David Foster Wallace’s Evangelicals: The Other Postsecularism

By Christopher Douglas

In David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good People,” two young evangelical Christians sit by the side of a lake, deciding whether they can carry through with their plan to terminate their unwanted pregnancy. Having met in a Christian campus ministry in their junior college, Lane doesn’t think he loves Sheri, and “they’d prayed on it and talked it through,” but they meet before the appointment because of Sheri’s growing hesitation about the abortion. Full of self-doubt, “Two-hearted” Lane is eventually given a “moment of grace” in which he perceives that Sheri, in a “last-ditch gamble” born of “desperation,” will let him off the hook. He sees that she will take responsibility entirely on her own to have and raise their child, proposing that “she releases him, all claim, and hopes he finishes up” his college accounting program “and does so good in his life and has all joy and good things.” “She is gambling that he is good,” Lane realizes, and the story ends with him experiencing “something more” than pity, “something without any name he knows,” which is perhaps both love and courage, as we are to understand that the young couple will marry and have their child together.

It was a surprising, even transgressive, story in the February 2007 New Yorker—shocking that such a sympathetic view of evangelical faith would appear in the arch-liberal organ of the coastal progressive cultural and political elites. And Wallace knew his stuff when writing about the subculture: “What he believed in,” Wallace says of Lane in a characterization that would be true of almost all evangelical Protestants, “was a living God of compassion and love and the possibility of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through whom this love was enacted in human time.” When Lane asks himself at the end of the story, “What would even Jesus do?”, it was a reference to the well-known WWJD slogan and bracelets of evangelical youth culture in the nineties and the noughties. That social movement had become a wider political force in previous decades in the form of the Christian Right, culminating in the current (in 2007) presidency of George W. Bush, who had named Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher “because he changed my heart” when running for the Republican nomination in 1999. (Yes, there appears to have been a time when debate moderators asked such questions.)

In the decades prior to Wallace’s story, conservative Christians had reshaped the political and moral landscape of the nation by making universal claims within the culture wars, from questions of gender roles and sexuality, the Cold War and the War on Terror, science and health education, race and immigration, economic policy and the welfare state, and indeed the meaning of America and America in the world. They believed in general that communism, pornography, abortion, premarital sex, evolution, homosexual acts and gay marriage, and anthropogenic climate change were wrong or untrue. Conversely, they argued that school prayer and Bible-reading, traditional gender roles, creationism, abstinence-only sex education, and the untold Christian history of the nation were morally right and factually correct. Their universalism entailed the belief that people who believed in evolution or who had abortions or engaged in homosexual sex were not just culturally different, but were in error.

The rise of the Christian Right represents a definitive return of what we might call “strong religiosity,” in distinction to the “weak religiosity” often said to define our postsecular situation. In his now-classic formulation, John McClure suggests in Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison (2007) that “postsecular fiction” is characterized by a kind of diluted religious impulse that disdains doctrinal certainty, power, and institutionalization. Adopting Gianni Vattimo’s concept of “weak religion,” McClure argues about postsecular fiction that “Absurd excess, extravagant impiety, and parody function in these works both to make the reintroduction of the religious palatable to secular-minded readers and to check the tendency of religious speculation to drift toward dogmatism and intolerance.” And in fact, McClure marks the postsecular spirituality of writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, Alice Walker, Michael Ondaatje, N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Silko, and Louise Erdrich through contrast to the bestselling fundamentalist series Left Behind, about the Earth’s last days as foretold in the Book of Revelation. It is the “spiritual obscurity” of the postsecular that “sets postsecular fiction apart” from “fundamentalist fiction” like the Left Behind series, in which “the enchanted world waiting just beyond the boundaries of secularism offers answers to all problems, and the only challenge is to get there, learn its laws, and submit to them.” Postsecular fiction, in contrast, affirms pluralistic spiritualities and idiosyncratic religious experiences, not the kind of rigid theologies, textual certainties, and institutional commitments characteristic of Christian (and other) fundamentalisms.

In the two decades since McClure’s key contribution, the concept of the postsecular has allowed us to name a significant and real pattern in our literature—which is not to disregard the pointed critiques the term has undergone in American literary studies, as well as the core concepts of religion, the secular, and secularization on which the notion seemed premised. But I want to suggest in this essay that insofar as the postsecular is an attempt to name a literary-sociological period and provide a powerful heuristic for our literary history, it has had the effect of reinforcing the ways we have ignored the return of the strong religiosity against which the term was originally constituted. This is true of Amy Hungerford’s Postmodern Belief as well, another influential study that doesn’t adopt the term ‘postsecular’, but whose reading of literature and culture as prizing belief in belief, in meaninglessness, and in sheer style and form without semantic content, concords with the idea that what returned to haunt us after the secular was diluted and rarified, without strong doctrines or the power of the old time religion. This is not a critique of McClure and Hungerford; it is only to draw attention to their self-chosen limit, to what they themselves bracketed out of their analyses.

In this sense, to draw attention to postsecularism’s other is to notice the way in which our literary period since the 1970s has simultaneously been marked by a very strong and vital resurgence of politically and socially muscular conservative Christianity. That resurgence, I would argue, is one of the two most consequential religious developments in the United States since the Second World War (the other being, to my mind, the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which changed immigration law from the national origin system to one based on skills and family reunification). Indeed, the rise of the Christian Right blindsided not only most literary writers in the U.S., but also most of us literary critics, because we remained duped for too long by the secularization thesis, that our society was becoming less religious as it continued to become more modern. It was not always easy to see evidence to the contrary, or to recognize it for what it was. Perhaps we were entranced by the institutional memory of the Scopes trial in 1925, during which fundamentalist beliefs about creationism and the Bible were publically ridiculed on radio and in newspapers, and after which, José Casanova writes in Public Religions in the Modern World, fundamentalism “collapsed and, once banished from public view, most intellectuals assumed that it had been relegated to the dustbin of history.” We were slow to recognize conservative Christianity’s unheralded public return beginning in the 1970s, as it re-entered the social and political sphere reinvigorated and prepared to make its moral demands on the nation.

Where this matters for our notion of the postsecular is that insofar as the “post-” in postsecular names a historical, if generalized, sequence of events, we didn’t just get the return of weak religiosity after what we might call a mid-century Civil Religion consensus comfortable talking about God’s abstract, watered-down, ecumenical divine mission for the nation (as sociologists like Robert Bellah and Will Herberg perceived). We also got the return of a religious energy that had hibernated but never really gone away, destroyed neither by Scopes nor the literary testaments to (and reinforcements of) secularization like The Waste Land and The Sun Also Rises. This emergent, strong religiosity was committed to an inerrant, literal Word of God. It was strongly institutional, even as its base extended across a fairly wide range of conservative white Protestant churches, and as it grew eventually to include many (white) Catholics and members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. It sought to preserve traditional gender roles and sexual mores, forming in part as a reaction against feminism and the “shock” of the sexual revolution. It extended its ethical and truth claims to those outside its community through legislation and judicial review. It believed in God’s ongoing active power in the world, as well as the power of prayer to change individual lives, and indeed the nation itself. Insofar as literary studies’ notion of the postsecular allowed us to see the weak religiosity animating some of our greatest literary works in the period, it also contributed to our continued blindness to the hugely significant social arrival of strong religiosity in the public sphere. The postsecular, it turned out, carried the baggage of classic secularization theory.

I believe this to be true of our literature as well. With rare exceptions like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which saw with famous clarity the gender, sexual, and racial politics at the heart of the emergent Christian Right, our literature generally disregarded it, or misrecognized it for what it was, translating it into the more palatable terms of multiculturalism—as is true of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, however different these three authors’ religious perspectives are. And this is what makes David Foster Wallace’s short story all the more striking and exceptional in the postsecular age. After all, Lane and Sheri were in an evangelical predicament, about to compound their sin of premarital sex with the even worse one of abortion, the culture-war mega issue. The Christian Right was first galvanized, in fact, through its gradual reaction to the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the United States. (There was another issue that galvanized the nascent white Christian Right—its general opposition to the Civil Rights movement and its marriage of politics and religion – but that is another story.) As Susan Harding demonstrates in The Book of Jerry Falwell (2001), white Protestants were initially split on the ethics of abortion. But they were eventually mobilized and considerably “sorted” politically by the end of the 1970s, partly through the agency of Francis Schaeffer’s documentary How Should We Then Live? in 1977. After the founding of the Moral Majority by Tim LaHaye (who later co-wrote the famous fundamentalist Left Behind series) and Jerry Falwell in 1979, pro-life politics became the default stance of white conservative evangelicals, and then the Republican Party that they adopted, energized, and whose primaries they came to dominate in the years to come.

Thus Wallace’s New Yorker readers might have expected his tale to revel in the religious hypocrisy of the situation: that these sexually self-repressed followers of the abstinence-only sex education movement had obviously not practiced what they preached. What the story does instead is draw a deeply sympathetic portrait of a young couple in spiritual pain, trying and failing to find an easy solution to their dilemma. The core of the story is our human psychological apparatus of justification; how we, ethically and emotionally, arrive at ideas we wish to be true or right rather than those that really are true or right. And so Lane sits largely silent, knowing he can’t appear as a “salesman” for the abortion, but wanting badly for Sheri to re-commit to it un-coerced by him. They had previously prayed over the issue, appearing to jointly arrive at the God-blessed decision to terminate their pregnancy. But Lane has declined to pursue prayerful introspection beyond this point; having arrived at the answer he wants, he does not seek out his youth pastor or other prayer partners, or any of the other accoutrements of his evangelical church. His manipulation of Sheri entails “trying to say things that would get her to open up and say enough back that he could see her and read her heart and know what to say to get her to go through with it.”

“He knew this,” Wallace continues, “without admitting to himself that this was what he wanted, for it would make him a hypocrite and a liar.” So far so good, liberal secular skeptics of faith might agree, watching Wallace dissect the machinations of faith, our will to believe, to make believe in the things we want to be true. In this sense, the story at first appears on track to being a familiar secularist critique of faith as wishful thinking. More particularly, it is a critique of the particular brand of evangelical Protestantism ascendant in the Christianized Republican Party of the day. Indeed, what really made this story’s sympathy so transgressive is that Lane’s faith-based wishful thinking would have reminded New Yorker readers of the obviously faith-based policies and decisions of the current Bush administration, whose process of prayerfully arriving at the answers one wants to be true was most spectacularly on display in the justification of the second Iraq war back in 2002 and 2003, which by 2007 was clearly one of the biggest political and military debacles in U.S. history. (The same New Yorker issue included a 9,000 word article on Saddam Hussein’s execution, sectarian violence among the Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds, and Bush’s planned “surge.”)

By the time of the story’s publication, it had become obvious to anyone who cared that the Bush administration had justified the invasion of Iraq by ginning up intelligence linking Saddam Hussein’s regime to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and suggesting that the regime had active Weapons of Mass Destruction programs and was seeking sources of uranium in Niger. We knew by then that Bush had, the day after the attacks on the Twin Towers, asked his aides to find out if Saddam were involved. We knew that Bush had prayed over his decision to invade Iraq, with God seemingly confirming the decision to launch the war. We knew that the claims of WMDs had been spectacularly wrong, as were the claims linking Saddam to Al Qaeda. Obviously, the chief architects of the war, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were not born-again Christians like their Commander in Chief. But they participated in faith-like processes of harmonization and mental sifting, both setting up mechanisms to “stovepipe” raw intelligence directly into offices they controlled rather than go through the usual vetting and critical evaluation of fresh intelligence by experts across America’s several intelligence agencies. For the mostly secularist readers of the New Yorker, this is what strong faith looked like, with all its terrible consequences.

The New York Times later summarized the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2008 report on intelligence failures leading up to the war that skewered in particular the false WMD and Al Qaeda claims, establishing “how much the Bush administration knowingly twisted and hyped intelligence to justify that invasion.” “The report shows,” the Times said, “that there was no intelligence to support the two most frightening claims Mr. Bush and his vice president used to sell the war: that Iraq was actively developing nuclear weapons and had longstanding ties to terrorist groups. It seems clear that the president and his team knew that that was not true, or should have known it—if they had not ignored dissenting views and telegraphed what answers they were looking for.” The Times was reluctant to say that Bush and administration officials lied, partly because it had no access to other people’s mental intentions. Lying has to be accompanied by the intent to deceive, which is not possible if someone has first convinced himself.

It is these very questions of deception and manipulation—and, crucially, self-deception and self-manipulation—that Wallace takes up in his portrayal of the evangelical couple in “Good People.” Lane and Sheri are in the fix they’re in partly because of just such faith-based beliefs on sex education promulgated by the Christian Right. Indeed, abstinence-only programs of the kind endorsed by the Bush administration were actually “positively correlated with teenage pregnancy and birth rates,” even after accounting for socio-economic and ethnic differences. We might sympathize with Lane and Sheri’s predicament, particularly because it is not (unlike the Bush Administration’s fateful decisions on Iraq) affecting anyone but themselves—but on the other hand they have no one but their faith tradition to blame.

Where things go sideways, for the progressive readers of The New Yorker enjoying the schadenfreude of Wallace’s skewering of evangelical Christian faith as wishful thinking reminiscent of the far more portentous wishful-thinking resulting in Iraq, is that at the story’s climax faith becomes a kind of technique for deep spiritual introspection and self-interrogation. As it turned out, Lane’s growing self-awareness of his manipulation of Sheri was part of Wallace’s longstanding fictional interest—most spectacularly evident perhaps in his Infinite Jest—in the ordinary human predicaments of self-knowledge, the apprehension of our own insincerity, of ironic self-consciousness.

Indeed, in his famous 1993 essay on television, literature and irony, Wallace framed the problem of coming to terms with late twentieth-century ironic self-consciousness by way of religious reaction:

“What responses to television’s commercialization of the modes of literary protest [that is, irony] seem possible, then, today? One obvious option is for the fiction writer to become reactionary, fundamentalist. Declare contemporary television evil and contemporary culture evil and turn one’s back on the whole spandexed mess and invoke instead good old pre-1960s Hugh Beaumontish virtues and literal readings of the Testaments and be pro-Life, anti-Fluoride, antediluvian. The problem with this is that Americans who’ve opted for this tack seem to have one eyebrow straight across their forehead and knuckles that drag on the ground and really tall hair and in general just seem like an excellent crowd to want to transcend. Besides, the rise of Reagan/Bush/Gingrich showed that hypocritical nostalgia for a kinder, gentler, more Christian pseudo-past is no less susceptible to manipulation in the interests of corporate commercialism and PR image. Most of us will still take nihilism over neanderthalism.”

Wallace’s snapshot was a pretty perfect expression of hip, ironic 1990s American literature looking at Christian Republican values, at its hypocrisy and its strategic ties to big business (as Kevin Kruse’s recent history of this alliance put it, “How Corporate America Invented Christian America). In this scheme, conservative Christianity, or conservatism in general, and its resistance to coming to terms with postmodern ironic knowingness manifest as pure reaction: to refuse to see irony’s predicament of self-consciousness. It was this kind of arrogant, supreme self-confidence that characterized the emergent Christian Right, and indeed, the administration of Bush’s son, Bush Jr., 7 years later.

Wallace’s liberal literary disdain for the unibrowed Christian Rightits portrayal here as an evolutionary throwback affirming secularization’s teleology of progressively abandoned religious beliefis really the context in which “Good People” needs to be heard, its Judas author now, fourteen years later, locating in the very evolutionary retrogrades he had indicted years before a renewed capacity for self-examination. Lane is watching Sheri, but he is also watching himself, and his “moment of grace” comes from recognizing his own complicated doubleness in his attempts to manipulate Sheri. (It’s difficult to read this story now without thinking of the recent #MeToo discussions of Wallace’s own manipulation, coercion and abuse of women.) Even his own private promise to God that “he had learned his lesson” and so the abortion should go through is bracketed with the self-reflective question of motive: “But what if that, too, was a hollow promise, from a hypocrite who repented only after, who promised submission but really only wanted a reprieve? He might not even know his own heart or be able to read and know himself.” With this rumination in his own opacity, the evangelical Christian arrives at the beginning of wisdom.

And so but when Wallace inserts the purposefully clunky “even” into the story’s penultimate question, “What would even Jesus do?”, he disarms the satiric eye-rolling the cliché might prompt in his mostly secular readers, allowing us to hear the genuine ethical quandary facing his evangelical character. What Wallace seemed to see is that his evangelical characters are not necessarily more prone to self-deceptionto seeking the answers we want to be right or true rather than the unpleasant answers that are right or truethan secular liberals. In fact, in this sequence Wallace grants Lane precisely the agonizing second-guessing and ironic self-consciousness he had previously contrasted to conservative religious faith. Sheri’s “last-ditch gamble” absolving him of responsibility evinces a similarly nuanced nesting of motivation and performance. Wallace’s evangelicals revealed the kind of emotional and spiritual complexity usually reserved, in postsecular criticism, for nontraditional, non-dogmatic spiritualties. Maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised by “Good People,” given its title’s reference to Flannery O’Connor’s widely-anthologized “Good Country People,” which we know Wallace read and annotated (on this, see Michael J. O’Connell’s “‘Your Temple is Self and Sentiment’: David Foster Wallace’s Diagnostic Novels” in Christianity & Literature 64.3). When O’Connor’s nihilist protagonist Hulgashe “sees through to nothing”is robbed of her prosthetic leg by an itinerant Bible salesman who tells her that she isn’t so smart after all, and that he’s “been believing in nothing ever since I was born,” it is a hard-won lesson for the university-trained intellectual that arriving at unbelief is no great achievement.

O’Connor’s con artist is not, after all, good country people, but Wallace’s Lane and Sheri do end up being good suburban people, white evangelicals in 1980s Peoria. And they survived. Wallace’s posthumous, unfinishedmaybe unfinishablenovel The Pale King includes the story “Good People” as its section six (pages 38-45), and later fragments about Lane which show that he married Sheri, and they had their baby. A final novel-planning note has Lane going to church one morning but becoming “less fervently Christian” than Sheri. But this was not a snide negation of Lane’s hard-won self-realization in “Good People”; it was merely the sociological truism of a more-faithful wife paired with a less-devout husband, such as would also end up being the star of the Left Behind series during this same period. The Pale King lets us know that Lane, who is nineteen in “Good People,” thinks a lot about his “infant son” in 1985 at his job at the Midwest REC (Regional Examination Center) of the IRS where he processes tax forms, putting him in his early twenties. Perhaps we might, in a thought experiment, run the tape even further forward to the 2016 election and imagine that, like most fifty-something white evangelical Midwesterners, they had been voting for Republicans for decades, and they came home once again to Donald Trump in 2016, as the Christian Right rallied to his support: Trump garnered the support of 81% of white evangelical voters, many, we might suppose, because of the goal of appointing conservative Supreme Court justices who will decide on the legality of the moral issue at the center of Wallace’s story, abortion.

The rise of the Christian Right is the necessary context for understanding the transgressive force of Wallace’s story, for its recognition, even during the Bush administration, that faithful people might arrive at self-knowing with the difficulty that other human beings experience. What Wallace found as he paid attention to this body of specific, historical, contextualized belief was not the semi-sacred “whooshing-up” experienced by sports audiences, prized by postsecular criticism (a la Dreyfus and Kelly in All Things Shining as critiqued by Fessenden in “The Problem of the Postsecular”), and unattached to traditional dogma, institutions and theologies, but rather the currency, the now-ness, of traditional Christian theology and practice. It was a mode of experience and belief the literary world had largely ignored, but Wallace managed to listen to and sympathize with a form of American religiosity that took most of the rest of us by surprise. Perhaps this sympathy was partly due to his own religious questions, embodied, Maria Bustillos explains, in the spiritual ambiguities of Alcoholics Anonymous whose shape looks somewhat more like postsecular energies than the faith of his characters in “Good People.” In contrast, David Foster Wallace’s evangelicals represent the other postsecularism, postsecularism’s other, and there has not been as good an outside literary observer since.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “David Foster Wallace’s Evangelicals: The Other Postsecularism” published in Christianity & Literature 67.3 (2018). Many of the hyperlinks take the place of the printed article’s footnotes. Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.