In War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, veteran New York Times war reporter Chris Hedges challenged his audience to stare deep into the spiritual abyss out of which our lust for war arises. His compassionate meditations used rich literary references to warn of war’s addictive qualities — of the exhilaration and purpose that war gives to those who feel hopeless, of the ways in which people come to prefer the certainty of moral absolutes that govern kill-or-be-killed situations over the moral ambiguity and emotional pain of everyday life.
In his latest book, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Free Press, $25), Hedges asks us to look even more deeply into the “national malaise” that confronts the United States, and to admit how perilous a place this malaise has delivered us to. Hedges argues that the suffering of millions of working class Americans who have seen their living standards decline precipitously over the last 30 years has inspired a growing number of people to turn to a “theology of despair.” Mobilized by a neo-Calvinism or Dominionism harkening back to 17th-century Puritan theology, they have become the shock troops for the hard edge of the Christian Right. They do not seek freedom of worship or limited government, but a Christian state that will help prepare the world for an apocalyptic, violent cleansing that precedes the rapture and ascent of Christians into heaven.
American Fascists is an angry book, less meditative and more polemical than War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. In his interview with Real Change, Hedges reflected this spirit of gravity. And while he diagnosed the ills in unequivocal terms foreign to mainstream politics, his description of what to do was limited to unlikely proposals to prohibit hate speech. Beyond that, he left it largely to the reader to decide what can be done to halt the rise of American fascism before it is too late.
Real Change: What personally motivated you to write the book?
Hedges: I think there’s a certain amount of anger in the book, and that comes because I was raised a Christian. My father was a minister, my mother graduated from seminary although she wasn’t ordained, she was a college professor, and I graduated from seminary myself. And while I’m not a very orthodox Christian, while I have a very troubled relationship with the institutional church, nevertheless the church and the Christian faith very much informs who I am.
And because I’m Biblically literate, which most of the critics of the Christian Right are not, I’m a little more attuned to what it is they’re promoting and how grossly they’ve distorted and misused the Bible to sell an ideology that is at its core about bigotry, intolerance, hatred, and a deep lust for violence, especially apocalyptic and cataclysmic violence that will cleanse and purge the world of everyone who does not support or submit to their belief system. In my mind, they hollowed out the guts and the heart of the Christian religion in the same way they hollowed out the guts and the heart of the open society or the democratic society. And while they still use the language and the trappings, they seek to destroy what is best about both.
RC: How is this different from traditional evangelical Protestantism?
Hedges: Traditional evangelicals, or traditional fundamentalists, do not go after political power, at least within the United States. As a matter of fact, certainly within American fundamentalism, there’s a call to remove yourself from the contaminants of secular society and shun political power. Traditional evangelicals like Billy Graham always called on followers to be very wary of political power. This was something new and different.
And coupled with the flight of manufacturing jobs, the way whole sections of the country were being dispossessed, the rise of an American oligarchy, and now the subsequent assault upon the middle class, these despots were empowered because they know and understand how to manipulate this despair and hopelessness.
So while even now it’s hard to take such apocalyptic rhetoric seriously, this movement — and I look at it as the most dangerous mass movement in American history — has moved from the fringes of American society to the center and into the halls of power.
RC: How have critics of the religious right misread them?
Hedges: I think many of their critics are willing to give them a kind of religious legitimacy I’m not willing to give them. This is a theology of despair that says nothing in this world is worth saving. And the greatest moment in human history will be of course the end of human history, when apocalyptic violence will cleanse and purge the earth, believers will be lifted up into heaven in a kind of spiritual Darwinism, and the rest of us will be destroyed. And that comes out of a deep despair by people for whom the real world does not work anymore.
That ability to remove the masses from the reality-based world and lock them into closed, hermetic systems of indoctrination — which is what Christian radio and television have become — is exceedingly dangerous for an open society.
Now this movement cannot come into power unless there’s a prolonged period of instability or crisis. But that probably will come. Having covered Al Qaeda for a year for The New York Times, there wasn’t an intelligence official that I interviewed here or in Europe that didn’t talk about another catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil as inevitable. And if that happens, this movement stands poised to reshape America in ways we have not seen since the nation’s founding.
RC: To be clear, you’re labeling Dominionism and the revival of Puritanism as fascist, not all evangelical conservatives.
Hedges: Dominionism is a better word for it. Because we use terms like evangelical or fundamentalist, but that’s not who these people are in the traditional sense of the word. They are something very different. What they’ve done is taken the Christian religion and acculturate it with the worst aspects of American imperialism and American capitalism. It’s a total perversion of the Christian religion.
It’s a complete rewriting of American history. The notion that the Founding Fathers embraced this kind of Christianity is farcical. They were all terrified of the Puritan state. They had seen what a tyranny that was. They were determined not to repeat it.
RC: What difference does it make to call the Christian Right fascist?
Hedges: Because it’s not a neutral word. It’s a slur. It’s a way of saying these people are not Christians and they are not democrats…. There’s a kind of neutrality in the response to them that I think makes them appear more benign than they are.
I think the movement is properly called fascist. It’s overused. It has historical connotations that confuse people. But at the same time, I wanted the book to be an assault against a movement that I think has misused or misappropriated the faith tradition that I come from and wrapped themselves in the cloak of that tradition and American patriotism, when in fact their goals are the very destruction of those two traditions.
RC: You note in your book that one way in which people miss the change is because the Christian Right uses familiar language.
Hedges: These movements always speak in the comforting language by which a country defines itself; in this case, Christianity speaks of liberty and tolerance. But when you look closely, they’ve redefined these concepts. Liberty is no longer liberty in the traditional sense of liberty but the liberty that comes with complete submission to Jesus Christ. So they speak in a common vernacular that is reassuring to us. But to the initiated, it’s a kind of constant code because it means something else, and President Bush has been quite clever about doing this.
RC: What do you think of the Democratic Party’s response to this?
Hedges: The Democratic Party has failed to understand the movement and has given it a kind of religious legitimacy that it shouldn’t have. Number one, these people are not interested in a dialogue. Number two, they are not capable of a dialogue because they promote an irrational belief system. And by giving them religious legitimacy, we are delegitimizing ourselves.
The proper way to deal with it is start to restrain it, passing hate crimes legislation, making it impossible for them to preach for the disempowerment or stripping of citizens of their civil rights because of their sexual orientation, for instance.
RC: So you would extend hate crimes legislation to cover speech as well?
Hedges: I think it should be against the law to use public airwaves to talk about how whole segments of American society have no legitimacy in a Christian state. They’re poisoning the civil discourse in tens of millions of homes and there’s nothing to counter this hate message. It’s a form of indoctrination and ultimately it’s preaching sedition. It’s preaching a kind of civil war. It says ultimately there are two kinds of Americans: Christian Americans, who are legitimate, real, and have a right to run the country and be heard, and non-Christian Americans, who have a right to either conversion or ultimately extermination. That’s what the message is.
RC: In your book, you describe the economic dislocations of the last 30 years as having produced a “national malaise.”
Hedges: That’s what despotic movements are built on. There’s been a Weimarization of the American working class. They’ve been completely abandoned by the Democratic party, by state and federal assistance agencies. Whole parts of this country look like the developing world. They have no hope. The jobs where they can be paid $50 an hour with retirement benefits and health plans are a distant memory. They know their children will never get that. And they’re ripe to be sucked into this world of magic realism of angels and miracles and healing. And that’s what totalitarian movements do. They prey on that despair.
It’s described as a mystery to many people: What’s the matter with Kansas, how can people vote against their interests? They’re not voting against their interests. The Democratic Party a long time ago stopped representing the interests of the working class. They continued to pretend to speak on behalf of the working class after they sold them out and betrayed them.
RC: In a liberal democracy, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish fascists from those who fight them. Both groups say we’ve supposedly been too liberal. We’ve been too tolerant. There’s a threat inside our society that we need to root out and if we don’t, then we will lose our freedom.
Hedges: You’re exactly right. They do use the same language. But you have to look at what it’s in defense of. What they do is they get up and say, “Homosexuals are sick and perverted and they need to be cured of their same-sex attraction, or they need to be isolated in our society.” And then if somebody calls them on it, they say, “You’re intolerant. I’m practicing free speech.” And they use that very argument to defend the right to talk about the marginalization or silencing of whole sectors of the society. That’s a classic example of how they have effectively manipulated the language of a democratic society and tolerance to protect intolerance.
RC: Do you anticipate resistance from more mainstream Christian groups?
Hedges: I don’t have a lot of hope that the mainstream churches are going to respond. I think they’re pretty bankrupt. They really won’t take on any major social issue. The most virulent opposition will come out of the evangelical church, people who are fairly radical in terms of their worldview, but smell the corruption and despotism. And they will be the first people who are silenced because they will be the most dangerous. I think liberal society, and this is often a prerequisite for these movements to succeed, liberal society has shown such complacency that by the time they wake up, I think it will be too late.
RC: So you think there’s been a Rubicon moment?
Hedges: I guess I’m an eternal optimist and that I hope not. But unless we address the economic and social disparities that are so vast in this country, then we aren’t going to be able to blunt this movement that is a product of that despair. The creation of an American oligarchy means the death of the American democracy. Plutarch wrote this. It’s not a new idea. You can’t have those kinds of disparities in a country and have a democratic state.
By TREVOR GRIFFEY, Contributing Writer
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/03/07/mar-7-2007-entire-issue