Sinclair Lewis once wrote, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.” Former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges believes that this has now happened with the emerging political power of the fundamentalist Christian churches, a large and rapidly expanding community in the United States. Its merger with corporatism, fanatical patriotism, and right wing political causes and institutions has over the last quarter of the twentieth century established a machine that rose to dominate the American social, economic, and political landscape with the election of George W. Bush in 2000.
Chris Hedges finds this an especially troubling development in modern America. In this weighty reordering of the political landscape, he writes, “individual rights—once safeguarded through the competing collectives of diverse social, religious or ethnic groups, trade unions, government regulatory agencies, advocacy groups, independent media and judiciaries, and schools and universities that do not distort the world through an ideological lens—are neutered” (p. 181). Such dismantling of the institutions so powerful in the history of the U.S. as bulwarks of personal liberty will leave the nation’s inhabitants unable to “defend their rights or question the abuses of their overlords” (p. 181).
Once that happens, the United States will have made the final step toward totalitarianism; a totalitarianism dominated by a coalition of Christian fundamentalism, rampant consumerism, and unbridled capitalism. Hedges notes that theocracy has a long history in the Christian West—notably in Calvinistic Geneva, Anabaptist Münster, and Cromwell’s Puritan England—and it has proven a brutal experience all too often despite the Christian utopian visions that propelled the effort.
Despite its dramatic title, in American Fascists Hedges offers a reasoned analysis of what has been taking place with solid research, strong analysis, and accessible style. This is no doubt in part because of Hedges own religious background. His opening paragraph in this book states his ideology:
I grew up in a small farming town in upstate New York where my life, and the life of my family, centered on the Presbyterian Church. I prayed and sang hymns every Sunday, went to Bible school, listened to my father preach the weekly sermon and attended seminary at Harvard Divinity School to be a preacher myself. America was a place where things could be better if we worked to make them better, and where our faith saved us from despair, self-righteousness and the dangerous belief that we knew the will of God or could carry it out. We were taught that those who claimed to speak for God, the self-appointed prophets who promised the Kingdom of God on earth, were dangerous. We had no ability to understand God’s will. We did the best we could. We trusted and had faith in the mystery, the unknown before us. We made decisions—even decisions that on the outside looked unobjectionably moral—well aware of the numerous motives, some good and some bad, that went into every human act. In the end, we all stood in need of forgiveness. We were all tainted by sin. None were pure. The Bible was not the literal word of God. It was not a self-help manual that could predict the future. It would not tell us how to vote or allow us to divide the world into us and them, the righteous and the damned, the infidels and the blessed. It was a book written by a series of ancient writers, certainly fallible and at times at odds with each other, who asked the right questions and struggled with the mystery and transcendence of human existence. We took the bible seriously and therefore could not take it literally (p. 1-2).
I find this confession both moving and persuasive. It represents well my own spiritual position, arrived at only after considerable soul-searching, prayer, study, and reflection. What Hedges sees in fundamentalist Christianity, therefore, is spirituality and religiosity that has run off the rails and is careening down a path that will do Americans great damage.
Conversely, Hedges finds among Christian fundamentalists a hardened, judgmental, and heartless ideology that insists that the people of the United States are the new chosen by God and they will have all that they want and need. Using a biblical term, American Christians are to have “dominion” over all on Earth. Moreover, an expectant and immediate millennialism offers the belief that the world is on the verge of its end time and Christ will soon return to establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. In such a belief system it is unnecessary, even counter to God’s will, to exercise stewardship over the resources of the Earth. They were placed here by God for our use.
Moreover, the Millennium will take place before pollution, global warming, oil depletion, or any of the other calamities we foresee will take place. And when these calamities do befall the Earth, as described in the apocalypse foretold in the Book of Revelation good Christians will be caught up in the Rapture while the unbelievers will be left to fend for themselves. In this ideology, therefore, the unsaved get what they deserve. It is easy, therefore, to rationalize the misfortunes of those decimated by poverty, war, famine, or by any other desperate situation as experiencing the wrath of God.
Hedges argues that in this manifestation of Christianity, “the exploitation and abuse of other human beings is a good…The ideology it espouses is a radical evil, an ideology of death” (p. 146). He adds:
It calls for wanton destruction, of destruction of human beings, of the environment, of communities and neighborhoods, of labor unions, of a free press, of Iraqis, Palestinians or others in the Middle East who would deny us oil fields and hegemony, of federal regulatory agencies, social welfare programs, public education—in short, the destruction of all people and programs that stand in the way of a Christian America and its God-given right to dominate the rest of the planet (p.146).
This is a powerful message in many respects; it not only offers an explanation for the horrors seen around the world but also, as Hedges writes, “the absurd but seductive promise that those who are right with God will rise to become the new spiritual and material oligarchs” (p. 146). Wrapped in the protective cocoon of Christian fundamentalism where this message is reinforced by ministers, congregational leaders and members, and a coordinated educational and media system it is easy to see how those embracing fundamentalism may be removed from what Hedges calls the “reality-based world” and accept this ideology. They fail to see, according to Hedges, that “gross injustices and repression could well boomerang back on most of them” (p. 146).
Hedges warns that it is not too late to stop the rise of Christo-fascism, but that those not accepting of it must organize and aggressively oppose it. He writes:
I do not deny the right of Christian radicals to be, to believe and worship as they choose. But I will not engage in a dialogue with those who deny my right to be, who delegitimize my faith and denounce my struggle before God as worthless. All dialogue must include respect and tolerance for my beliefs, worth and dignity of others, including those outside the nation and the faith. When this respect is denied, this clash of ideologies ceases to be merely a difference of opinion and becomes a fight for survival.
He believes that “the radical Christian Right is a sworn and potent enemy of the open society. Its ideology bears within it the tenets of a Christian fascism.” Hedges believes that those “who care about an open society must learn to speak about this movement with a new vocabulary, to give up passivity, to challenge aggressively this movement’s deluded appropriation of Christianity and to do everything possible to defend tolerance” (p. 207).
This is a powerful book, one that should be read and studied. Like every statement from every source, Hedges’ arguments must be accepted or rejected only after due consideration and analysis. Dismissing American Fascists out of hand would be a travesty. So would accepting its ideas without careful evaluation.