Chris Hedges on american fascism
In the last chapter of his newest book, Chris Hedges tells the story of the late Dr. James Luther Adams, a clergyman and academic who worked with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the underground, anti-Nazi church in Germany in the mid-1930s. Adams was compelled to return to the United States in 1936 after a run-in with the Gestapo, but he was able to smuggle out a suitcase full of home movies he had made of the church in Germany. Four decades later, Adams was an ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School where Hedges was studying to become a Presbyterian pastor. Hedges recalls sitting in Adams’ apartment, watching hour after hour of grainy black-and-white film, much of it depicting the mainstream German church, which mostly supported the Nazi regime, as well as film of those courageous theologians (like Karl Barth and Albert Schweitzer) who dared to defy Hitler.
Adams witnessed the brutality and repression of fascism. He also knew firsthand the ways religion can be used to justify totalitarianism. So Adams was not being flippant when he predicted that when his students were his age (Adams was approaching 80 at the time), Hedges and his classmates would all be fighting a new kind of fascism. The Nazis, Adams said, “were not going to return with swastikas and brown shirts. Their ideological inheritors in America had found a mask for fascism in patriotism and the pages of the Bible.”
Twenty-five years after the professor’s warning - and twenty-five years earlier than Adams expected - “Christian fascists” are gaining in power. Hedges places these radical Christians in the context of “theocratic dominionism,” or Christian Reconstructionism, as it is sometimes called. Dominionism takes its name from Genesis 1:26-31 (“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’”). Dominionism seeks to replace secular American democracy with a theocratic government ruled by religious elites.
The manifesto of modern dominionism is The Institutes of Biblical Law by R.J. Rushdoony. First published in 1973, Rushdoony’s 800-page, three-volume work called for the creation of a Christian state that is rooted in Old Testament law. Such a state would impose the death penalty in cases of rape, kidnapping and murder - and also for adultery, blasphemy, homosexuality, astrology, incest, juvenile delinquency, and “unchastity before marriage” (but only for women). Burning at the stake, hanging, and “the sword” are all acceptable methods of execution, but Gary North, Rushdoony’s son-in-law, who wrote an appendix for Institutes on reconstructionist economics, advocates stoning because stones are cheap.
Hedges writes that Rushdoony envisioned a world “subdued and ruled by a Christian United States.” Rushdoony was “deeply antagonistic toward the federal government,” which he believed should concern itself primarily with national defense. “Education and social welfare should be handed over to the churches…This ideology, made more palatable for the mainstream by later disciples such as Francis Schaeffer and Pat Robertson, remains at the heart of the movement.”
Dominionism is controversial. Many who hold to its tenets have never heard of the word. And Christian reconstructionists represent a small minority in the American church. (Political scientist John Green has estimated that they comprise about 13 percent of the population of the United States. George Barna suggests that the number is even lower, at 7 percent.) “But the potency of this radical movement far exceeds its numbers,” writes Hedges. Dominionists control six national television networks that reach tens of millions of viewers each week. They control some 2,000 radio stations. They preside over the Southern Baptist denomination and direct other powerful organizations like the Family Research Council and the association of National Religious Broadcasters. “Dominionists wait only for a fiscal, social or political crisis, a moment of upheaval in the form of an economic meltdown or another terrorist strike on American soil, to move to reconfigure the political system,” Hedges writes.
Such a crisis could unleash a public clamor for drastic new national security measures and draconian reforms to safeguard the nation. Widespread discontent and fear, stoked and manipulated by dominionists and their sympathizers, could be used by these radicals to sweep aside the objections of beleaguered moderates in Congress and the courts, those clinging to a bankrupt and discredited liberalism, to establish an American theocracy, a Christian fascism.
Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School but chose journalism over the ministry. He has covered war zones around the world for the Christian Science Monitor and NPR and he won a Pulitzer Prize while working for the New York Times. In American Fascists, Hedges combines solid reporting with the kind of social and spiritual analysis that made his first book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, one of the best of 2002.
Most of the personalities in this book are household names: James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye - all the usual suspects in any book about the Religious Right. (He also talks about Ron Luce, the man behind Teen Mania Ministries and Acquire the Fire; Paul and Jan Crouch, the founders of the Trinity Broadcasting Network; and the deputy undersecretary of defense, General William Boykin, who has said that America is engaged in a holy war as a “Christian nation” and that America will defeat its enemies “only if we come against them in the name of Jesus.”) Nor will the stories in this book - creationist museums and end times conferences and evangelism training - surprise those Christians who grew up, as I did, on the fringe of this fringe movement.
But if the anecdotes are familiar, the implications are new. Hedges never quite convinces me that Dobson et al. are working toward a genuine theocracy, but he does an impressive job of exposing the fascist tendencies of the far Christian right. As in other classical fascist movements, these radical fundamentalists reject modernism and embrace a cult of masculinity. They rely on mass media and elaborate spectacles like stadium-sized rallies to motivate their followers. They equate dissent with treason and pacifism with “trafficking with the enemy” (I have been accused of both these things for actively opposing the war in Iraq). They swap “democratic liberties” for “redemptive violence” and pursue “internal cleansing and external expansion.” The icons of this movement are the American flag and the Christian cross. Hedges quotes Robert O. Paxton: “These symbols contain no whiff of fascism in themselves, of course, but an American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy.”
Perceived enemies include communists, homosexuals, the United Nations, a resurgent European Union, the mysterious “secular humanists,” and Muslims. In a brutal irony, the Christian right has come to mirror the radical Islamists it sometimes literally demonizes. “They share the same obsessions,” says Hedges. “They do not tolerate other forms of belief or disbelief. They are at war with artistic and cultural expression. They seek to silence the media. They call for the subjugation of women. They promote severe sexual repression, and they seek to express themselves through violence.”
Apocalyptic violence, according to Hedges, is the final aesthetic of the Christian fascists. Believers who are frustrated with this world hope for a final bloody battle as imagined in LaHaye’s enormously popular Left Behind series, in which the bodies of the forces of the Antichrist “[burst] open from head to toe at every word that proceeded out of the mouth of the Lord…” “[Their] flesh dissolved, their eyes melted, and their tongues disintegrated…[they] stood briefly as skeletons in now-baggy uniforms, then dropped in heaps of bones as the blinded horses continued to fume and rant and rave.”
These visions of victory at the hands of a blood-spattered Christ have a way of becoming manifest in human history. In the Inquistion and the Crusades, in the Puritans and the conquistadores, in the Nazis and Stalinists, “the ecstatic belief in the cleansing power of apocalyptic violence does not recognize the right of the victims to self-preservation or self-defense.”
It does not admit them into a moral universe where they have a criminal’s right to be punished and rehabilitated. They are seen instead through this poisonous lens as pollutants, viruses, mutations that must be eradicated to halt further infection and degeneration within society and usher in utopia. This sacred violence - whether it arises from the Bible, Serbian nationalism, the dream of a classless society, or the goal of a world where all “subhumans” are eradicated - allows its perpetrators and henchmen to avoid moral responsibility for their crimes. The brutality they carry out is sanctified, an expression of not human volition but divine wrath. The victims, in a final irony, are considered responsible for their suffering and destruction. They are to blame because, in the eyes of the dominionists, they have defied God.
Hedges writes about BattleCry, a youth movement run by Ron Luce. Against a backdrop of Hummers and Navy SEALs, Luce tells a crowd of young people, “This is war. And Jesus invites us to get into action, telling us that the violent - the ‘forceful’ ones - will lay hold of the kingdom.” This scene is astounding not just for its rhetoric and violent imagery, but its absolute incongruity with the Jesus of “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Here we see the spiritual implications for evangelicals, mainstream Protestants and Catholics, and even traditional fundamentalists (who have a few things in common with the dominionists, but do not seek to impose their beliefs on others or set up a quasi-religious state): the radical right has become a hindrance for the real work of the church, which is to proclaim the good news that Jesus came to reconcile us with God and with one another. The fascists preach violence, long for blood, and clamor for money and power. But Jesus came to bring peace, healing, and mercy. He taught us that the kingdom of heaven belonged to the poor in spirit.
Hedges writes that radical fundamentalists are “manipulating Christianity” and have “no religious legitimacy.” Dominionists should fear those Christians “who have remained loyal to the core values of the Gospel, who delineate between right and wrong, who are willing to be villified and attacked in the name of a higher good and who have the courage to fight back.” Hedges reminds us in American Fascists that the time for the church to speak up is now. The movement Dr. Adams warned us about is unfolding right before our eyes.