To a lot of atheists, Chris Hedges is a relatively well known Christian who is good at getting smacked around in debates with the likes of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. He’s written a book railing against atheists for being too critical of religion. He apparently doesn’t believe we really exist, as it turns out.
But don’t let all that sway your opinion against American Fascists from the outset. Hedges is very familiar with terrorist and totalitarian regimes, having spent two decades covering Central America, the Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa. He was part of a group awarded the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of global terrorism. Chris knows his stuff when it comes to political and socioeconomic manipulation.
And that’s what this book is about. It’s an easy read at 207 pages, not counting bibliography and footnotes, both of which are extensive. I’m not an especially fast reader and I finished it during a round trip flight between New York and Atlanta. Hedges provides extensive quotations throughout the entire book, preferring to let the words of the Christians themselves make much of the impact. Still, the flow feels easy, and transitions between quotations and the author’s words are generally seamless.
American Fascists is an exposé of the powerful and growing fundamentalist Christian movement whose leaders are bent on creating a Christian America, based not on Constitutional equality, but the literal interpretation of the Bible as the ultimate source of law and morality. Instead of the normal introduction, Hedges reprints Umberto Eco’sEternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt, which outlines the commonly accepted 14 characteristics of a fascist state. Here is a brief recap:
- The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition.
- Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism.
- Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake.
- The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism… For Ur-Fascism,disagreement is treason.
- Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference.
- Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration.
- To people who feel deprived of a clear social identiy, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism.
- The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.
- For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus, pacifism is trafficking with the enemy.
- Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak.
- In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero.
- Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters.
- Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say.
- Ur-Fascism speaks [Orwellian] Newspeak.
For those of us who are familiar with the Christian Fascist movement this introduction is powerful enough. I recognized virtually all 14 points in the teachings and practices of several of the Southern Baptists churches I grew up in.
Chapter one is probably the weakest chapter in the book, or so it will seem to atheist readers. It deals with the problem of faith as it applies to disconnects from reality and facilitation of radical, unsubstantiated beliefs about both the individual and a “Godly culture.” Many non-theist readers will be aware of how he glibly skirts around applying the same logic of faith to what he calls “true Christian values.” Not once does he give lip service to the idea that any interpretation based on faith is entirely subjective, nor does he give a rational or historical demonstration that Christianity is supposed to be a religion of uncertainty and striving towards egalitarianism. He just assumes that the reader will agree with him and leaves it at that.
Having raised this serious criticism, I have to dismiss it as irrelevant. This is not a book about theology. It’s about the real political and social danger of a particular brand of extremism. Hedges is not attempting to justify liberal Christianity. Instead, he’s appealing to liberal Christians to take a stand against those who would marginalize and ostracize them if they ever achieve their totalitarian theocracy. I believe we atheists would do well to recognize the political expediency of the moment and not quibble over theology with people who ought to be our strong allies in this instance.
Hedges goes on to explain the process of logocide, the “killing of words.”
The old definitions of words are replaced by new ones. Code words of the old belief system are deconstructed and assigned diametrically opposed meanings. Words such as “truth,” “wisdom,” “death,” “liberty,” “life,” and “love” no longer mean what they mean in the secular world. “Life” and “death” mean life in Christ or death to Christ, and are used to signal belief or unbelief in the risen Lord. “Wisdom” has little to do with human wisdom but refers to the level of commitment and obedience to the system of belief. “Liberty” is not about freedom, but the “liberty” found when one accepts Jesus Christ and is liberated from the world to obey Him. But perhaps the most pernicious distortion comes with the word “love,” the word used to lure into the movement many who seek a warm, loving community to counter their isolation and alienation. “Love” is distorted to mean an unquestioned obedience to those who claim to speak for God in return for the promise of everlasting life. The blind, human love, the acceptance of the other, is attacked as an inferior love, dangerous and untrustworthy.” –p 14
This is one of the fundamental building blocks of fascism — the doublespeak/newspeak phenomenon we’ve all (hopefully) read about in 1984. To the unsuspecting public, the growing movement seems innocuous. After all, they’re selling love, wisdom, freedom, and liberty. They can’t be too bad, right? And the double whammy comes when progressives protest, and are seen as reactionaries. “How can these people be so vehemently opposed to people who are just preaching love and freedom? They’re really the ones who are against love and freedom!”
He goes on to quote Robert O. Paxton, speaking of language and symbols in American fascism:
They would have to be as familiar and reassuring to loyal Americans as the language and symbols of the original fascisms were familiar and reassuring to many Italians and Germans, as Orwell suggested. Hitler and Mussolini, after all, had not tried to seem exotic to their fellow citizens. No swastikas in an American fascism, but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. 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.
Chapters 2, 3, and 4 deal with the front end of American Fascism — the appeal to and conversion of the weak and willing. Borrowing the theme straight from Eco, Hedges explains in great detail how the industrial Rust Belt crisis, the decline of middle class income, and a host of other socio-political crises in the last fifty years have created a “culture of despair” which in turn creates an entire class of newly dispossessed and relatively undereducated people who desperately want someone to give them a magic cure.
Chapter three is a rather chilling account of the process of “conversion.” (Isn’t that a little creepy, just as a word? It reminds me a little of the original “V” miniseries.) It exposes the intense sales training and manipulation techniques used to capture people in desperate straits, as well as the downright hypocrisy of many evangelists who provide short term, conditional friendship and praise to new converts.
Hedges attended a training session by Dr. D. James Kennedy, one of the most outspoken Christian fascists. While he was there, he saw first hand the outright lies peddled by missionaries. There is a formula for a conversion experience, and if that’s not what the evangelist’s story is really like, he is instructed in no uncertain terms to make up a better story. (I’ll add my personal voucher for this part of the chapter. I attended a similar retreat as a teenager, and was told that my conversion story was not interesting enough. The word “lie” wasn’t used, but I was left with a very bitter taste in my mouth thinking about the morality of lying to potential converts.)
Chapter 4, The Cult of Masculinity, is a careful and methodical look at the fundamentalist view of masculinity which — not surprisingly — is very misogynistic and encourages the subjugation of women, complete with the cliché of the barefoot and pregnant housewife. In yet another intersection with my own life, it relates the story of Roberta Pughe, who attended D. James Kennedy’s church in Fort Lauderdale and eventually competed in the Miss America Pageant. I was only a child, but I met both her and the reigning Miss America, Cheryl Pruett, at an evangelical service in Pensacola, Florida.
I don’t remember a lot about the service, but I do remember that Cheryl Pruett spoke powerfully about God’s loving kindness in giving “feminine rolls” to godly women. It is not surprising, but still sad, to learn that both she and Pughe suffered great emotional pain and loss of self esteem as a result of their “life” in Christ and their “wisdom” in following the dictates of a patriarchal cult of masculinity.
Of particular interest to me was the section detailing the masculine indoctrination of children. Hedges quotes Joost A. M. Meerlo, author of The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing:
Living requires mutuality of giving and taking. Above all, to live is to love. And many people are afraid to take the responsibility of loving; of having an emotional investment in their fellow beings. They want only to be loved and to be protected; they are afraid of being hurt and rejected.
It is important for us to realize that emphasis on conformity and the fear of spontaneous living can have an effect almost as devastating as the totalitarian’s deliberate assault on the mind… Trained into conformity the child may well grow up into an adult who welcomes with relief the authoritarian demands of a totalitarian leader. It is the welcome repetition of an old pattern that can be followed without investment of a new emotional energy.*
Chapters 5 and 6 deal with the aggressive “marketing campaign” against truth and the persecution of those who disagree. Ken Ham’s Creation Museum is given as an example of the war on science, with special notice given to the conspicuous use of credentials by supporters — even when those credentials have nothing to do with evolutionary science. The discussion of the persecution of gays should be very familiar to most atheist readers, but I wonder sometimes if there isn’t a heavily insulated population in rural America who honestly have no idea just how pervasive and widespread the hatred is.
Hedges attended a secretive meeting of anti-gay Christians, from which the public media was ejected. His field report is disturbing on all counts. He goes on to report in detail the machinations of the various “pray the gay away” retreats, treatment facilities, and propaganda machines. Again, for those of us who lived through it, there are no surprises, but again — I believe there are many readers who would benefit from knowing just how pervasive the fear and hatred is.
Chapters 7 through 10 deal directly with the outreach side of the movement, from TV evangelism to the Left Behind series of books and movies, which are much, much more than fiction to millions of Christians in America. They expose the ostentatious displays of wealth and power which are used to create a genuinely divided class system, and to defraud the poor and faithful out of millions and millions of tax free, virtually untraceable dollars.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Hedges chronicles the militaristic aspects of Christian Fascism. Christian music has become the modern day equivalent of Hitler’s youth camps in many ways, as Christian rock groups are selling out arenas and packaging militaristic versions of apocalyptic destruction and battle into catchy sing-along anthems. Popular radio and TV evangelists are preaching war, both literal and spiritual.
So my admonishment to you this morning is this. Sound the alarm. A spiritual invasion is taking place. The secular media never likes it when I say this, so let me say it twice. Man your battle stations! Ready your weapons! They say this rhetoric is so inciting. I came to incite a riot. I came to effect (sic!) a divine disturbance in the heart and soul of the church.
Man your battle stations. Ready your weapons. Lock and load — for the thirty-forty liberal pastors who filed against our ministry with the Internal Revenue Service. One of their complaints was that they wouldn’t give their names to the media because they “feared retribution.” I asked them, “What do you mean?” One of the newspapermen said, “Well, they’re afraid you’re going to call out the troops.” I said, “I already have. We’ve been in prayer every night for them since they filed.” I don’t think that’s the answer he was looking for.
Spiritual invasion is taking place; if you believe it, say, “Yes.” Let the struggle begin. Let it begin in your heart today with a shout unto Him who has called us to war — not only that, He has empowered you and I to win. I will be silent no more. Our times demand it, our history compels it, our future requires it, but most importantly, God is still watching. –Rod Parsley
It’s an uncomfortable truth, but this movement is real. It’s well funded, well organized, and very, very determined to achieve its goals. I can’t look into the future and say whether or not they will succeed, but from everything I’ve seen since my own childhood, they are better funded and organized than either the Nazis or Mussolini’s regime. While that does not guarantee success, it bodes ill for genuine freedom and liberty should there be a crisis one or two orders of magnitude larger than the terror attacks of 9/11. A scared populace combined with an already entrenched political aristocracy is a potent combination of factors that can easily lead to the undermining of freedom and perhaps the genuine installment of totalitarianism. We’ve already seen steps in that direction, with the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and the legalized funding of church-run “charitable establishments.”
I’m particularly happy that this book was written by a Christian. I would feel comfortable — compelled — to recommend it to any moderate to liberal Christians. Without the stigma of having been written by a non-believer, the accusations and thorough documentation will most likely be received with less automatic gainsaying. And if this movement is to be marginalized, it’s crucial that the mainstream Christian community helps in the process. After all, it’s been said over and over that a theocracy is a threat to each and every religion — and denomination — not legally espoused by the government. For moderate and liberal Christians to continue to receive the freedom to practice their beliefs, they need to recognize the power of their own far right flock members to legislate them into second class citizenship.
Regular readers have probably noticed that I’ve added a link to the Secular Coalition for America on my right sidebar. If you are not a supporter, you should be. If you’re not convinced after reading this review, please read the whole book. It’s not the best presentation I can imagine, but it’s certainly adequate to the task. For both non-believers and liberal believers alike, the SCA is one of our best allies in keeping religious freedom intact in America, and for preventing the legislation of a Bronze Age patriarchal morality.
All philosophical questions aside, this is a real and present danger to freedom, and for my taste, I’ve had just about enough restrictions on that freedom in the last decade. I recommend this book to my readers, and encourage you to loan out your copy when you’re finished.
* Keep an eye out for a post on Andy Thomson’s presentation of religion as an expression of primitive human brains. His new research is supportive of this idea of repetitive pattern and comfort in groups. Unfortunately, Thomson does not appear to be rushing to publish.