Rereading Early Heinlein, part 3: If This Goes On

Heinlein’s earliest serial — that is, a long story requiring a split into parts across two or more issues of a magazine — was “If This Goes On–“, published in the February and March 1940 issues of Astounding magazine. He had only published three stories before this, from August 1939 to January 1940 (“Life-Line”, “Misfit”, and “Requiem”). It was later published in the 1953 Shasta collection Revolt in 2100, the 1970s Signet paperback reprint edition of which is scanned here, with cover art by Gene Szafran.

“If This Goes On–” is set in a future in which America has become a theocracy, ruled by a Prophet Incarnate, leader of the church that rules America, and who lives in a Palace and Temple in New Jerusalem, somewhere in the eastern US. The point-of-view character is one John Lyle, a personal guardian to the Prophet, whose faith is gradually shattered by his attraction a woman in the temple, Sister Judith, who becomes “chosen” by the Prophet for what Lyle gradually realizes — he’s a bit naive — is a sexual initiation. He hears her scream.

The balance of this long story is how John Lyle is recruited into a resistance movement, the Cabal, and participates in a long revolutionary plot to overthrow the Prophet, which involves undermining the Prophet’s scheme in maintaining his image via special-effects that portrays himself as the recipient of the ultimate Prophet, Nehemiah Scudder, an image which the revolutionaries foil to reveal the subterfuge to the mass population. An invasion of the capital follows, in which Lyle takes charge to bring about success, though they discover that the Prophet has been torn apart by his own concubines.

What’s most remarkable about this story, after all these decades, is what’s implied by the title – that the US seems to be perpetually teasing with the idea of slipping into a theocracy (despite its Constitution). Writing this in November 2015, watching the Republican candidates for president, especially Carson and Cruz and (off to the side, not serious players anymore) Huckabee and Santorum, it’s easy to the seeds of such a movement, that have never gone away after all these decades. Will they ever prevail? One can hope not, but an essential factor in the history of science fiction is Heinlein’s Future History, in which he projected this idea into a future that, in consequence, the US renounced all technology progress (exploration into space) and fell back into a dark ages, from which it took a century to overcome. It’s a theme that has recurred again and again in science-fictional future histories.

Look at Cruz’s megalomaniac certainty, his comment just in the past couple days about how a president should kneel down every day in prayer, and how he attended a conference led by a right-wing radio host who advocates putting gays to death.

I’d like to think that extremists like Cruz, or Santorum, or for that matter Trump and Carson, might attract a portion of the right-wing electorate, might possibly even win the Republican nomination — but could never win the general election. In fact, I’d think it advantageous for a religious extremist to win the Republican nomination, since that would favor the Democratic nominee, bound to be someone more sensible and reality-based, in the general election.

Heinlein wrote a postscript, “Concerning Stories Never Written”, in which he discussed the reasons why he never wrote a couple stories included in his “Future History” outline, including one about the rise of the evangelist Nehemiah Scudder. I will quote liberally:

I am aware that the themes of the unwritten stories linke the second and this the third volume thus briefly stated above have not been elaborated sufficiently to lend conviction, particularly with reference to two notions; the idea that space travel, once apparently firmly established, could fall into disuse, and secondly the idea that the United States, could lapse into a dictatorship of superstition.

(Score one: space travel, once established, has fallen into disuse, if not to quite the extent that Heinlein imagined; not, to be fair, due to religious resistance.)

There is a latent deep strain of religious fanaticism in this, our culture; it is rooted in our history and it has broken out many times in the past. It is with us now; there has been a sharp rise in strongly evangelical sects in this country in recent years, some of which hold beliefs theocratic in the extreme, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-libertarian.

It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics. This is equally true whether the faith if Communism or Holy-Rollerism; indeed it is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.

This was Heinlein writing in 1953. Little has changed. And this is as true as ever: “It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so…” Just listen to Santorum, and Huckabee, and Cruz.

He goes on,

I imagined Nehemiah Schudder as a backwoods evangelist who combined some of the features of John Calvin, Savonarola, Judge Rutherford and Huey Long. … No, I probably never will write the story of Nehemiah Scudder; I dislike him too thoroughly. But I hope that you will go along with me in the idea that he could happen…

And, indeed, to imagine the likes of Ted Cruz or Rick Santorum gaining the presidency, it likely would happen. (Well, not really — no matter how reactionary a president might be, he’d have to balance his goals with the votes of Congress, and the judgments of the Supreme Court. That’s the brilliance of our political system.) Why is it that American culture has not grown beyond the demands of religious fundamentalism? Something about the sense of American exceptionalism, I suspect.

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