On a certain level, every human culture is fake, in the sense of being made up by human beings. Greater authenticity means little other than greater success in covering one’s tracks. That being said, there are some cultures that are more overtly fake than others. In The Total Art of Stalinism, Groys describes Soviet culture under Stalin as very self-consciously artificial — creating new cultural forms, new approaches from the past, even (improbably enough) new clichés, with no pretense to authenticity or rootedness. Indeed, the artificiality was the whole point. When the Soviet leadership de-Stalinized beginning in the 1950s, then, that meant that the “native” Soviet generation was informed that their entire cultural tradition — the only culture they had ever known — was not merely artificial, but defunct. And a big part of Groys’ motivation in writing the book was to share late-Soviet artists’ attempts to grapple with having been formed from the ground up by a political project that had run aground.
Groys’ argument resonates for me, because I, too, was raised in a fake culture: American evangelicalism. This point was really brought home to me by my reading of Lauren Berlant’s The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, where she deconstructs the cultural fabrications of the Reagan reaction. The fate of American evangelicalism is deeply intertwined with that act of cultural construction, to the point where I have been willing to declare that “evangelicalism” as we know it today has no authentic connection to pre-“religious right” movements.
That claim is obviously exaggerated and polemical, but I think it is clarifying as a thought experiment to imagine American evangelicalism as the invention, beginning in the late 1970s, of a genuinely novel form of Christianity. It drew on elements of fundamentalism (the gesture of literalism, though not the rigor of a document of “classic” fundamentalism like the Scofield Bible), pentecostalism (taking the emotionalism, but rejecting the weird stuff), the “mere Christianity” of C.S. Lewis (though reimagined as a permanent dwelling place rather than an ecumenical waiting room), and various other traditions, but created something new — a thoroughly American, thoroughly white, form of Christianity for a generation raised on sitcoms. It brought with it its own version of American history, in which the Founders were all devout Christians who knew the Bible “chapter and verse,” and its own version of Christian social ethics, wherein Jesus died on the cross so you could clean up and move to the suburbs.
They also brought with them their own artificial sense of persecution. The DC Talk song “Jesus Freak” is a case in point here. The insult that gives the song its title is itself made up — calling Christians “Jesus freaks” is not, as they say, a thing [see comments for clarification on this point]. I had literally never heard the term before I heard the song, which presents itself as a brave act of resistence to insults and skepticism from a mainstream culture that will never understand them. But in another turn of the screw, all of this comes in a package that is very self-consciously aping “the world” in the form of “alternative rock.” The song itself is a transparent rip-off of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the album cover (pictured above) is evocative of Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy. It’s defiant Christianity reimagined as a lifestyle brand. As one of the more self-aware Christian rock artists, Steve Taylor, put it in one of his songs: “Jesus is a franchise / In the food court.”
It’s ridiculous, and it’s also my native culture — the only native culture I will ever have. It has formed me in ways that I will never be able to stop grappling with. And it was all created in the service of a destructive political agenda that has run aground in Trump. That is part of what is so difficult to bear about the fact that my parents voted for Trump, however reluctantly — the thought that all the values they were so determined to instill in me, all the hours and hours I spent at church, all somehow converged on lockstep support for the worst person in the world.
Of course, no cultural tradition — even a cultural tradition hastily fabricated over the course of a couple decades — is just one thing, and I have found new uses for some of the cultural habits I was trained up in. On some level, I will always feel like I have to make up lost ground, backfilling my fake cultural formation with “real” culture (the Great Books, classical music, traditional men’s style, etc.) — not simply in a search for cultural prestige (no one cares about that stuff, really), but for something that can actually sustain me intellectually and aesthetically.
At the same time, I think my experience leads me to be fascinated with the constructedness of those “real” cultural traditions themselves, and also to be cautious about calling for any new construction. I know how much it costs, because the fake culture of evangelicalism almost cost me the one life I will ever have.