By John W. Whitehead
March 06, 2007
Faith presupposes that we cannot know. We can never know. Those who claim to know what life means play God. These false prophets—the Pat Robertsons, the Jerry Falwells and the James Dobsons—clutching the cross and the Bible, offer, like Mephistopheles, to lead us back to a mythical paradise and an impossible, unachievable happiness and security, at once seductive and empowering. They ask us to hand over moral choice and responsibility to them. They will tell us they know what is right and wrong in the eyes of God. They tell us how to act, how to live, and in this process they elevate themselves above us. They remove the anxiety of moral choice, the fundamental anxiety of human existence. This is part of their attraction. They give us the rules by which we live. But once we hand over this anxiety and accept their authority, we become enslaved and they become our idols. And idols, as the Bible never ceases to tell us, destroy us.—Chris Hedges
Polls indicate that about 40 percent of the American public agree that the Bible should be taken literally, word for word, and that almost a third of all Americans believe in the rapture, which is the doctrine that those who have accepted Jesus Christ will be raised up into heaven and those who have not will be left to suffer on earth. There are at least 80 million evangelical Christians in the United States attending more than 200,000 evangelical churches. And among the leaders of those churches, there is a core group of fundamentalist ideologues, argues Chris Hedges, who are taking advantage of the despair, isolation and fear that drive many people into these churches and are using it to further a frightening political agenda.
In his new book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Free Press, 2007), veteran journalist and bestselling author Hedges argues that the Christian fundamentalist movement emerging today in the United States resembles the early fascist movements in Italy and Germany in the beginning of the last century. This radical Christian movement, known as Dominionism, promotes the Christian faith and patriotism as a means to gaining more political power.
Hedges contends that the Dominionist movement has many of the same characteristics as fascism: a claim for moral and physical supremacy of a master race, in this case American Christians; blind obedience to a male hierarchy that often claims to speak for God; intolerance toward non-believers; and disdain for rational intellectual inquiry. This movement’s goal is for America to become a theocratic, totalitarian country.
Chris Hedges was a foreign correspondent for nearly two decades for The New York Times and other newspapers and is the author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), What Every Person Should Know About War and Losing Moses on the Freeway. Hedges is a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School and a former seminarian. He is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches in the Program for American Studies at Princeton University. Hedges is also the recipient of this year’s Lannan Literary Writing Fellowship. He lives in New York City.
Chris Hedges took a few moments out of his busy schedule to talk with oldSpeak.
John Whitehead: Do you believe the Christian Right perverts the message of Jesus?
Chris Hedges: Yes. It is a movement that calls for a Christian state. It is a radical mutation of traditional evangelicalism and traditional fundamentalism. I am not an evangelical. It is not my tradition. I come out of a liberal Presbyterian church. But I have respect for evangelicals like Billy Graham, who is a much more nuanced figure than I think a lot of people understand. These people who are Christian Reconstructionists or Christian Dominionists are something different, and that is who I make war against. I am not making war against evangelicals or fundamentalists.
JW: You use the term Christo-fascists. Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? How can one be a Christo-fascist? Jesus was nonviolent. His teachings undermined both the religious and governmental empires of his day.
CH: That is exactly right. For me, it is a way of denoting what they have done, which is to completely pervert and distort the Christian message and to allow it to cloak a movement that is about bigotry, intolerance and, ultimately, a lust for catastrophic violence. In my opinion, Jesus was clearly a pacifist.
JW: In former Bush White House insider David Kuo’s book Tempting Faith, he indicates that Bush Administration bureaucrats routinely made fun of the Christian Right leaders. And he made this clear in an interview he did with me (see “Screwtape Lives: Tempting Faith”). According to Kuo, White House officials thought of them as boobs. In other words, the White House had a Machiavellian approach to the Christian Right. They manipulate them in order to have access to their voter base. Do you think the Christian Right’s powers are more illusory than real?
CH: I believe Kuo is correct in that this is how the neo-cons like Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz look at the Christian Right, without question. Also, we know that the neo-cons are very cynical about religion. They come out of that Straussian school, which looks at religion as a kind of opiate. It is a way of allowing people to follow along behind you because the religious types don’t have the intellectual firepower to understand how the world works. I am summing up what Strauss thinks. Thus, they certainly do look at the Christian Right in this way. They look at them as buffoons and as people they can manipulate.
JW: You don’t see them as buffoons?
CH: No, I don’t. To use a phrase from Lenin, the neo-cons view these people as the useful idiots. I think it is reversed. I believe, in the end, that the neo-cons will be the useful idiots. I think that however buffoonish figures such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, Paul and Jan Crouch and many of the others may appear to be, there are tens of millions of people in this country who take these people with deadly seriousness. And whatever buffoonish qualities the Falwells, et cetera, may have on the outside, on the inside these people have a very different stature.
JW: What is Dominionism?
CH: Dominionism is the belief that American Christians have been anointed or ordained by God to create a Christian state. The philosophy comes, of course, from Genesis, but it finds its modern articulation in Rousas Rushdoony’s Christian Reconstructionism movement.
JW: How many of the 80 million evangelicals in this country do you think fall under the shadow of Dominionism?
CH: Almost none.
JW: Then where does their power lie?
CH: The power lies in a small group. I am thinking primarily of people like James Dobson and others. I find Dobson a very dark, very frightening figure.
JW: Why is that?
CH: Because Dobson is extremely sophisticated. He understands, along with people such as Pat Robertson, how to manipulate the despair and vulnerability of the people who follow him in ways that essentially shut them off from the outside world. It is Dobson, of course, who calls on his followers or listeners to remove their children from public schools. I see a lot of rage and anger in Dobson in the way he goes after just about anybody who doesn’t submit to his authority.
JW: Dobson also has a $150 million budget.
CH: Yes, these people bring in big money. Not only is this about power, it’s about personal enrichment. Just look at Pat Robertson. We don’t know exactly what his net worth is, but the estimates of his personal fortune range from several hundred million up to a billion dollars.
JW: You note that the “radical Christian Right” has infiltrated every branch of government. As you write: “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. Forty-five senators and 186 members of the House of Representatives earned approval ratings of 80 to 100 percent from the three most influential Christian Right advocacy groups: the Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and Family Resource Council.” But do all these people vote in tandem?
CH: No, they don’t. But they vote frequently, although they don’t vote in tandem as a block. But we do know that 186 members of the House and 45 senators get between an 80 to 100 percent approval rating from three of the important Christian Right advocacy groups, such as Eagle Forum and Family Resource Council, and that they vote often enough with what these people want. Let me go back to the question you asked before about evangelicals because it is an important point. Most of the 80 to 100 million evangelicals in the United States do not want to create the kind of state that a Dobson or a Robertson promotes. However, Dobson and those like him speak in the comforting language of the Christian evangelical tradition. They also speak in the comforting language of American patriotism. And if you do a literary critique of how they use terms and what they mean, they often turn words inside out. That is what totalitarian movements do.
JW: Isn’t that one of the dangers of combining the flag and religion?
CH: Yes. I spent 20 years abroad as a foreign correspondent. Anytime you fuse religious language and religious iconography with the language and iconography of a nationalist movement or the state, in biblical terms you create an idol. And idols, as the Bible never ceases to tell us, destroy us. And that is what they have done in religious terms. They have created an idolatry and call it the Christian religion.
JW: You write that the Christian Right “has sanctified a ruthless, unfettered capitalism.” What do you mean by that?
CH: What they have done is offered their followers a belief in magic, miracles and angels in combination with the prosperity gospel. And the gospel of prosperity is an anathema of the true Christian gospel. It is an anathema to teach that Jesus came to make us wealthy, as is played out daily on the 700 Club. The Crouches are another perfect example. On these programs, there will always be short little advertisements in essence talking about how I had enough faith and now I have a Cadillac and a big house. There is a real appeal to tens of millions of people in this country who are facing increasing desperation to this type of distorted message.
JW: It’s a lie because people can’t be as wealthy as those people.
CH: Of course, it is a lie. And it is diametrically opposed to what Jesus preached. Jesus told us there are two ways to be rich. One can have a lot of wealth, or one can have few possessions. Probably the only thing Christ owned when he died was a robe. Thus, what these types do is acculturate the Christian religion with the worst aspects of American imperialism and unfettered American capitalism.
JW: What do you mean by unfettered capitalism?
CH: That is what we are creating. We now live in a country where the top one percent control more wealth than the bottom ninety percent combined. The working class—and much of my family come out of a working class—are in desperate straits. Through NAFTA, with courtesy of a Democratic administration and the slashing of welfare and federal programs for dependent children as examples, there are now huge pockets in the United States that more and more resemble the poor of the developing world. There has been a complete stripping of state and federal assistance so that there is a terrible personal and economic despair, a loss of hope. The concern is not only that people are going to have jobs that they once held 20 to 30 years ago in the manufacturing sector with reasonable wages and benefits but that their children will ever have them. That is the main engine and fuel of this movement, which we should properly call Dominionism, and it comes through their corporate allies and the neo-cons.
JW: How does George Bush fit into this? Is George Bush a Dominionist?
CH: I don’t think Bush is a very important figure.
JW: Why is that?
CH: First of all, he has no leadership qualities. He was shoved out front because he was the perfect fusion of the Christian Right and the corporate state. He comes out of both traditions. He has tended throughout his presidency to do more for the corporate state than he has in fact done for the Christian Right.
JW: Isn’t the Christian Right just a product of the American upper middle class?
CH: We now see an assault on the middle class.
JW: But where does the Christian Right come from?
CH: I believe it comes from above. I think the middle class is now beginning to face the kind of instability that the working class faces.
JW: But where would you put a Dobson or a Falwell or a Robertson? They didn’t come from the dregs of society.
CH: These are the people who stand to profit by this. These are the people who are accruing power and money through this. Their base of power is essentially the corporate rape of the American working and middle classes. They understand how to manipulate that despair and use it. They understand the ills of American society, in some ways better than anyone else. They are using those ills to create something that is very frightening.
JW: Are you saying that they are manipulative con artists?
JW: It is without doubt that the Christian Right is violently apocalyptic. As you recognize in your book: “Societies that embrace apocalyptic visions and seek through sacred violence to implement them commit collective suicide. When Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, as they do, sanction preemptive nuclear strikes against those they condemn as the enemies of God, they fuel the passions of terrorists driven by the same vision of a world cleansed and purified through apocalyptic violence.”
CH: They peddle a theology of despair. It is the notion that nothing in the world is sacred, and nothing is worth saving. It is the idea that the most glorious moment in human history comes with the end of human history with the Rapture and catastrophic or apocalyptic violence. All this will be used as a cleansing agent or purgative to destroy everything in the world that is godless. Believers, of course, will be raptured up into heaven. There is a kind of pornographic quality to their obsession with violence. You see it with the Left Behind novels. It is the sort of graphic descriptions that are pure fantasy as to what will happen to non-believers at the end times. It is also a wonderful weapon in the Dominionist movement that is primarily fear-based.
JW: At the same time, the apocalyptic types are building universities and huge organizations—all worldly empires. But they’re saying they’re going to be raptured. Isn’t that a contradiction?
CH: It is. But, of course, they will argue that they are creating the elect to rule until the end times. I’ve spent seven years in the Middle East, and it is the same way the Saudis would build mosques to spread Wahhabism. There is a strong, elevated indoctrination in the Christian Right institutions. They are not institutions about learning. They are institutions about submission.
JW: Let’s focus for a moment on one of your mentors, your ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, Dr. James Luther Adams. It was nearly 25 years ago that he said “we would all be fighting the ‘Christian fascists’” in America. As you write: “But Adams warned us against the blindness caused by intellectual snobbery. The Nazis, he 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.” Is this why you decided to write your book?
CH: I didn’t plan to do the book until I came back from overseas, having spent almost
two decades outside the United States.
JW: So you had a cultural shock.
CH: Yes. I had not been in the United States for virtually 20 years. Thus, the changes struck me as quite profound. I remembered what Adams said. I’ve covered disintegrated societies, including war in the former Yugoslavia, and I find a lot of similarities between a Slobodan Milosevic and a James Dobson.
JW: Is American society disintegrating—at least, in a cultural sense?
CH: In a cultural sense and also an economic sense. It is a society that is obsessed with trivia and gossip of a particularly sleazy nature. I don’t own a television.
JW: So you didn’t watch any of the Anna Nicole Smith coverage?
CH: I saw it at the gym, where I run on the treadmill. Every single cable news channel was running the Anna Nicole story. It was repeated pictures of Anna Nicole. It’s sick. I don’t want my kids to watch television. I think it is poison. I am going to sound a bit like a fundamentalist myself, but I find that stuff deeply disturbing. It’s like we live in a post- literate culture. It is a culture that revels in its own ignorance, yet at the same time its own power.
JW: Americans have lost the ability to be analytical. I see it in the emails I receive when I write something. People react emotionally. They don’t analyze what you say. And that is from television because television demands an emotional response.
CH: It is also because images change so swiftly on television and because you can have these huge emotional swings. Television is a very powerful and effective medium for eliciting that kind of emotional response.
JW: Isn’t that where the televangelists get their power?
CH: They know how to work that medium better than anyone. They throw images and clichés at you that are thought-terminating and make it really difficult to think. It took me seven years of school—four in college and three in graduate school—and it was probably only by the seventh year that I had the intellectual ability to pick apart a text and critique it. We are losing that type of analytic ability. It makes it easier on the part of the powers-that-be to manipulate a compliant populace when they have lost the ability to be self-critical and analytical.
JW: You write: “Adams, like Bonhoeffer, did not believe that those who would fight effectively in coming times of turmoil, a fight that for him was an integral part of the biblical message, would arise from the institutional church or the liberal, secular elite. His critique of the prominent research universities, along with the media, was withering. These institutions—self-absorbed, compromised by their close relationship with government and corporations, given enough of the pie to be complacent—were unwilling to deal with the fundamental moral questions and inequities of the age. They had no stomach for a battle that might cost them their prestige and comfort. He saw how easily the German universities had been Nazified. He told me, I suspect only half in jest, that if the Nazis took over America, ‘60 percent of the Harvard faculty would begin their lectures with the Nazi salute.’ He had seen academics at the University of Heidelberg, including the philosopher Martin Heidegger, raise their arms stiffly to students before class. Adams also reminded us that American intellectuals and industrialists openly flirted with fascism in the 1930s.” Is there any hope of resistance to what you see as the Christo-fascists? Is America sub-culturally a fascist society?
CH: We have the potential to become a fascist society. But it cannot happen unless we
enter a period of prolonged instability or a national crisis, which could very well come.
JW: But, like you were saying, isn’t it a failure of the Left and of the intellectuals to address this and deal with it?
CH: The American liberal elite are completely bankrupt.
JW: You’re talking about places like Harvard and Princeton.
JW: If that’s true, what’s the defense against this?
CH: The only defense will come out of the evangelical church.
JW: Don’t hold your breath on that one.
CH: I suspect that is where it is going to come from.
JW: Why is that?
CH: Because I think there are enough people who are honest and decent and can delineate between right and wrong. They have the courage to stand up and be vilified.
JW: But they don’t have the medium. They don’t have the power of television. The Crouches have a TBN network that reaches around the world.
CH: These evangelicals who could be the hope will be a minority, and they will be very swiftly crushed. But they will probably be the only effective force to fight back.
JW: They will be crushed. Then there is no hope?
CH: I am not particularly optimistic.
JW: You’re a pessimist.
CH: I try not to be. If I were a total pessimist, I would just give up and work in my garden. So no, I am not. I believe in fighting back, but I don’t see those organized resistance forces within the society. They would have to be organized to stand up, as we saw in the 1930s. There was a huge flirtation with fascism in this country in the ‘30s. Mussolini was lionized by American industrialists for defaming labor unions and empowering corporations at the expense of workers. There were a lot of people who looked to the fascist state as an attractive sort of counter-weight. Fortunately for us, we had Franklin Roosevelt. We had labor unions. We had an unfettered press. We got the New Deal, which reached out and reincorporated these disenfranchised Americans back into society. And we are reaching a very similar point where we have huge globs of Americans who are disenfranchised. If we don’t reincorporate them, I think we will have a kind of populace revolt. But it will be a populace revolt orchestrated and run by the Right. The sad part is that the very people who have been manipulated and abused by these forces will turn to these very forces to save them.
JW: In a recent article (“America’s Holy Warriors”), you voiced your concerns that there is a threat of private police forces that have been infiltrated by the Dominionists taking over law enforcement in this country. Do you really believe that these Dominionists could take over the police force of America?
CH: Not take over. When you create as powerful a mercenary force as we have created, there is a threat. You must remember that we have 25,000 mercenaries.
JW: You’re talking about Black Water.
CH: Black Water types such as Eric Prince, who is a charter of the radical Christian Right. We entered a period of chaos, as we saw in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. Under the Bush Administration, we sent in Black Water operatives in SUVs and black uniforms with automatic weapons. A private militia was allowed to carry automatic weapons on the streets of a major American city.
JW: They were shooting at people in New Orleans.
CH: That’s true. I covered al-Qaeda for the New York Times. There was not an intelligence operative who I interviewed who didn’t talk about another catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil as inevitable. What happens when a dirty bomb goes off in the Washington Mall or Times Square? What is to stop these people from declaring martial law? There are many hints that this is what they would do. Then throw in these rogue forces. All they then need is sympathy among enough people in the police and military to really begin to create a reign of terror. Our democracy has been so weakened and eroded through the USA Patriot Act, through suspension of habeas corpus, through the widespread use of wiretapping and eavesdropping that they won’t be of much resistance.
JW: Recent stealth legislation in Congress and actions by the Bush Administration have made it easier for the president to declare martial law and, in essence, establish a dictatorship in America. This is something I’ve written about (see “The Late, Great American Nation”). Most people don’t know that.
CH: And to use the National Guard as a kind of domestic police force.
JW: You write: “The leading American institutions tasked with defending tolerance and liberty—from the mainstream churches to the great research universities, to the Democratic Party and the media—have failed the country.” Then you go on to state: “This is the awful paradox of tolerance. There arise moments when those who would destroy the tolerance that makes an open society possible should no longer be tolerated. They must be held accountable by institutions that maintain the free exchange of ideas and liberty. The radical Christian Right must be forced to include other points of view to counter their hate talk in their own broadcasts, watched by tens of millions of Americans. They must be denied the right to demonize whole segments of American society, saying they are manipulated by Satan and worthy only of conversion or eradication. They must be made to treat their opponents with respect and acknowledge the right of a fair hearing even as they exercise their own freedom to disagree with their opponents. Passivity in the face of the rise of the Christian Right threatens the democratic state.” This sounds a bit drastic and, I’m sure to some, hysterical. How could this be done?
CH: They have the freedom to get on the airwaves and jump up and down and have people send in love offerings to them. I am not disputing any of that. What frightens me is when they cross that line and demonize or brand a fellow American as satanic.
JW: How would you stop this?
CH: Hate crime legislation has worked pretty well in Canada. I’ve attended a lot of these Christian Right rallies, where they say awful things, for example, about homosexuals. But they couldn’t say this in Canada or they would be arrested.
JW: There are many civil libertarians, including myself, who are opposed to hate crimes. Nat Hentoff has vocally opposed hate crime legislation.
CH: I recognize that it is a very imperfect instrument and can, in the wrong hands, be used to curtail legitimate criticism of the state. Ultimately, we cannot stop this movement until we mount a massive anti-poverty campaign, until we blunt the rapacious appetite of the military industrial complex and until we build a country not in the service of corporations but in the service of the working and the middle class. Until that’s done, it doesn’t matter what we do. There is nothing we can do to stop these people.
JW: It sounds rather utopian.
CH: It is completely utopian. I see no forces in the political landscape that advocate it. But I believe when we look closely at history, it is the New Deal that saved us as a country. And we are rapidly reaching that point again where we must take care of the least among us and those who have been shunted aside. It is completely biblical. Otherwise, we will stand by and witness the death of our democratic state.
DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN OLDSPEAK ARE NOT NECESSARILY THOSE OF THE RUTHERFORD INSTITUTE.