American Fascists : The Christian Right and the War on America
By Chris Hedges Free Press. 237p $25
Published in America, May 14, 2007
The first impulse of many, particularly on the right, will be to dismiss this book immediately upon reading its title.
Indeed, by mentioning the political F- word and linking it with a “war” on America, Hedges takes to a new level an already ongoing critique of the Christian right developed in a spate of recent books. These include Kevin Phillips’s American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion and Randall Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America.
Chris Hedges, a former New York Times correspondent and author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, prompts readers to think about the current condition of our democracy by putting a list of “The 14 Identifying Characteristics of Fascism” right at the beginning of his book. These include powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism, disdain for the importance of human rights, identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause, avid militarism, obsession with national security, close ties between religious and ruling elites, favoritism toward corporations, disdain for and suppression of intellectuals and the arts, rampant cronyism and corruption, and fraudulent elections.
If some of these characteristics are—thank goodness—not fully manifested in our national life, visible tendencies toward all of them are in plain sight.
“What is happening in America is revolutionary,” the author writes. “A group of religious utopians, with the sympathy and support of tens of millions of Americans, are slowly dismantling democratic institutions to establish a religious tyranny, the springboard to an American fascism.”
Some might call this hyperbole. Nevertheless, Hedges convincingly depicts a movement more concerned with gaining political power, promoting extreme capitalism and affirming righteous violence than with reflecting a God of love. This former war correspondent is most effective in his reporting from around the country on gatherings of the Christian right.
For example, he attends an “end times” conference near Detroit featuring the author Tim LaHaye. A former employee of the John Birch Society, LaHaye has, along with co-author Jerry B. Jenkins, sold more than 62 million books in the “Left Behind” series. These books are filled with bizarre theology and graphic apocalyptic violence hinged on plots that sound like right-wing cartoons. Hedges notes:
"Those who join forces with the Antichrist in the Left Behind series, true to LaHaye’s conspiracy theories, include the United Nations, the European Union, Russia, Iraq, all Muslims, the media, liberals, freethinkers, and 'international bankers.' The Antichrist, who heads the United Nations, eventually moves his headquarters to Babylon."
In his examination of textbooks used in Christian schools, Hedges finds blunt right-wing bias. The popular textbook America’s Providential History “fuses the Christian message with the celebration of unrestricted capitalism…. It denounces income tax as ‘idolatry’ and property tax as ‘theft,’ and in a chapter titled ‘Christian Economics,’ calls for the abolishment of inheritance taxes.”
Hedges also reports on a conference in Florida offering instruction in highly manipulative evangelization techniques, a seminar in Boston on a therapy claiming to change the sexual orientation of gays, and the 50,000-square-foot Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky. This museum includes an elaborate exhibit of the Garden of Eden featuring Adam and Eve at close quarters with dinosaurs and giant lizards.
As does Phillips in American Theocracy , Hedges points to the Christian right’s growing power in the Republican Party:
“The power brokers in the radical Christian right have already moved from the fringes of society to the executive branch, the House of Representatives, the Senate and the courts. The movement has seized control of the Republican Party. Christian fundamentalists now hold a majority of seats in 36 percent of all Republican Party state committees, or 18 of 50 states, along with large minorities in the remaining states.”
One frequently heard objection to books like American Fascists is that the Christian right is not monolithic and that millions of Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists do not have authoritarian tendencies. Hedges clearly and frequently acknowledges this and in fact asserts that fellow believers are best suited to oppose those Christians who are extremists.
He writes of one evangelical with close ties to the evangelist Billy Graham:
“He bristles at the coarseness, the naked calls for a Christian state, and the anti-intellectualism. He, like Graham, shuns the movement’s caustic, biting humor to belittle homosexuals, those deemed effete intellectuals and those condemned as ‘secular humanists.’ The emphasis on abortion and gay marriage to the exclusion of other issues worries him.”
The epigraph at the beginning of American Fascists is a quote from Blaise Pascal: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
Hedges’s book serves as yet another reminder that Islamic extremism is not the only threat to our way of life—and maybe not even the most dangerous. — Mark E. Rondeau