American Fascists

The Christian Right and the War on America
By: Chris Hedges
Published by: Free Press (A Division of Simon & Schuster), 2006

I'm automatically suspicious of any book with the words "the war on America" in its title.

If popular, potboiler books are to be believed, then war is being made on America from all sides, in all ways, at all times.

The right is making war on America; the left is making war on America; the radical Islamists are making war on America; polluting industry is making war on America; the secular humanists are making war on America; the urban disaffected are making war on America; the Hispanic immigrants are making war on America; and now, with the publication of this book, we learn that the religious right is making war on America.

And who is this "America" upon whom war is being waged? Well, that depends on whose book you're reading. What constitutes "American" values and norms varies significantly depending on where you stand on that long, left-right axis of opinion and attitudes.

While most of the definitions of American values start from the same foundation - our founding fathers and the Constitution - that's about as much agreement as we can hope to find. Even the interpretation of what the founding fathers had in mind is violently disputed.

Take, for example, the idea of "freedom of religion," an important part of the discussion in this book.

One side of the argument will swear that the whole idea from the inception of the United States was that there be a "wall of separation" between the church and state, that the United States was never a religious nation, and that it was always understood that there would not only be a diversity of religious belief represented in this nation, but that many people would be non- or even anti-religious.

The other side will insist that not only were our founding fathers very religious as a group, but they looked upon religion from a strictly Judeo-Christian perspective, and freely included references to God, religion, and prayer in public art and action. This group insists that it was never the intent to assure freedom FROM religion, only freedom OF religion.

Not to take sides, but reading the original sources, the preponderance of the evidence is on the side of the latter. Nor is this issue as simplistic as we would like it to be. Like most other policies and pronouncements, it is important to not only read them in their original form, but also to know not only the writer, but the context of the statement. Once all these things are done, it is quite clear that Jefferson's intention was never that people be forbidden from public displays of religion - something he, himself, went on to perform (if for no other reason than to assure terrified religious people that he was not going to burn their Bibles, as some of his political enemies had suggested). He wanted to make it clear that the government, particularly the Federal government, had no interest in establishing or endorsing any particular religion, or interfering with either Churches, or States, in their actions concerning religion.

It's difficult, however, to do the primary research on every point which the various writers dispute about what fundamentally constitutes "America, "the American way," "what the American people want," and "what the founding fathers meant." What this means for us, is that all books of this type must be read with, as one of my professors used to say, "a cold, fishy eye."

Speaking of disputed worldviews, it is even difficult to really understand the import of the book's use of "fascism" in the title. As George Orwell wrote as far back as 1946, "The word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable.' The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with each other."

Hedges begins his book with a thesis from Umberto Eco, who outlines the characteristics of what he calls "Ur-Fascism," or "Eternal Fascism." Included in the identifying characteristics are:
traditionalism, rejection of the modern, irrationalism, funk of disagreement and diversity, obsession with a plot, alienation from the mainstream, life as permanent warfare, elitism, contempt for the weak, hero worship, machismo, selective populism, and Newspeak.

Again, most of these characteristics will be recognized in the person whose fundamental worldview differs markedly from your own, whether they see themselves as religious or secular. Listening to a recent broadcast from the secular humanist organization, Center for Inquiry (in Buffalo, New York), I learned that this group considers itself, as professed atheists, to be isolated, afraid to "come out," embattled, smarter and more rational than the rest of us.

And it will come as no surprise to most readers to learn than the far-far-right of the religious spectrum exhibits some, if not all, of these characteristics as well.

The question is whether there are sufficient numbers of these far-far-right religious, or they are sufficiently empowered, to constitute as real a threat as the author suggests.

Hedges begins by exempting faith qua faith from his damnation of far-right religious zealotry. The faith that he grew up with - as the son of a preacher and a graduate of seminary himself - while it draws from a beautiful piece of literature, The Bible, cannot, he tells us, really be defined or understood; it is communal; and it consists in small acts of compassion.

The "faith" that concerns him is a brand of Christianity that professes something called "Dominionism." "Dominionism seeks to redefine traditional democratic and Christian terms and concepts to fit an ideology that calls on the radical church to take political power... It has, like all fascist movements, a belief in magic along with leadership adoration and a strident call for moral and physical supremacy of a master race, in this case American Christians. It also has, like fascist movements, an ill-defined and shifting set of beliefs, some of which contradict one another."

He goes on to detail a Christian nation as envisioned by Christian reconstructionist R. J. Rushdoony, a man either credited with , or villified for, depending on how you look at it, the resurgence of homeschooling. While most Christians would cite the well-known "render unto Caesar" passage from the New Testament as the appropriate way for a Christian to interact with government (give God his due, give Caesar - that is, the government - its due), Rushdoony wanted a theocratic society as laid out by John Calvin in 1536. Calvin, remember, was the fellow who believed that we are all pre-destined, and that visible success in life is an indicator of salvation. This departs markedly from both the American ideals of personal achievement, and typical Christian notions of "the meek" inheriting the earth, and it being as difficult for a rich man to enter heaven as a camel to fit through the eye of a needle.

Hedges warns that these fundamental folks are engaged in what he calls the slow process of "logocide," or the killing of words. "There is a slow and inexorable hijacking of religious and political terminology. Terms such as 'liberty' and 'freedom' no longer mean what they meant in the past... This slow, gradual and often imperceptible strangulation of thought - the corruption of democratic concepts and ideas - infects the society until the new, totalitarian vision is articulated by the old vocabulary. This cannibalization of language occurs subtly and stealthily."

This is hardly news to anyone who pays attention to the devolution of language throughout our society. Are you on the "pro-life" or "pro-choice" side of the abortion argument? Is it an "illegal alien" or an "undocumented worker?" Does "niggardly" mean penurious or is it a "code word" for a racial slur? George Orwell long ago identified the idea that words have the power to shape ideas as well as represent them.

More disturbing is Hedges seamless movement from a discuss of Dominionism to a tallying of the number of evangelical Christians in the US (about 70 million). Implied if not stated, each of these 70 million folks is a candidate for Dominionism. He does admit that the radical right is a minority, but warns, "it is this minority that is taking over the machinery of U.S. state and religious institutions."

The radical right, he claims, has taken over the Republican Party, and was largely responsible for the election of George W. Bush in both the 2000, and 2004 elections.

Moreover, Hedges warns us ominously that the Christian fundamentalists are now using "elaborate spectacle" to "channel and shape the passions of mass followers..." This, of course, is a "staple of totalitarian movements. It gives to young adherents the raw material for their interior lives, for love and hate, joy and sorrow, excitement and belonging. It imparts the illusion of personal empowerment. It creates comradeship and solidarity... gives meaning and purpose to life..." Like, for example, MTV? VH1? A Madonna concert? How about a Farm Aid concert?

In a moment of profound if unaware irony, Hedges writes, "Apocalyptic visions inspire genocidal killers who glorify violence as a mechanism that will lead to the end of history. Such visions nourished the butchers who led the Inquisitions and the Crusades, as well as the conquistadores who swept through the Americas hastily converting en masse native populations and then exterminating them.

"If this mass movement succeeds, it will do so not simply because of its ruthlessness and mendacity, its callous manipulation of the people it lures into its arms, many of whom live on the margins of American society. It will success because of the moral failure of those, including Christians, who understand the intent of the radicals yet fail to confront them, those who treat this mass movement as if it were another legitimate player in an open society. The leading American institutions tasked with defending tolerance and liberty - from the mainstream churches to the great research universities, to the Democratic Party and the media - have failed the country. This is the awful paradox of tolerance."

Part of the danger, he warns, is that "Liberal institutions, seeing tolerance as the highest virtue, tolerate the intolerant. They swallow the hate talk that calls for the destruction of nonbelievers."

In other words, when students at Columbia University in October of last year stopped - using violent means - the Minutemen from giving the speech they were invited to give on campus - this was the kind of toleration of the intolerant we are to expect from the defenders of liberty?

The problem with Hedges book is not that he doesn't make good points. He does. In Chapter Two, he points out that American culture is full of despair, and that despair is fertile ground for all manner of magical, twisted, and Big Solution thinking. It's just that religion isn't the only port in that particular storm. Gangs, drugs, anorexia, promiscuous sex, and extreme sports can all be ways - dangerous ways - to deal with unmanageable misery, confusion and alienation.

Chapter Three devotes itself to an insider's look at the mechanism of conversion: how, like vacuum cleaner salesmen, church members are trained to befriend a likely prospect, and then use a show of friendship and acceptance to gain trust and belief. Wooed relentlessly until baptism, the mark discovers soon after baptism that he is just another ant in the anthill, and is asked for more and more in the way of performance and money to maintain good standing in the organization. (Again, all of this may be true in some outlier organizations; I sincerely doubt if most religious people will identify with this experience. Some churches, notably the Catholic Church, have typically almost put up impediments to joining, requiring the candidate to study, reflect, even pass tests in order to prove willingness and understanding before finally being accepted.)

Hedges next explains that far right Christianity is notably male dominated, convinced that is is being persecuted (and is expecting divine retribution for those who persecute them), and is guilty of waging a "war on truth." Top bomb site for this truth war is, of course, evolution. And while it is difficult to defend a position that will not admit and discuss the discoveries of science, it must also be stated that science itself has had its intolerant moments - just ask, if you could, any of the women who died of childbed fever, having been delivered by doctors who refused to wash their hands between patients.

Hedges suggests that this juggernaut of radical religious has formed a special "class," engaged in a "crusade" to promote its own interests, and silence, even eradicate, all others. This group is capable of "a frightening moral fragmentation, an ability to act with compassion and justice toward those within the closed, Christian circle yet allow others outside the circle to be abused, silenced and stripped of their rights." Needless to say, many in the Christian camp would argue that it is they who have been told to sit down and shut up, rather than the other way around.

The strongest element in Hedges book is his sensitivity to the danger of any group in our society becoming convinced that it is the ideological superior of others - and having the wherewithal to inflict that ideology on others. The weakest is his conviction that radicals on both sides are not equally culpable, or that there is anything inherently more dangerous about radical Christians than radical anything else. Throughout the book, he castigates the "radical right" for what he claims are their beliefs, activities, and intentions, all the while ignoring the fact that either extreme - the left or the right, the religious or the secular - can be accused of the same excesses.

And, unfortunately, Hedges fatally overplays his hand in a chapter on Apocalyptic Violence in which he suggests that "we must watch closely what these new fascists (the religious right) accused their opponents of planning. For radical movements expose their own intentions and goals by tarring their enemies with their own nefarious motives. These movements assume that those they attack are, like themselves, also hiding their true agenda, also plotting to silence and eradicate opponents. This common form of "projection" was, on a smaller scale, on display during the Florida recount in 2000. The Republicans accused Al Gore of attempting to steal the election through court fiat, the very theft being secretly orchestrated by the Republicans."

As near as this reviewer can recall, both sides of that particular dispute behaved with a shameless lack of honesty, and attempted to use the system to advantage. Bringing the election controversy into Hedges thesis only serves to reveal his own bias, and not effectively support his arguments. The tendency is to dismiss his other, thoughtful arguments as simply more "left-wing reactionary" party line.

In the final analysis, Hedges concludes, "debate with the Christian Right is useless. We cannot reach this movement. It does not want a dialogue. It is a movement based on emotion and cares nothing for rational thought and discussion. It is not mollified because John Kerry prays or Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school. Naive attempts to reach out to the movement, to assure them that we, too, are Christian or we, too, care about moral values, are doomed. This movement is bent on our destruction."

This comment is of particular interest, as it is this very kind of rhetoric, when directed against Islamic fundamentalists, that raises the hackles of the far left. As Kerry himself suggested, isn't it always better to seek consensus? Isn't it always better to talk first and shoot later? Moreover, if he genuinely believes that John Kerry praying would or could or even should possibly assuage the fears of the religious right, then he exhibits a profound tone deafness for the real, and honorable, concerns of many religious Americans. Rather, John Kerry praying offers all the comfort of a husband giving a wife flowers after he has had an affair.

Hedges is severe in his denunciation of the radical right's belief that there will be an apocalyptic end of time, and that we should all prepare for this cataclysmic eventuality now. On the other hand, he lauds "the valiant struggle by former Vice President Al Gore and others to wake us up to the impending catastrophe that will beset us if we do not curb global warming," which struggle he calls "an act of faith."

"The accelerated rate of global warming could, within a decade, bring about epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and killer heat waves. To face this challenge, to do something about it, is to embrace a theology of hope, of life."

Finally, coming from someone who adheres to the pro-choice party line of the left, this statement seems to be a bit disingenuous: "Yet it is only by holding on to the sanctity of each individual, each human life, only by placing our faith in tiny, unheroic acts of compassion and kindness, that we survive as a community and as individual human beings."

Perhaps it is with the blindness of deeply held conviction, perhaps with intended irony, that Hedges wraps up his book with an appeal to the "sanctity" of "each human life," the very heart of one of the religious right's most passionate disputes with modern secular society.


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