion. The real impetus was protecting the right of Christian schools to prevent black children from enrolling. 

Beginning under Richard Nixon's administration, the IRS was directed to revoke the tax exempt status of any religious school that racially discriminated against students. Men like Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Paul Weyrich argued that this was a big-government attack on religious liberty, and stoked a hatred and fear of big government that has become typical of the new right.

It is important to know your history, to know that many people who claimed to be Christian were actively promoting the kind of racism that the church should be fighting against. Whether they did it out of malice or ignorance, it's important to know that it happened and it could always happen again.

The bad: It was full of information, and sometimes felt like reading evidence in court. (I served on a grand jury for a very long time, and there were hours and hours spent listening to a huge info drop that the attorneys knew you weren't going to remember, but they had to read it into the record, anyway. Sometimes it felt like that.) I fell asleep a lot trying to read it.

About halfway through I realized that I was skimming it and slogging through like it was homework, and I realized I was a grown woman who can read something else instead. It wasn't enjoyable, but I doubt that the author intended it to be a pleasant poolside read. 

I was wondering if it would dive into why people who presumably have read at least parts of the Bible and know they're supposed to love their neighbor and serve others and be meek and pursue justice seem happy to form a coalition with racists and fascists and hatemongers. Maybe it does, and I didn't get that far.

But life's too short to keep reading books that make you sleepy, sad, and angry.

arc received from the publisher
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