“Abstinence Teacher” takes novel approach to U.S. culture wars

November 13, 2007

Another day, another book about America’s Religious Right…

At least that’s what I thought when I heard there was yet another book published on the conservative Christian movement that has wielded so much influence in the Republican Party — and by extension some aspects of U.S. public policy.

The Abstinence TeacherBut Tom Perrotta‘s new book “The Abstinence Teacher” sets itself apart from the rest of a very large pack by the fact that it is a novel — a marked departure from the slew of non-fiction works out on the Religious Right. My story “Novel examines U.S. culture war on soccer field ” discusses the book with Perrotta.

New books on the movement keep coming out, despite the fact some analysts say it has already run its political course. That view seems to be underscored by the startling fact that former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani is leading the Republican field in the 2008 White House race despite his support for abortion and gay rights.

Most of these books are polemical, some are alarmist and a few have certainly been thought-provoking.

To name just a very few (and sticking to titles I’ve read) they include Kevin Phillips’ “American Theocracy” (which also looks at the politics of oil and debt), Thomas Frank’s “What’s The Matter with Kansas?”(has the Republican Party used abortion to get blue collar Americans to vote against their economic interests?), Lauren Sandler’s “Righteous” (about the evangelical youth movement) and Nicholas Guyatt’s informative recent look at Apocalyptic U.S. Christians, “Have a Nice Doomsday.”

There have been many, many more and new ones are rolling off the printing presses at a steady rate.

But fictional takes on these issues have been, as far as I’m aware, rare — excluding of course the “Left Behind” series and other popular works of modern U.S. Christian fiction, which are a different kettle of fish.

The first critical fiction look at the Religious Right from the outside was probably Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Published in 1985 and regarded by some as a prophetic look at the Religious Right’s political ambitions, it is set in the Republic of Gilead – a re-branded and theocratic America after the conservative Christian revolution.

Tom PerrottaBut there has not been a lot since, to the best of my knowledge, and Perrotta thought to himself that it was a topic that surely lent itself to fiction.

“George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election (credited by many to religious conservatives) was a jolt to me as a novelist. I thought I was missing half the story here,” Perrotta told me last week.

He said that he felt that for most novelists, the world of evangelical Christianity was “foreign” — which may explain the relative dearth of fictional treatment on the subject.

His novel takes a micro-approach to make bigger points about the U.S. culture war — sex education in a local school system and prayers on the little league soccer field — and involves people from opposing sides who find they may have more in common than they thought.

“I really liked the Atwood book. I think she did a beautiful job of portraying the Religious Right with unchecked power. But what I really wanted to do was show people on opposite sides wrestling with their doubts and talking to each other the way normal people talk,” Perrotta told me.

I must confess it was nice for a change to read a fictionalised account of a subject I report on and read about on a regular basis.

American novelists have long tackled the big subjects of their day, from slavery to racism to war. The Religious Right and the culture wars may now starting getting their due in this regard.

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Its not only the Religious Right that is pushing abstinence, if I am correct medical doctors say the best way for us to avoid stds and pregnancy is abstinence.

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