The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War
Many folks have written recently about how divided America is, especially in the post-2016 moment, but few have done so as gracefully as Jeff Sharlet in his most recent book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, a collection of essays with the occasional illustrative photo about divided America during what he calls, borrowing from Jeffrey Ruoff, the “Trumpocene” (xi). The essays touch on politics—the book is current enough to have a chapter about the post-Dobbs US—but there is also music and a lot of religion, partly because of Sharlet’s background as a religious reporter and partly because of the recent deepening entanglement of religion and politics (e.g., Christian Nationalism).
Sharlet writes fluently, even poetically, with a style that showcases his command of the language. The book is a mobile ethnography as Sharlet travels across the United States and interviews people willing to talk to him about the current state of American politics and religion. He goes to Trump rallies, church narthexes, bars, roadside diners, houses with flags or signs, etc., expertly narrating these conversations, interrupting the stories with what sounds like his internal commentary, important context, or fact-checking–micro-soliloquies, if you will. Sharlet adds this context and fact-checking in pithy asides or footnotes that manage to avoid being snide or contemptuous. Readers can feel his sadness—mixed with a healthy dose of disapproval—throughout his conversations with sincere Q-Anon adherents or prosperity gospel true-believers.
The essays themselves vary in length and topic, covering protest music, the Occupy Wall Street protests, the prosperity gospel, online toxic masculinity, Trump rallies, QAnon, the January 6th death of Ashli Babbitt (which is the subject of the eponymous essay), the Dobbs decision, and flags of protest. All these essays provide portraits of a deeply divided United States and of a vulnerable Church.
Half the fun of reading each essay was trying to figure out how it was tied to overarching themes. The theme of hope emerged: sometimes misplaced in a political figure, a self-help preacher, a manliness guru, or a sizable arsenal, it’s also present in smaller stories of hope tied to community, to worship, to wonder, and to love. Sharlet hopes that the precarious democracy of the Trumpocene is still viable since “democracy is a practice. It may not be real yet, but it is not a dream. It’s something you do, something we could make” (144). Sharlet’s hope was too timid, too implicit, too secular, and perhaps too altogether absent for my liking—this is a rather dark book—but he writes as a non-believer and thus does not have the eschatological hope that Christians do.
His hope in democracy, institutions, and the American people stood in contrast to the fear that is also a theme throughout many of the chapters. Many of the people Sharlet talked to were fearful, usually of unknown others who had devious, hidden plots. The fear, poetically described by Sharlet as “panopticon paranoia, looking for threats down every sightline” (278), often drove these people to the misplaced hopes mentioned above, usually involving guns-as-security, and to anger. Anger is another bipartisan theme. Sharlet tells an interlocutor that he’s “been listening to anger, writing it down, for two thousand miles” but that he “[hasn’t] heard the costs” (254).
A few passages leapt out at me as I reviewed this for a Reformed Journal audience. One was when Sharlet describes the hymn singing of some labor activists in the late 1930s who “had all been raised in the Church and all had converted to unionism. They believed in deliverance, here and now, not salvation” (328). Sharlet was describing a long-standing tension in American religion between transcendence and immanence, a false dichotomy that Reformed Christians are usually well-equipped to repair as we talk about the “already but not yet” of God’s Kingdom and about reclaiming every “square inch” of Creation. Salvation is not merely a get-out-of-hell-free card just as the Christian calling is not twiddling one’s thumbs while waiting for Christ’s return. Sharlet’s description is worth weeping over, not because he mischaracterizes Christian salvation, but because he accurately describes why so many today—especially young or progressive folks—are leaving churches. Their diagnosis of churches that are “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good” is not true of all churches nor of all Christians, but the accusation should make us soberly and lamentably reflect on our own denominations, churches, and hearts. More needs to be said about this elsewhere, but it’s a growing phenomenon that has infiltrated even Reformed circles as some lean more into antithesis than common grace, insularity than hospitality, more into scarcity than abundance (35, 166), into fear than love.
Another interesting angle were the themes of hope, fear, and anger. We as Reformed Christians are certainly called to live and act without fear as our ultimate hope is in Jesus Christ and his coming Kingdom, so a book like Sharlet’s forces us to consider difficult questions about our motivations, our hearts, our gun ownership, and our votes.
Some might accuse Sharlet of doing what Kevin Drum calls nut-picking with the Christians featured in his book—like those who have abandoned the symbol of the cross in favor of a pulpit made of swords (173, 185)—but, while there is some truth to that accusation, Sharlet’s examples document the real and growing phenomenon of Christian Nationalism that the Church needs to be aware of and to confront. Some readers might wish for less partisanship or more words about the illiberal left, but, while that is a growing issue too, that’s not really within the scope of his book.
Finally, the book highlights that we need to combat misinformation and radicalization in our churches. Silence from the pulpit is not an option, but neither is simple fact-checking. As Sharlet himself admits, his fact-checking asides are not enough. He notes that he and many of his readers believe that truth and expertise is how “we’ll resist the undertow of civil war, fact-checking our way to solid ground.” The problem is “you can’t fact-check a myth,” Sharlet warns, no matter how “satisfying [it is] when an expert flattens a false claim” (188). Perhaps his empathetic portraits are a better starting point. So many of the misguided people in his portraits are desperate, looking for meaning, connection, and purpose. Thus, the church must do more than condemn: it needs to combat myths by offering a positive vision of the good life that incorporates those feeling left-behind or left-out by a changing society. Only then can we resist the sucking pull of the undertow that is the temptation to lash out against others because of perceived dangers or to sever our civic bonds entirely.