- The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion
- Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
- Year: 2008
- Pages: 288
Last year and I read and enjoyed Taibbi’s Spanking the Donkey—a cross between DWF’s Up, Simba and Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Taibbi is well-known for being acerbic, but admittedly he’s also an excellent writer, and there’s a particular joy in watching a silver-tongued left-libertarian wail on the political and cultural scaffolding with a heavy pipe.
In the preface to The Great Derangement, he expresses his concern that he’s become a victim to this very niche, having become a sort of editorial hatchetman—the guy Rolling Stone calls whenever they need a few pages of righteous fury. His discomfort implies that The Great Derangement will, in theory, be a different beast, but knowing Taibbi as we do, that isn’t necessarily the case.
The modern political dialectic, as presented to us by commercial journalism, is between extremists on the right and extremists on the left. Ask a right-winger to define the two, and you’ll get godless socialist atheist pro-choice libruhls on the left, and a firm insistence that there is no such thing as an American right-wing extremist; perhaps they’ll point to men like Scott Roeder, who murdered a provider of late-term abortions, but perhaps they won’t. Ask a left-winger to define the two, and they’ll likely define their opponents as Bible-thumping, gun-toting, ignorant pro-business thugs; as to the extremes of their own party, they’ll usually be charitable and offer up the conspiracy-loving anti-Bush fringe (e.g. 9/11 “Truth” movement, which believes that 9/11 was an inside job). These are terribly problematic descriptions, and not certain equivalent points of political extremism, either in degree or in prevalence (for one, Birthers are much more common than Truthers).
But this is the dichotomy that Taibbi sets up, offering up these two “extremes” of politics in an attempt to appear evenhanded. And yet, Taibbi invariably spends a couple of chapters, perhaps, on the 9/11 Truth movement and most of his time on Christian fundamentalism, in his typical gonzo style. Taibbi goes undercover at a Texas megachurch called CornerStone, run by (in)famous televangelist John Hagee. In between chapters, he gives brief interludes with some time spent in Washington—a typical muckraking of the great white sausage-grinder called Congress.
But really, The Great Derangement is a book about CornerStone church and charismatic fundamentalist Christians; like the somewhat false characterizations of political and cultural extremes which we and Taibbi appear to take for granted, the choice of a charismatic Texas church as his proving ground is a calculated decision to cast the right in as a deranged a light as possible. By “charismatic”, of course, I mean that the church encourages behavior akin to that of modern Pentecostals; fainting and speaking in tongues and all sorts of ridiculous, showy behavior. Unless you’re a Pentecostal, you are unable to read the book without being acutely aware, however much you may disagree with Taibbi’s atheism and general distaste for religion of all sorts, that the CornerStone church is filled to its brim with absolute horseshit. That Hagee is a rich, fat televangelist is known; that he’s of the sort which actively encourages Zionism in anticipation of the End Times is revealed; that Hagee’s sermons about Iran seem to bore his congregation (or so Taibbi says) is surprising.
This is the point at which church as a sociological phenomenon comes into play. His point of infiltration into CornerStone comes by way of a retreat weekend, which is sort of a great big group hug of a weekend camp. It begins with the premise that everyone has some traumatic incident in their childhood which made them turn from God, and they must think of it and cop to it before, apparently, becoming a good Christian. Taibbi’s disgust with the ridiculous bait-and-switch is justified, since it sounds suspiciously like Scientology’s M.O. In his time as a ersatz Christian, the focus seems to shift from his general disgust for fundamentalists to his conflicted opinions for his newfound friends. People joining CornerStone or its satellite programs often do so because of some secular trouble in their lives—that is, they have immediate need that cares nothing for Hagee’s pro-Israel lobby1, and what’s more, these are need that are assuredly not met by the in-church zeitgeist of speaking in “tongues”. Taibbi manages by citing rock songs in Russian, but one gets the distinct impression, when other, less studious disciples are told to “practice” speaking nonsense “at home”, that what we’re witnessing is less evangelism and more a slick, corporate, and nonsensical approach.
Is the conservative Christian right represented by a televangelist and his megachurch? In Washington, perhaps. I think it’s generally unfair to cast disparate groups into the same bucket, even some may be more or less deserving. Taibbi’s problem is that Hagee’s (admittedly large) flock doesn’t really do much to make a point of argument. The best that Taibbi can do is to note that when Hagee spouts some obvious untruth in the course of his sermonizing, his congregation accepts it as a matter of course—that membership necessitates a suspension of disbelief and faculties of reasoning which looks remarkably like the sort practiced by 9/11 Truthers. This latter group, as Taibbi notes, also tends to be nice, working-class people led by crazy blowhards—another resonant but ultimately meaningless parallel.
I can’t help but enjoy Taibbi’s writing, but I think he does himself a disservice by attempting a Pepsi v. Coke approach to his polemics. For better or worse, we generally know where he stands, and pretending to get to know and write about megachurch members as people (and then waxing philosophical about the scaffolding above them) rings hollow. He’s better in short form, where he’s seemingly less afraid to call a spade a spade, to call bullshit on bullshit, and be the incisive, typecast polemicist he’s apparently afraid to be.
- When W. was in the White House, Hagee was an influential lobbyist in Washington[↩]