In 1962, a very young, fresh-out-of-Bible-college pastor from South Louisville Christian Church began knocking on doors in the suburbs of East Louisville, shaking hands and enlisting a charter membership for a new Christian church in that part of town. Forty-five years later, that fledgling church now looms over the intersection of I-64 and Blankenbaker Parkway. That young pastor was my father. I was not yet old enough to walk.
This confession of pedigree is by no means one of membership; the Christian church won’t have me, and that’s just as well. But the mention sets aside any perception that the following is driven by humanist snobbery or erudite condescension: I lived on the inside of the Christian Right for most of my life. I am heartbroken, rather than delighted, by Chris Hedges’ undertaking in “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” And I’m in a position to know where Chris Hedges hits his mark.
His target is huge and so is his arsenal. The ambitions of the Christian Right, and the long list of objectionable means by which those ambitions have been pursued over the past quarter-century, give Hedges’ meticulous diatribe the surreal, Bradburian feel of a dinosaur hunt. You can’t really miss something that big, but Lord, don’t be under it when it falls.
The overarching premise Hedges puts forth is that the fascism of the Brown Shirts of Italy and Hitler’s Germany and the political manipulations of American’s Christian Right is all of a piece, and he connects the dots fastidiously and persuasively. Neither the arguments nor the analysis supporting them are anything really new, but Hedges makes the case with uncommon clarity and restraint.
Contemporary fascism carries forward the traditions of earlier outbreaks, he points out, featuring a long list of old familiars: selective populism, silencing of dissent, fear as a tool of rhetoric, contempt for the weak, hatred of diversity, rejection of modernism. He cites with well-studied ease the presence of each of these features in right-wing Christian rhetoric, and it’s a simple jump from such a competent summation to a sense of queasy paranoia.
But before we start steering clear of trendy restaurants at Sunday noon, let’s think about this. First, do we grant that Hedges is correct is his portrayal of the Christian Right as presenting the symptoms he lists? It’s impossible not to: the Christian leadership in this country is very overt in its agenda, stumping openly for militarism, intolerance, ridicule of its opponents and explicitly cultivating public distrust of any source of information that stands against it. But does this add up to fascism, and does it threaten the fabric of American society, as Hedges fears?
If it is fascism, it is bound to fail. Hedges’ portrait of a growing nation of mall-crushing pod people on the march, led by a Jesus armed with a light machine gun, is simply unpersuasive. One can grant that the leaders of the Christian Right, whom he anthologizes in detail, cultivate their megalomania with gusto, and do seem to be marshalling their disciples for just such a pogrom. But do we seriously see a Mussolini or a Stalin among the Robertsons, Haggards and LaHayes? Please.
Hedges clearly presents his subjects’ hunger for political control; the attempts at social engineering through evangelical rhetoric; the seeding of distrust to destabilize the confrontational dialogues that drive our national zeitgeist. And, to be sure, a national climate that enables the executive branch to disable the reliance of our national leadership upon non-partisan experts, and leads the secretary of state to label dissenting voices of military expertise as “treasonous” does indeed have an Orwellian stink about it. But Hedges’ knee-jerk alarmism is misplaced; our system is designed to correct these glitches, and last November, it did just that.
Does Hedges believe that evangelical doublethink is going to infect and suborn the Internet? Does he envision a single university anthropology or geology class, from anywhere, taking a field trip to Ken Ham’s Creationism museum? Does he imagine that all the Right’s huffing and puffing and antiscience and howling over traditional values will cause a single SUV to be traded in, a single satellite TV subscription to be canceled? Can he not tell the difference between a totalitarian despot and a buffoon?
The meat of the book — and it’s there in abundance — sneaks up on us. It’s in his careful explication of the mindset of the evangelical that we find substance. This figures richly in his perfectly-chosen quotes, as in an excerpted 1944 New York Times interview with Vice President Henry Wallace, and in an analysis of what he calls the Christian Right’s “cult of masculinity.”
“Fundamentalism, Karen McCarthy Browe wrote, ‘is the religion of those at once seduced and betrayed by the promise that we human beings can comprehend and control our world. Bitterly disappointed by the politics of rationalized bureaucracies, the limitations of science, and the perversions of industrialization, fundamentalists seek to reject the modern world, while nevertheless holding onto these habits of mind: clarity, certitude and control.’
“Since life has a way of not respecting these artificial lines, since ambiguity, inconsistency and irrationality are part of human existence, the only way believers can push forward is to pretend that these troubling aspects of our internal and external reality do not exist. They create a parallel reality, one that allows them to escape from the reality-based world into a world of their own creation. ‘Unconscious motives, deep longings, and fears are denied,’ Brown wrote, ‘and responsibility for them is abandoned, as fundamentalism makes a pretense of being all about cut-and-dried truth and clear and recognizable feelings.’ “
I found myself recalling John Dean’s fastidious unearthing of the psychological underpinnings of the authoritarian personality in last year’s “Conservatives Without Conscience.” My reaction is the same in both cases: These books would be much stronger if they simply focused on these explanations of what’s going on behind the curtain. When we understand, we are less inclined to fear; and the reactionary rhetoric, however well-intentioned, has the opposite effect in both books.
So, by all means, buy this book and read it, and seek out these understated bits of knowledge. Learn to understand these people, and realize that only a very few actually rise to the level of the control freak Hedges profiles. Most of them have clustered around the evangelical fire for the humblest of reasons: They just want to belong. That the membership requirements force them into contradictions that lessen their potential and divert them inexplicably from the actual agenda of the New Testament is not their fault; for Christianity is, ironically, no democracy.
For the real sadness is not that America might fall to theocratic overlords, that the church will replace democracy — it is that this new church replaced the old. The church, in whose service my father once walked the suburban streets of East Louisville, is nowhere to be found. Where can I go, 45 years on, and find compassion rather than contempt, acceptance rather than exclusion, the “Jesus Generation” that Billy Graham once heralded? What happened to that church? This, if nothing else, Hedges has ably explained.