It’s the first Sunday of Pride month and reactionary pastor Hank Kunneman of Lord of Hosts Church in Omaha, Nebraska is preaching the Word. His audience is comprised of a couple hundred faithful in person and an online audience of what the church says is “60,000 connections.” I’ve tuned in after reading Jeff Sharlet’s new book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, which describes the author’s visit to the church.
Pastor Hank: “There’s a sexual revolution that’s coming in reverse! Pride comes before what now?” The congregation: “A fall!” Stoking the fires, the pastor and his congregation together imagine the gays in their Pride-month orgies, wanton women and their abortion doctors, Planned Parenthood workers distributing the pill, high school counselors passing out condoms, high school students checking out teen queer romance books in the school library. And they imagine—or “delight in” as the King James Bible might put it—their eventual downfall.
After he attended a service at Lord of Hosts, Sharlet, a Jewish man frail of heart, stood in the parking lot talking to women who had just come out of the church and were happy to discuss their faith in Jesus Christ. But then the hired guns of Pastor Hank Kunneman—full body armor, extra magazines, thin blue line American flag t-shirts—came out and put an end to the interview. They winked and nodded and promised not to harm him—as long as he did just what they asked.
Lord of Hosts was the last church on the tour Sharlet took for the book through what you might call “Ashli Babbit country.” Babbit, the conspiracy theorist and insurrectionist shot while trying to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election, has become a martyr for one of the United States’ two major political parties. In The Undertow, Sharlet, who has spent more than two decades writing about Evangelical fundamentalism across the country, sets out to understand why the paranoid, violent mindset that gripped Babbit has become so widespread.
But the book doesn’t start out as a chronicle of a Christo-fascist American revolution. The first hundred pages, in fact, are filled with Sharlet’s reporting from before Trump’s first campaign rally, a time when Sharlet still resisted using the word “fascist” to refer to America’s Far Right. The early essays in the book consist of reporting from the 2010s, including an interview of Harry Belafonte, the singer and unsung civil-rights legend, and reportage from an Occupy encampment, a men’s-rights convention, and even Florida’s Vous Church, whose pastor famously married Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. But these seemingly disconnected stories eventually lead Sharlet to fascism, the martyrdom of Ashli Babbit, and churches like Lord of Hosts.
There is much revolutionary upheaval right now in Babbit country, but even I, who have spent most my life there, did not expect this marriage between guns and religion. It’s not only in strip-mall church parking lots but in the church sanctuary, too. Hired guns, loyal to a given pastor, stand at the back of churches across the country like some vision straight out of John Milton’s revolutionary times: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” By these pastors’ reckoning, Jesus—the ultimate buckler and shield of my Evangelical Christian youth—is no longer enough protection for his bride the church. Jesus’ protection must be buttressed with guns.
There’s an influential critique of reporting like Sharlet’s from some of the best scholars of religion and politics on the Left, figures like Sam Haselby and Corey Robin. They claim that documenting the words of radical fundamentalist preachers and the passions of the Republican hoi polloi gets us nowhere. We must instead, they maintain, look at the hoi oligoi, the few who hold the levers of economic power, to best explain the dissolution of our democracy. A class-centered economic argument accounts for these high passions much better than street-level faith, homophobia, racism, or the reaction against the sexual revolution. And yet, what happens if that street is now closely connected to the halls of power?
To fully understand how the undertow of civil war came to be—pastors with armed guards making martyrs of insurrectionists and talking about restoring the rightful president—requires not just catching up with Sharlet’s reporting from the 2010s but also two of his earlier books: The Family (which was turned into a Netflix documentary) and C Street. These books belie the criticism that Sharlet ignores class. Both delve into a specific class war initiated almost a hundred years ago. “The Family,” a secret fundamentalist organization that counted former senator John Ensign and former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford among its members, was founded to combat rising labor power in the 1930s. Though it has publicly employed the language and rites of American Evangelicals in its slow, patient attempt to capture American politics, it has always been driven by class warfare. The Family and its operatives, who work out of a C Street rowhouse in Washington, are major movers and shakers in the MAGA-era GOP. Whether or not Pastor Hank understands as much, his denunciation of President Biden’s legitimacy in office is connected to a 100-year-old yawp from the throats of rich old white men hating on another president who supported labor, FDR.
The on-the-ground shock troops like Pastor Hank and his “60,000 connections” may look like just another entry in a long line of angry Americans hating their government. But The Undertow suggests that two things separate the current movement from past iterations: guns and proximity to power. Not just the gun slung seductively across Congresswoman Boebert’s backside in photoshoots at her now-closed Colorado restaurant, Shooters (which Sharlet visited and was forced out of by a gun-toting manager), nor just Boebert’s vocal support in the halls of Congress for thousands of insurrectionists (“Madame Speaker! I have constituents outside this building right now!”), nor just the hired guns in church or the 393 million privately owned guns in this country. More specifically, what’s new are the guns in the hands of a people being trained to set their sights on liberals and the various seats of our liberal, democratic government.
What detractors of the fascism thesis miss is that Trump and his fellow travelers are not like Baptists attempting to establish a new legal regime. Sharlet often points out that if Trump is an Evangelical, he is a Pentecostal, specifically an early Pentecostal: the race-mixing, tongues-speaking, feelings-based movement that caught fire in early twentieth-century Los Angeles and was only later tamed by much whiter organizations like the Assemblies of God. Neither Trump nor the remade MAGA Republican Party are concerned with the particular laws of this country. In the fascist state they imagine, the leader is the law. Alpha and omega. Legislation is incidental.
At a Trump rally in 2016, Sharlet mixed in with a crowd aching to punch a liberal protester. “The joy of punching, real or imagined, is the ideal of action, an inner feeling made incarnate,” Sharlet writes. He quotes a rallygoer: “[Trump] stands up there and says what we all think…. We all want to punch somebody in the face, and he says it for us.” Sharlet’s reporting suggests that today’s American fascism is grounded largely in this sort of feeling, in a kind of Pentecostal Spirit. Gun legislation in GOP states does not in fact establish militias or give aggrieved incels explicit permission to shoot up schools and other public places. And yet, those who point to legislative failures and economic inequality neglect the power of Spirit to, say, besiege the Capitol and interrupt the certification of electoral college votes.
Here’s Donald Trump riffing at a rally in Tulsa in June 2020:
Hey, it’s 1:00 o’clock in the morning and a very tough, I’ve used the word on occasion, hombre, a very tough hombre is breaking into the window of a young woman whose husband is away as a traveling salesman or whatever he may do. And you call 911 and they say, “I’m sorry, this number’s no longer working.” By the way, you have many cases like that, many, many, many. Whether it’s a young woman, an old woman, a young man or an old man and you’re sleeping. So what are you going to do, right?
Journalism as we’ve known it for the last seventy years or so is not particularly well equipped to deal with policy announced via parables like this. Parables resist rock-solid, evidence-based debunkings. Donald Trump’s imagination is stuck in an era when salesmen traveled the land, but Pastor Hank Kunneman and 80 percent of the Republican Party seem to be stuck right there with him.
Trump’s entire project is to overturn both the sexual and civil-rights revolution of the 1960s and what’s left of the New Deal that preceded it. Sharlet’s writing suggests that there is an army all around us ready to help fulfill this project. He attempts to decipher the parables and sermons that hold sway in Ashli Babbit country and to understand why, for instance, the mob that descended on the Capitol was, for at least a couple hours, successful in taking it. The Undertow is an ear to the ground, recording the seemingly disconnected notes of what for many armed Americans is a coordinated symphony of revolution.
Scenes from a Slow Civil War
$28.95 | 352 pp.