Daniel Radosh

in conversation with Alex Shephard

While visiting his wife’s family in Kansas in 2005, Daniel Radosh accompanied his sister-in-law to an evangelical Christian rock festival. At one point, one of his sister-in-law’s friends ran up to him and exclaimed, “That was awesome! They prayed like three times in a 20-minute set!” From that moment, Radosh writes in Rapture Ready, he “had to know what it meant to judge a band by how hard it prayed rather than how hard it rocked.”

Published in 2008, Rapture Ready is Radosh’s account of the “parallel universe” of Christian pop culture. Part travelogue, part investigation into the fault lines of the culture and its intersections with the mainstream, the reader follows Radosh as he attends Christian wrestling matches, alternative Christian music festivals, and Kentucky’s gargantuan Creationism Museum. While Rapture Ready may not be as well known as other excellent investigations of evangelical Christian culture, such as The Year of Living Biblically, it is the funniest and the most moving – Radosh is never cynical, always probing, and remarkably sharp.

Before joining the staff of The Daily Show in 2009, Radosh was a freelance writer whose work was published in The New Yorker, McSweeneys, GQ, and The New York Times, among many others. He also wrote and maintained Radosh.net, the loss of which I hope to mourn in Full Stop someday in the future. Over breakfast, we spoke about the past year at The Daily Show, the ways in which evangelical culture has shifted since the election of Barack Obama, and the best books he read in 2010.

Although you haven’t had a solo project since Rapture Ready, you were one of the writers of The Daily Show’s Earth: The Book, which came out last summer.

Working on Earth was much like working on the show: it’s writing of a kind, but it’s not the kind of writing that I had done for twenty years. I love doing it and I’ll get back to it when I can, but I’m not one of those people who can come home after a day of work and sit down and start writing.
I pretty much only freelanced, other than a few years here and there; that’s hard, but it was pretty much the only way I could really do what I wanted to do. [I could only] write Rapture Ready because I wasn’t holding down a day job. I knew people that would hold down a day job at a magazine and write a book on the side, and I cannot understand how people do that. I think you have to be a lot more serious, focused? I don’t know what it is.
Part of the problem is [for] a book like Rapture Ready – and even most of the freelance I’ve done – you really have to have a free schedule for the research that’s required. You need to be available to talk to people, to travel to places. So, if I’m working 10-6 and I just can’t take calls in the middle of the day at the office – I don’t know how I would do that.
I am hoping to write something again. I’m actually thinking about writing fiction for the first time just because it’s the kind of thing I can do on my own schedule. That’s a little daunting, though, for someone who’s never written fiction.

This felt like the most ambitious year in The Daily Show’s history. You guys really seemed to be pushing the form that the show had developed over the past decade.

We had the Gospel Choir, the Glenn Beck stuff… Jon likes to challenge himself and to challenge all of us. I came in a year after the 2008 elections. And everyone had heard “Oh, what are they going to do when there’s a Democrat in office,” which is a stupid thing to say. But, rather than just say “That’s a stupid thing to say, we’re going to ignore it,” it became “we’re gonna show them.” I have no idea what’s going to happen next year, but I do know that Jon is not thinking “We had the best year we’re ever going to have,” he’s thinking, “What am I going to do next year that’s better?”

What were the most memorable moments this year at The Daily Show?

It was a crazy year. We started out working on this book and, honestly for the first few months I was working on it I would be writing something and then they’d be like “well, we decided that’s not what the book’s going to be anymore.” So I’d write something else. I was thinking, “I don’t know what this book is! It’s going to be a disaster!” I didn’t understand any of it. Then, slowly, it started to come together with the illustrations… And, oh wait, this is really funny.
Then, in the summer, as we’re finishing the book, Glenn Beck announces he’s going to have this rally and Jon says, “We should have a rally of our own. We should go out there and have a Rally to Restore Sanity.” And I thought, “please let him forget this” – because he’ll do that sometimes, he’ll say something then [drop it]. I thought it sounded like the worst possible idea. A comedy rally? Do not let this happen.
Then I didn’t hear anything about it for a couple months; I thought, “Thank God, he forgot.” Then the Beck rally starts to come closer and Jon’s like “We’re going to do that rally,” and I was like, shit.
I grew up going to a lot of rallies and protests and I thought you can’t do comedy bits like we do on the show for such a large crowd. I was thinking, “This is going to be such a catastrophe.” And then, again, as it came closer I was like, “Holy shit.” It was incredible; it was an amazing experience. I know it had some dissenters, which is alright. It should. ….
The stuff we did on the show was some of the best stuff I think the show has done. I feel like we owned the so-called Ground Zero Mosque story. It was us vs. Fox News on that story and I think we trounced them in every way that counts, especially in the entertainment category – though they are very good entertainers over there at Fox. I’m as proud as the work I did on that as I am of anything I’ve done in my career.

When Rapture Ready was released in 2008, the power of the Christian Right appeared to be waning. However, Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally was, in many ways, a push to claim leadership of the Christian Right. How does that rally factor into the movements you discuss in your book?

It’s interesting, because I did end the book on what may be a falsely or overly optimistic note. I do think that the religious right has been resurgent in a new form. I think that’s mostly because they have an enemy in the White House. When I was writing the book during the Democratic primaries, all the passion and the intensity and the anger that I would hear from people was focused on Hillary Clinton. To them, she represented the devil. I don’t think Barack Obama was even on their radar; and, if he was, they would say “He seems like a nice guy, whatever.” Plus, he was making a big deal about his faith, which, at the time, they still felt was Christian, and building bridges. I never thought that he was going to transform America. I’ve been around too long to think that that was going to happen.
But the swiftness with which the animosity turned on him – the same kind of thing that was focused on the Clintons — [was surprising]. Maybe because it happened so much faster, it became so much more intense. That was helpful. And, of course, the recession will always hurt people. I do think the Tea Party is, in large part, connected to the Christian movement that preceded it. I know taxes are the outward focus, but you don’t build a movement like that without a kind of emotional connection, which comes from social issues. I don’t think you’re going to find too many fiscal conservatives and social liberals in the Tea Party.
So, I think that Beck is doing something very interesting and canny, something intentional but not cynical. I think he is trying to transform himself from a political leader into a religious leader. And I think that he’s seeing Jerry Falwell as a model – or even going back to The Great Awakening, which he refers to – and I think he wants his followers to see him as a spiritual leader who happens to be involved in politics, as opposed to a political figure who dabbles in spirituality. That’s really interesting, because now it works because they have a common enemy.
But when I was doing the book, man, I never realized how much conservative Christians hate Mormons. Beck is a Mormon, [and] he’s connected to this strain of fundamentalist Mormonism that’s very different from conservative Christianity. It can go either of two ways: either that’s going to come to a head at some point and some conservative Christian leader is going to say, “We can’t follow this guy because of what he believes.” Or what is perhaps more likely is that this is going to be like the moment where conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics really became allied. There was a time when that was unthinkable — those people were mortal enemies. But I think it was Mel Gibson, it was The Passion of The Christ, that made conservative Protestants see conservative Catholics as being the same – not just allies, but the same. I think we may be coming to that with Glenn Beck. And if so, the big beneficiary of that is going to be Mitt Romney.

Do you think that figures like Beck, Palin, and Huckabee are reconfiguring the relationship between conservative Christianity and politics, or do you think they’re more in line with the Falwells and the Robertsons of old?

I don’t see it as a reconfiguring – maybe a reenergizing. Beck is safe, because I don’t think he has any interest in running for office. I really don’t — I think that’s part of his interest in wanting to be a spiritual leader, rather than a political leader, so he doesn’t get caught in the crossfire. I think Huckabee is toast. He’s not a great broadcaster; he’s a good politician, but he’s not going to fight Sarah Palin for that crowd. Beck’s already going to turn to Palin as his figure. She’s the winner in that respect. And she comes straight out of the world that I talked about in Rapture Ready: [for instance] there was the video with her involving spiritual warfare. But, you know what? This has been going on for decades now! She’s very much out of this movement, this anti-intellectual version of charismatic Christian culture. I don’t think she has any deep theology; I don’t think she cares particularly much. It’s the strain of Christianity that is purely emotional.

Between the bad dialogue and the stunted theology she seems to have emerged out of a book by Tim LaHaye.

Right. (laughs) …. I still think I wasn’t wrong about the pop culture of Christianity becoming more fractured and the orthodoxy being challenged — [Palin] won’t be able to tap into it the way that Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell did a generation ago. Those people had the entire Christian pop culture machine behind them. …. Now I think there are enough people in that movement who are going to challenge her, who are going to say “we’re not going to stand here and vote for someone just because all the books in the Christian bookstore tell us to.”

The idealized past is an integral part to both the Christian pop culture you talk about in the book and the movement that Glenn Beck is leading.

Beck is all about that. We deal with that on the show quite a lot in different ways… we did a thing with Larry Wilmore, [talking about how] the 50s, for a black guy, were not what the 50s were like for white people. There’s none of the understanding that our great past was not so great for a lot of people. …. That’s the funny thing about this idealized past: you look at what people were writing in the Eisenhower era or the early 60s and they were saying “everything is falling apart, it’s not like it was in our parents day in the 30s.” Every step of the way everyone’s looking back. Jon’s thing is, “Of course things were better for you in the 1970s, you were five years old!” Things are really easy for you when you’re a child and people are taking care of you. Look, Ronald Reagan did it. It’s a mode of politics that really works. It’s the essence of conservatism.

Genesis Chapter 3 could be considered an allegory for that kind of thought. Eden is childhood.

For the Creation Museum, there was an actual moment when there was no death. For them, that’s the idealized past that we’re trying to get back to. .… They’re building a Noah’s Ark theme park now. They’re going to make Northern Kentucky a little Creationism mecca. That’s going to be crazy. I guess they’re doing well, to be able to finance that.

You really demolished The Creationism Museum in the book for attempting to apply scientific reason and complexity to a myth whose power lies in its simplicity.

But people don’t apply reason to it. You’re not supposed to – it’s not expected. They do what they accuse people that believe in science of, which is just taking experts’ word for it. They know that their visitors are not going to dig in to what they say is the science behind it because it’s complicated and confusing. That’s only going to increase. ….
That’s the thing about a Sarah Palin campaign. Even though I don’t think she’s going to win anything, she’s going to energize a bloc in a huge way, in a way that they weren’t energized in 2008. There is going to be a real resurgence in conservative Christian politics.

Like what happened when William Jennings Bryan would run for president?

Compared with Sarah Palin, Bryan was an intellectual heavyweight. It will be interesting to see how more moderate and liberal Christians who had complained about [the Christian Right] in  the 80s and 90s [will react], to see if they’re going to put up any kind of a fight now that they’ve had ten years of their own cultural movement building up.  But who are they going to rally to?
Obama is very strange, because he used religious language and religious imagery in a way that connected with people [on the campaign] but he hasn’t been doing that [since taking office] and I don’t know why. I don’t think he was faking it. I wonder if he’s just become too caught up in actually trying to run the government, or if he thinks of that as being part of the soaring rhetoric which he’s trying to damp down, or if he’s just laying the groundwork to admit that he’s not a Christian at all. It’s going to be one of those things. But it’s a little too early to be doing that if he wants a second term. And he can’t go back to it now, because now it’s going to look phony. So he makes it easier for the Christians who were supporting him in 2008 to slip away from him.

There’s a sense, especially on the secular left, that the Christian Right has gained prominence because it’s maintained a bloc while the rest of secular culture has fragmented. You demolish that idea in your book.

It’s all niches. As with secular society — but in a more compressed time frame — [the Christian Right] went through a cycle of starting out as local, grassroots entertainers and writers – people just writing for their immediate community. Then it became homogenized and disseminated. Now, with the internet and everything that affects modern communication and media, it’s fracturing again into small communities, though they’re not geographical communities anymore. It’s the same as what’s happened in secular society.

Both Christian and secular subcultures are driven by a similar authenticity fetish — whether it’s how many times a Christian band prays, or an indie band’s backstory.

It’s authenticity, which is based on obscurity. I’m not putting it down: it is a way of appreciating culture… The obscurity becomes what legitimizes it. The Christian parallel is religious fervor. That’s their authenticity: the willingness to preach, as opposed to just being spiritual, is the parallel to whatever it is that drives people to whichever indie band is of the moment. It becomes a badge that becomes more important than the aesthetic experience.

What has the response been from the people you met and wrote about in Rapture Ready?

For the most part, they’ve been pretty pleased that I did what I said I was going to do — which was take an honest and fair-minded look at this world and show what it looks like from an outsider’s perspective. I think they were really fascinated; I think there were a lot of things they had not seen. From people who are in that world but not in the book, almost all the feedback I got was “it’s really good to know how this looks from the outside” or “thank you for saying these things that we in the community are not always allowed to say or that we do not recognize.” …. Almost nobody — whether it was people I actually wrote about or people in the community itself — was upset about anything. There were a lot of people who disagreed with me, but in a respectful way. .… I like getting hate mail, but I only got one really crazy piece of hate mail, and it was only when I was about half-way through that I realized she had never read the book. She was going entirely off of the description on Amazon.
There’s one guy I’m in touch with on Facebook now that I didn’t actually talk to for the book – he’s one of the guys who runs Cornerstone, the alt-Christian festival. I’d seen him there and gotten in touch with him afterwards when I was thinking about trying to sell the book there. But he’d read the book and was critical of it, but for the most part really enjoyed it, and we struck up a friendship online. …. That doesn’t happen with people I write about on The Daily Show.

What were the best books you read in 2010?

Last night I finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy. I like to keep up with what the kids are reading, but it’s been a while since I’ve gotten into a YA novel. It’s great that there are still books like that out there that are so narratively and emotionally pure. You can just gorge on them…. When you’re not used to reading books that are written for teenagers you can be like “Really, every sentence is going to be this simple?” But within a few pages I was thinking, “Okay, I wish that hadn’t been my first thought. There’s so much more going on here.” By the end I was actually very impressed… It’s very complex – emotionally and politically – in ways that rival adult fiction.
I really liked Myla Goldberg’s new book, The False Friend. It got this really awful, stupid review in The New York Times. It’s terrible: there’s only one serious outlet for book reviews right now —The New York Times—and if they don’t like something then that’s it, because no one else is going to challenge it. One of my pet peeves is when a reviewer doesn’t review the book that they read, they review some imaginary book in their head that they wish they had read. “This book wasn’t at all what it should have been.” And the review [of The False Friend] was saying “This book utterly fails as a mystery because she’s interviewing suspects, but they don’t give her any information.” But this wasn’t a mystery! And then [you do a little research and discover] the critic is The New York Times mystery critic. It was just a totally wrong review. That was a book that – unfortunately because of that one stupid critic – didn’t get the attention it should have. ….
I also read The Thousand by Kevin Guilfoile. He’s a buddy of mine. I really loved his first book and The Thousand is a good, solid thriller. Somebody convinced me to read a Stephen King book for the first time in a while. I admire his imagination and some of his books I really like, but if you can’t get beyond the stock characters and the terrible dialogue… But somebody like Kevin Guilfoile can take the elements of a pulp thriller and elevate it just enough to make it really good genre fiction, which I love. Man, I read a lot of great books this year.