Missoula native Keir Graff’s first political thriller, 2007’s My Fellow Americans, was a taut, disquieting book about a plausible alternative America, where the current Bush administration’s anti-terror policies are expanded into martial law, and where torture and domestic spying affect everyone. As a fictitious commentary on the excesses of our present government, My Fellow Americans sadly stood out.
When we think of the political turmoil of the 1960s, say, we have a body of movies, songs and books that played with, and off, the times. But the present crisis—with a government that’s arguably more intrusive and authoritarian than that of a generation ago—would seem to elicit less societal criticism in mainstream entertainment media. A book could be written about why there’s such a noticeable difference (and it could have something to do with today’s tighter corporate control over the distribution of movies, books and music), but when something like My Fellow Americans comes across the reading desk, it’s refreshing, to say the least.
Enter One Nation, Under God, Graff’s second political thriller, set in Oklahoma and focused on the evangelical Christian political movement.
This time the protagonist is Seth Sevens, a meth addict and speed-metal guitarist who becomes born again. As the son of a wayward punk rocker mother with a drinking problem, he grew up without a real home, stability or any real idea of how to navigate the world. After bottoming out, he is drawn into the mega-church, the Free Church of God’s Slaves, ministered by the charismatic Pastor Grady, which gives him the support to kick drugs and start life anew.
Seth lands a gig as a member of the church’s Christian rock band managed by youth pastor Terry Kinsman. Terry and the bandmembers become Seth’s social life; they grab late-night dinners at Perkins and watch church-approved movies on the weekend. The church even provides Seth with a job stocking shoes at a local big box store. Thanks to the church and its members he has friends, a job and an apartment—even a flirtatious crush on Pastor Grady’s niece, the beautiful and pure Charisma Brown.
For Seth, then, his newfound status as a member of the Free Church of God’s Slaves is a rebirth, not just spiritually, but also of family, as he receives guidance, support, and a chance at a new life.
Naturally things go wrong. At the book’s opening, Terry picks a fight with a young Mormon missionary in the late-night parking lot of a 24-hour eatery, as Seth and the band look on. A passing truck clips the missionary boy on his bike and he disappears over an embankment. The young Christians flee, shocked by Terry’s anger and convinced by him that staying would only bring shame to the church and Pastor Grady. They leave the boy for dead.
Later Terry convinces Seth to help him and Pastor Grady in a political battle: to work with a shady nonprofit, Citizens for Good Government, that’s siding with the Evangelical Senate candidate, Dean Platt, against a big-city, ACLU-lovin’ Jew. Terry and Seth do the nonprofit’s dirty work: They steal the opposing candidate’s lawn signs, call in an anonymous tip about his past and finally break into his office and vandalize it. Things degrade further from there as Terry involves Seth in a clandestine national plot with gruesome repercussions for the country.
Terry draws Seth along fairly easily, even though he realizes what he’s doing is wrong. But his moral system is damaged from years spent with an alcoholic and often absent mother. The Free Church of God’s Slaves offers the only thing resembling direction; in the ambiguous situations thrust on him by his youth pastor, Seth always chooses the church over his intuition or the outside world. To the reader, it’s pretty clear that Seth is being used by hypocrites in the church hierarchy for their nefarious schemes at agglomerating power.
There are faults with the book. Mainly, it begins slow and develops slower. Until the last third, there’s not much thrill in this thriller. And why would the beautiful and near-perfect Charisma Brown fall for a sallow, awkward recovering meth addict with no social skills? Frankly, Graff spends too much time treading carefully around the question of religion, opting for a cautious romantic drama as the bulk of his story.
And that’s the thing: This is no indictment of religion or even Evangelical Christianity. Graff is eminently sympathetic to Seth’s religion. The other members of the church are treated compassionately and depicted as realistic, decent people who have a strong belief in God. If there’s a target of Graff’s book, it’s the leaders of the church and government, whose lust for power overshadows everything else—faith and decency, especially.
“Despite everything,” writes Graff, as Seth flees from the unfolding plot of the mysterious and powerful cabal, “he was surprised to find that he still believed in God. It was his faith in man that was shaken.”
That’s the age-old dilemma about religion, isn’t it? Eventually all religions, no matter how pure or uplifting, are man-made institutions, and therefore, burdened by human flaws.
Keir Graff reads from and signs copies of One Nation, Under God at Fact & Fiction Wednesday, Aug. 13, at 7 PM.