Fearsome Extremists Massing in Their Pews

When it mercifully comes to a close 24 months from now, the George W. Bush Presidency will be remembered less for its painful policy blunders than its painstakingly directed set-piece iconography. The Bush aesthetic—in which the bullhorn atop 9/11 rubble and the aircraft-carrier landing feature prominently—peaked on Nov. 3, 2004, the afternoon of the post-re-election victory speech. Delivered under the vaulted atrium of the massive neoclassical Ronald Reagan Building, the address proved to be a brilliant piece of avant-garde theater capped by a darkly lit, low-angle view of the President looming over the podium as a huge glowing “W.” was projected on the soaring wall behind him. The serifs looked carved in stone; the accompanying period, a punctuating crown. Suddenly his imperial affectations looked less of Caesar’s Rome than Mussolini’s.

Chris Hedges’ American Fascists could be described as an audacious attempt to diagnose all the national pathologies embodied in that imposing “W.”

Indeed, though Mr. Bush and the election that gave him a second term appear only intermittingly in its pages, Mr. Hedges’ focused dissection of Christian fundamentalism skillfully turns the basic and comfortable assumption of Kerry-style liberalism inside out. He argues that the evangelicals on society’s margins are not simply duped into voting against their own interests by Rovian wedge morality; quite the opposite, they represent a mass of nihilism and fatalism that even G.O.P. strategists will have trouble controlling. Voters who believe in impending end times, after all, possess a calculus of self-interest both dramatically different and dramatically stronger than those of economists and political scientists. The faith of the Christian right may not be reasonable, but neither can it be reasoned away.

Enter the F-word. A former New York Times Middle East bureau chief and the author of the widely acclaimed War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002), Chris Hedges may be the most credible figure yet to detect real-life fascism in the Red America of megachurches, gay-marriage bans and Left Behind books. He certainly pulls no punches and makes no apologies for the bluntness of his title. “Dominionism … seeks to politicize faith,” he writes in the opening chapter. “It has, like all fascist movements, a belief in magic along with leadership adoration and a strident call for moral and physical supremacy of a master race, in this case American Christians.” He warns that “Dominionists wait only for a fiscal, social or political crisis, a moment of upheaval in the form of an economic meltdown or another terrorist strike on American soil, to … establish an American theocracy, a Christian fascism.”

Mr. Hedges spends the bulk of American Fascists as something of an embedded reporter, bouncing around this shadow Christian nation that seeks fundamentalist “dominion” over the United States and the world. But the book operates on a rather higher register than exposé. The author, it turns out, is the son of a Presbyterian preacher, and he himself attended seminary at the Harvard Divinity School; his political repudiation of the Christian right is rooted in theological revulsion.

For Mr. Hedges, the unpardonable sin of America’s “dominionist” leaders is that they substitute biblical “literalism,” which is necessarily selective and misleading, for traditional Abrahamic theology, which is essentially interpretive. Self-satisfied liberals tend, at this point, to reach a familiar conclusion: The extremists distort the very religion they claim to speak for and so are not “real” Christians or Muslims or Jews worth dealing with as such. Mr. Hedges seems to consider such passive dismissal—at the limit, such condescension—tantamount to accommodationist suicide in the name of an illusory pluralism. “Mainstream Christians,” writes the former seminarian, “can also cherry-pick the Bible to create a Jesus and God who are always loving and compassionate. Such Christians often fail to acknowledge that there are hateful passages in the Bible that give sacred authority to the rage, self-aggrandizement and intolerance of the Christian Right …. [T]he steady refusal by churches to challenge the canonical authority of these passages means these churches share some of the blame.”

The radical nature of this position takes some time to sink in. But radical it is: Mr. Hedges gives the lie to the idea that religious moderates can fight back by simply providing an inclusive alternative to the literalists. He calls on them to denounce the very legitimacy of texts like Leviticus and especially the Book of Revelation, which anticipates a “dark conclusion to life … whether it is tucked into the back pew rack of a liberal Unitarian church in Boston or a megachurch in Florida.” Does Mr. Hedges believe that Revelation should be deleted from the New Testament altogether? If so, he has enough sense not to say so outright. Still, the criticism of “mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches, declining in numbers and influence,” anchors a book whose most pointed critiques are reserved not for the power-hungry preachers and Congressmen so much as the guardians—political, cultural and intellectual, as well as religious—of a civil society complicit in its own ongoing decimation.

“Most liberals,” Mr. Hedges warns, “will stand complacently to be sheared like sheep, attempting to open dialogues and reaching out to those who spit venom in their faces.” They succumb to “the pleasant fiction that [Christian] radicals are fundamentally decent, that they do not mean what they say …. Such passivity only accelerates the probability of evil.”

The failure of American liberalism to provide a negative check on “evil” extremism, Mr. Hedges suggests, stems from a refusal to champion any fixed moral position beyond a vague affirmation of value-neutral tolerance. Indeed, the foot soldiers of the Christian right embrace unreason, in some sense, as a rational response to “the disconnectedness and loss of direction that comes with living in vast, soulless landscapes filled with strip malls and highways, where centers of existence and meaning have been obliterated.”

Much of Mr. Hedges’ daring is in the staccato extrapolations of his arguments. “The televangelists Benny Hinn and Pat Robertson rule their fiefdoms as despotic potentates,” he notes in a chapter titled “The Cult of Masculinity.” “These tiny kingdoms, awash in the leadership cult, mirror on a smaller scale the America they seek to create. There is no questioning. Followers surrender their personal and political power, in much the same way women and children surrender their power … at home. The divinely anointed male leader rules a flock of obedient and submissive sheep. All must hand over their freedom. All must cease to think independently.”

American Fascists is at its most daring when it enunciates in plain language the perversities that are obvious to those of us not beholden to political exigencies. How refreshing it would be, for instance, to see a prominent Democrat point out, as Mr. Hedges does, that “images of Jesus … with thick muscles, clutching a sword” are obviously psychosexual at base, obviously inextricable from the ambiguity of sexist and homophobic Christian men willfully submitting, body and soul, to the tough love of a male deity and the authority of male church leaders.

Yet the verve of Mr. Hedges’ analysis is also what makes it problematic. Is the televangelist “cult of masculinity” really as dangerous as those that surrounded Mussolini and Hitler? Not all fascisms are created equal. In many ways, Mr. Hedges fights apocalypticism with apocalypticism; tellingly, American Fascists is sprinkled throughout with quotations from mid-century thinkers such as Karl Popper, Paul Tillich and Hannah Arendt—all European émigrés who just barely escaped the Nazis. In a very real sense, their survivors’ guilt—their retrospective dismay at how quickly anomie and demagoguery collaborated to tear their society apart—becomes Mr. Hedges’ warning: No one saw it coming there, so we must be intensely vigilant here. But is the decadent malaise of the Bush Republic really any match for Weimar’s?

IN A CHAPTER CALLED “PERSECUTION,” Mr. Hedges describes at length an October 2005 “Love Won Out” conference at the Tremont Temple Church in downtown Boston. Sponsored by James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Love Won Out is an organization that peddles “conversion therapy” and the like to gay teenagers and their Christ-fearing parents. As Mr. Hedges tells it, these events are something like cult meetings, where wacky quasi-Freudian theories (little boys who “seek to please mother” and “leave for school with their hair in place” should raise red flags) are introduced by vaguely credentialed speakers while “volunteers walk up and down the aisles looking for potential infiltrators holding a tape recorder or a camera.” It all sounds quite alarming—and certainly no adolescent should be anywhere near the sex ed of James Dobson—but I can’t really share in Mr. Hedges’ fear that such ugliness portends the possible “punishment, detention and quarantining of gays and lesbians.”

As it happens, I was also at that conference in Boston. I talked my way in, ignoring what Mr. Hedges calls Love Won Out’s ban on “secular media.” I even had a tape recorder and camera in plain sight of the ushers. Like Mr. Hedges, I listened as “former lesbian” Melissa Fryrear delivered a PowerPoint presentation on how she finally became a real woman (though was still looking for the right man); and like Mr. Hedges, I interviewed Mike Haley, the “ex-gay” director of gender issues for Focus on the Family. The experience was plenty bizarre, but I finally felt less panic than pity. Of course all fascists begin as fools, but the idea of a merry band of self-identified former homosexuals traveling around the country trying to “cure” young adults seems a threat too ludicrous to fret about.

I had wandered into the church after attending another event down the street: On Boston Common that day was a raucous war protest attended by thousands, including a contingent that broke off to picket Love Won Out. At the time, the 2004 election was still raw; that glowing fascist “W.” had only barely begun to flicker and fade. What a difference a year makes. For the time being, the Common has clearly won out: Nancy Pelosi is Speaker of the House and Mr. Bush is the lamest of ducks.

A principled journalist who’s covered his share of war and horror, Chris Hedges is right and noble in reminding us never to underestimate the enemy. But there’s a corollary to that: It’s best not to overestimate the world-historical desperation—or significance—of one’s own era. These aren’t the end times, and sooner or later that’s something all of us have to deal with.

Jonathan Liu is a senior at Harvard concentrating in social studies.

Fearsome Extremists  Massing in Their Pews