The cautionary tale of Chris Hedges’ “American Fascists.”
By Stephanie Hunt
“Ur-Fascism (Eternal Fascism) can come back under the most innocent of disguises,” writes Umberto Eco in a 1995 New York Review of Books essay. “Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its instances—every day, in every part of the world.” So begins “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America,” Chris Hedges’ extended exercise in finger-pointing. Hedges rips the innocuous family-values masks right off the dominionists of the Robertson-Falwell-Dobson ilk who, he claims, are conniving to turn America into a Christian empire. As if we couldn’t see through their disguises already.
The book opens with an excerpt from Eco’s essay (including the above quote), outlining 14 features that are typical of Ur-Fascism, features that don’t necessarily coalesce into a coherent system, and may even be contradictory. Even so, claims Eco, “it is enough that one of them be present for fascism to coagulate around it.” Hedges loosely coagulates his book around these hallmarks of fascism, which include the cult of tradition, rejection of modernity, appeal to a frustrated middle class, fear of diversity, obsession with a plot, and so on, illustrating how different movements within the Religious Right quite obviously fit the bill. They’re out not just to save souls, we learn, but to co-opt the Constitution, quarantine gays, lesbians and abortionists, and turn Washington into a gleaming holy city on the hill. We’re a nation on the brink, and this land will be their land, Hedges argues, should another major terrorist attack weaken our democratic reserve.
This is worthy stuff, and Hedges, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and former New York Times correspondent who spent some 20 years reporting from battle zones and war-ridden countries (50 in all), gives readers a clear picture of just how slick, calculated, and un-Christian the Radical Right really is. Imagine Michael Moore in book form, only scholarly and better groomed (judging by the book jacket). Hedges is at his best when writing about the tragic-comic characters he encounters at various scary-as-shit places: a “Love Won Out” conference, where Focus on the Family-ites “cure” gays of their abhorrent ways; on the floor of the very blessed National Religious Broadcasters Convention; at an “Evangelism Explosion” seminar, where conversion tricks-of-the-trade are taught; and behind the scenes at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which would make great David Sedaris material. This is the muscular core of the book, enlivened by smart prose and journalistic expertise.
Hedges is less successful, however, at fitting these examples into an overall framework that justifies the ballsy title. Fascism is a big-ass word, and this reader, at least, hoped for more clarity at the outset as to the author’s definition of a term Umberto Eco admits is “fuzzy.” While Hedges offers the Eco prologue, and references others’ definitions of fascism, he was a bit too fuzzy for me.
Part of the problem may be that Hedges embeds his underlying argument in a rather unwieldy first chapter titled “Faith,” which begins with an occasionally self-righteous testimony of his own spiritual development and beliefs (“We are saved, in the end, by faith—faith that life is not meaningless and random, that there is purpose to human existence, and that in the midst of this morally-neutral universe the tiny, seemingly insignificant acts of compassion and blind human kindness, especially to those labeled our enemies and strangers, sustain the divine spark, which is love.”). This is juxtaposed with the decidedly non-neutral position of the dominionists. And what exactly counts as the Christian Right? While admitting that it’s “difficult to write in broad sweeps about this mass movement and detail these conflicts, since there are innumerable differences not only among groups but among believers,” Hedges does it anyway, and this only a few pages after stating that the radical right represents at best seven percent of the population. Mass movement?
Hedges gives a thorough and appropriately harsh critique of the “false prophets—the Pat Robertsons, the Jerry Falwells and the James Dobsons—clutching cross and the Bible, (who) 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… 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.” But as the quote demonstrates, Hedges too can get bogged down in sermonizing. He was probably wise to opt for newsprint over pulpit, for time and again he starts to sound as dogmatic as those Bible-clutching Christo-jihadists he is trying to save us from.
While Hedges makes salient points about the brewing despair among middle and lower class Americans—folks stuck in dead-end, low-wage jobs and steeped in a vapid Anna Nicole culture who are primed for the salvation-based authoritarianism of the Christian Right—he proposes no solutions. His argument is impassioned and sound, but the reader, once inspired, is offered no suggestions, no plan, for halting this plunge toward tyranny. “Hope has two beautiful daughters, Hedges quotes Augustine. “Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” Unfortunately, only one daughter shows up in these pages. The other must have been off making lanyards at Jesus Camp.
Hedges warns that the real threat to American civil liberty and religious freedom is not the scheming dominionists, but rather the passive middle-of-the-road people of faith who aren’t reading this book. The good God or Buddha or Allah-fearing folks who remain tolerant of intolerance. “Extremists never begin as extremists…no society is immune from this morale catastrophe,” he cautions. But extremists also have a tendency to self-implode, especially in a modern-day, mature democracy (unlike Weimar Germany). Ann Coulter and Ted Haggard are, thank god, two of the most recent examples.
I live in the deep, pious South, not terribly far from Bob Jones University. My senator, the bigoted, embarrassing, Christian Right puppet Jim DeMint, gets a mention from Hedges for advocating that single mothers aren’t fit to teach school. The news recently reported that the Christian Exodus movement is actively recruiting conservative Christians to move to South Carolina, to make it the land of milk and honey and political manna for fundamentalists, as if it weren’t already. I’m well aware that the Christian Right is a mighty force to reckon with, and that their stealth hijacking of symbols, like the fish decked out in stars and stripes that I saw on the back of an SUV the other day, is cause for concern. So indeed, I praise the Lord for Hedges’ valiant expose of their seedy staunchness and agree that reasoned people of faith must be vigilant and vocal. But I don’t necessarily buy the doomsday scenario. Barack Obama is on the move, and the mid-term elections proved that there are still Americans who think for themselves, guided by something greater than fear and hate masquerading as Christianity.
Jon Meacham’s American Gospel is good companion reading to “American Fascists.” While Hedges digs his foxhole, ready to fight the zealots in the war on America, Meacham affirms that, “The great good news about America—the American gospel, if you will—is that religion shapes the life of the nation without strangling it. Belief in God is central to the country’s experience, yet for the broad center, faith is a matter of choice, not coercion, and the legacy of the Founding is that the sensible center holds.”
I’m hoping so. Hedges’ cautionary tale, however, suggests that sensibility alone won’t preserve this legacy. He implores us to “learn to speak about (the Christian Right) 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.” Show up, speak out, he urges. Sure, will do, but I, for one, want a bit more strategic oomph behind my battle lines. If the Christian Right is as entrenched and evil as he contends, is it really enough to conclude that it is “only by placing our faith in tiny, unheroic acts of compassion and kindness, that we survive as a community and as individual human beings”?
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Contributing editor Stephanie Hunt's last piece for SoMA was Saint Maybe.
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