The novel Christian Nation by Frederic C. Rich (2013, W.W. Norton and Company) is much more than a spiritual successor to Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here. If it were a movie, it might be called a "reboot"; if it were a rock song, it would be a "cover". This is amply acknowledged even before the reader opens the book: the publisher's tag line, displayed prominently on the jacket, reads "IT COULD HAPPEN HERE". Lewis's influential novel, which describes the United States during and after a Fascist coup, is repeatedly cited and quoted in the text and in the chapter headers. In one chapter, a copy of the book is given to the narrator. None of this detracts from the novel's overall quality, but the reader should know that this book does share many of the flaws of its predecessor: the narrative flow is rendered clunky in places by long expository monologues and dialogues, many of the characters come off as somewhat two-dimensional, and the story, by its very nature, relies on some unlikely sequences of events. Setting aside these literary quibbles, I hope that this volume becomes as important and influential as its cautionary forbear. And if God is truly merciful, the events described in this book will remain forever in the realm of speculative fiction.
The story begins as an alternate history in which John McCain won the 2008 election. McCain dies in the first year of his term, and Sarah Palin is sworn in as the forty-fifth President of the United States. Palin promptly moves to implement a nationwide fundamentalist Christian agenda in the United States: she installs a former Focus on the Family employee as a "volunteer" advisor in the White House, and within a dozen pages, the White House and Fox News (renamed "Fox Faith and Freedom Network") form a solid partnership, effectively overwhelming the "liberal" media. After a major terrorist attack, the House and Senate turn solidly Republican. Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens is killed in a mysterious car crash and replaced by Texas senator Ted Cruz. Shortly afterward, justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies of natural causes and is replaced by real-life conservative judge Roy Moore. The dissolution of America's system of checks and balances allows the Palin White House to implement theocratic law in the form of a fifty-point manifesto called "The Blessing", which not only outlaws all of the usual fundamentalist bugaboos such as abortion, marriage equality, and Islam, but also codifies into law American exceptionalism, corporal punishment, Creationism, and global Manifest Destiny. In response, the liberal areas of the country, led by the governor of New York, secede, resulting in a civil war. The theocrats, being better armed, better organized, and more committed, win.
The third (and shortest) part of the novel describes the narrator's life after the final battle: first in a Christian re-education camp (which includes some of the more shocking scenes in the book), then as a probationary citizen put to work scrutinizing books at the former NYU for any hint of homosexuality, evolution, or religious deviancy, and finally as a newly-recruited member of a shadowy "freethinkers' underground".
The narration is presented in the first person by a character known only as "Greg" or "G.", but the real protagonist is Sanjay, an educated, gay, Yoga-practicing son of Indian immigrants. Sanjay and Greg create the group Theocracy Watch and try to rally the disparate elements of secular America to resist President Palin's theocratic agenda. Their failure, while unattributed in the novel, is implied to be a result of liberal apathy and inferior organization.
Despite its flaws, this is actually a very good and readable novel: the author does a good job of capturing "President" Palin's verbal tics (doncha know) and general cluelessness, and adds verisimilitude to the story by using many real-life political and religious figures as characters. The most chilling technique used by Rich is to use the exact words of various fundamentalist Christians to illustrate just how it could happen here. As the narrator writes at the end of the first chapter: "So I suppose what happened here is that they said what they would do, and we did not listen. Then they did what they said what they would do." I would recommend that any American concerned with religious liberty, personal freedom, and the preservation of the U.S. Constitution follow the advice of former ACLU president Nadine Strossen: "Please, read this book and then pass it on to six other people, making it into a chain letter for liberty".