American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America
by Chris Hedges
Scary Reading for Free Thinkers
A review by Doug Brown
This has been quite the year for books challenging the Christian hegemony in American culture. From Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation to Richard Dawkins's full-on assault on belief in The God Delusion, the times they are a-changing. Chris Hedges has an edge over Dawkins and Harris, though; he is a Harvard Divinity School seminary graduate. The problem with attacks on religion written by lifelong atheists is they usually fail to grasp what faith is all about. Militant atheists make straw man arguments based purely on rationality and reasoned examination of evidence, and wonder why these deluded religious chowderheads can't see how silly their beliefs are. Faith has much more to do with emotion than logic, however, so atheists are usually arguing in the wrong language. I can't imagine a Christian reading The God Delusion and changing their beliefs as a result; it is a sermon to the atheist choir.
I can imagine Christians reading American Fascists and re-examining their churches, though. Hedges shows how the Christian Right has obtained and maintained power in America, what the primary elements of their agenda is, and how they are already going about getting that agenda legislated. It is a very chilling book to non-Christians, and I hope it will be unsettling to many Christians as well. In this country there are very well-funded groups bent on "reclaiming" America as a Christian nation, banning homosexuality (after all, it's just a lifestyle choice made by confused sinners), banning much of science education, making abortion a capital crime, etc. Faith is a call to battle for these people, and the use of military terminology is common in their literature and lectures. In this brand of intolerant Christo-fascism, greed is good. There's nothing wrong with being rich because it is a sign of God's blessing, and it allows believers to push their agenda that much farther. Pretty amazing, given that these believers follow a religion built upon the teachings of an inclusive anti-materialist pacifist.
Hedges demonstrates how the defining characteristics of fascist organizations are all met by the Christian Right. Encouragement of intolerance and conformity, active discouragement of dissent, creating a climate of fear of impending doom, incitement to violence against the enemies of the system; it's all there. These groups show the same inflexible right/wrong morality as fascist societies in which those who are judged wrong are shown no mercy or compassion. They are totalitarian in their approach; home schooling is big among the Christian Right, and they are constantly trying to get religious material into public schools (Intelligent Design most famously). Here's a passage on how they use television:
Television lends itself perfectly to this world of signs and wonders, to the narcissism of national and religious self-exaltation. Television discourages real communication. Its rapid frames and movement, its constant use of emotional images, its sudden shifts from one theme to an unrelated theme, banish logic and reason with dizzying perplexity. It, too, makes us feel good. It, too, promises to protect and serve us. It, too, promises to lift us up and thrill us. Televangelists have built their movement on these commercial precepts. The totalitarian creed of the Religious Right has found in television the perfect medium.
One interesting parallel I noticed between the intolerance for belief in The God Delusion and the intolerance of the Christian Right is the similar use of inflammatory rhetoric. Dawkins refers to biologists who acknowledge evolution is compatible with belief in god as belonging to "The Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists." Pastor Russell Johnson, a militant crusader against secularists, is quoted by Hedges as accusing American Christians of living "Neville Chamberlain lives" (for living peacefully alongside secularists). In both instances, the imagery of Neville Chamberlain naively signing a neutrality pact with Hitler is appropriated to the argument at hand. In one fell smear, those who disagree with the speaker are branded as enemies, the enemies are equated with Hitler, and anyone who dares ask, "Why can't we all get along?" is derisively branded a Hitler-appeasing coward. An ugly divisive tactic no matter who uses it, designed to quash the notion that there are more than two ways to look at an issue.
Hedges is not so Manichean or pessimistic in his analysis: "I do not believe that America will inevitably become a fascist state or that that the Christian Right is the Nazi Party. But I do believe that the radical Christian Right is a sworn and potent enemy of the open society." At the end of the book Hedges lays out his personal philosophy:
This humility before the unknowable, the acceptance that there is much more we will never understand, makes possible self-criticism, self-awareness, self-possession, and self-reflection. They make possible compassion and acts of kindness. They allow us to see ourselves in the stranger, to reach out in solidarity to those who travel with us on this dusty, brief and often lonely road of life. This honesty and humility make possible a diverse and tolerant human community.
In researching American Fascists, Hedges attended meetings and training seminars for conservative Christian groups, something Dawkins only does in order to get on the podium and argue. Hedges studied how these groups operate; how they recruit, how they raise funds, how they get their word into schools. He listened to what people said, and he makes an effort to understand their position. That makes American Fascists a superior book to The God Delusion, and it makes it a much scarier book as well. Don't get me wrong here -- I do recommend folks read The God Delusion as a companion volume. It explains well why I myself am an atheist, but it makes no attempt to build a bridge across the divide for believers to cross over. American Fascists does.