The Christian right is a "deeply anti-democratic movement" that gains force by exploiting Americans' fears, argues Chris Hedges. Salon talks with the former New York Times reporter about his fearless new book, "American Fascists."
Longtime war correspondent Chris Hedges, the former New York Times bureau chief in the Middle East and the Balkans, knows a lot about the savagery that people are capable of, especially when they’re besotted with dreams of religious or national redemption. In his acclaimed 2002 book, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” he wrote: “I have been in ambushes on desolate stretches of Central American roads, shot at in the marshes of Southern Iraq, imprisoned in the Sudan, beaten by Saudi military police, deported from Libya and Iran, captured and held for a week by Iraqi Republican Guard during the Shiite rebellion following the Gulf War, strafed by Russian Mig-21s in Bosnia, fired upon by Serb snipers, and shelled for days in Sarajevo with deafening rounds of heavy artillery that threw out thousands of deadly bits of iron fragments.” Hedges was part of the New York Times team of reporters that won a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting about global terrorism.
Given such intimacy with horror, one might expect him to be aloof from the seemingly less urgent cultural disputes that dominate domestic American politics. Yet in the rise of America’s religious right, Hedges senses something akin to the brutal movements he’s spent his life chronicling. The title of his new book speaks for itself: “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” Scores of volumes about the religious right have recently been published (one of them, “Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism,” by me), but Hedges’ book is perhaps the most furious and foreboding, all the more so because he knows what fascism looks like.
Part of his outrage is theological. The son of a Presbyterian minister and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Hedges once planned to join the clergy himself. He speaks of the preachers he encountered while researching “American Fascists” as heretics, and he’s appalled at their desecration of a faith he still cherishes, even if he no longer totally embraces it. Writing of Ohio megachurch pastor Rod Parsley and his close associate, GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell, he says, “[T]he heart of the Christian religion, all that is good and compassionate within it, has been tossed aside, ruthlessly gouged out and thrown into a heap with all the other inner organs. Only the shell, the form, remains. Christianity is of no use to Parsley, Blackwell and the others. In its name they kill it.”
I first met Hedges at last spring’s War on Christians conference in Washington, D.C., where Parsley, a wildly charismatic Pentecostal who loves the language of holy war, electrified the crowd. (“I came to incite a riot!” he shouted. “Man your battle stations! Ready your weapons! Lock and load!”) It was shortly before the publication of my book, and as Hedges and I spoke, we realized we had similar takes on our subject. Both of us relied on Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarian movements in their early stages, and on some of the concepts that historian Robert O. Paxton elucidated in his book “The Anatomy of Fascism.” But where I, anxious not to be seen as hysterical, tried to treat these ideas gingerly, Hedges is unabashed and unsparing. His rage and contempt for the movement’s leaders, though, is matched by sympathy for its followers, because he understands the despair, the desperate longing for community and even the idealism that often drives them.
Hedges spoke to me on the phone from his home in New Jersey.
Let’s start with the title. A lot of liberals who write about the right see echoes of fascism in its rhetoric and organizing, but we tiptoe around it, because we don’t want people to think that we’re comparing James Dobson to Hitler or America to Weimar Germany. You, though, decided to be very bold in your comparisons to fascism.
You’re right, “fascism” or “fascist” is a terribly loaded word, and it evokes a historical period, primarily that of the Nazis, and to a lesser extent Mussolini. But fascism as an ideology has generic qualities. People like Robert O. Paxton in “The Anatomy of Fascism” have tried to quantify them. Umberto Eco did it in “Five Moral Pieces,” and I actually begin the book with an excerpt from Eco: “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt.” I think there are enough generic qualities that the group within the religious right, known as Christian Reconstructionists or dominionists, warrants the word. Does this mean that this is Nazi Germany? No. Does this mean that this is Mussolini’s Italy? No. Does this mean that this is a deeply anti-democratic movement that would like to impose a totalitarian system? Yes.
You know, I come out of the church. I not only grew up in the church but graduated from seminary, and I look at this as a mass movement. I give it very little religious legitimacy, especially the extreme wing of it.
You say they would like to impose a totalitarian system. How much of a conscious goal do you think that is at the upper levels of organizing, with, say, somebody like Rod Parsley?
I think they’re completely conscious of it. The level of manipulation is quite sophisticated. These people understand the medium of television, they understand the despair and brokenness of the people they appeal to, and how to manipulate them both for personal and financial gain. I look at these figures, and I would certainly throw James Dobson in there, or Pat Robertson, as really dark figures.
I think the vast majority of followers have no idea. There’s an earnestness to many of the believers. I had the same experience you did — I went in there prepared to really dislike these people and most of them just broke my heart. They’re well meaning. Unfortunately, they’re being manipulated and herded into a movement that’s extremely dangerous. If these extreme elements actually manage to achieve power, they will horrify [their followers] in many ways. But that’s true with all revolutionary movements.
The core of this movement is tiny, but you only need a tiny, disciplined, well-funded and well-organized group, and then you count on the sympathy of 80 million to 100 million evangelicals. And that’s enough. Especially if you don’t have countervailing forces, which we don’t.
If there’s a historical period that’s analogous to the situation we have now, it would come close to being the 1930s in the United States. Obviously we’re not in a depression, but the situation for the working class is very bleak, and the middle class is under assault. There has been a kind of Weimarization of the American working class, and there’s a terrible instability in the middle class. And if we enter a period of political and social instability, this gives this movement the opportunity it’s been waiting for. But it needs a crisis. All of these movements need a crisis to come to power, and we’re not in a period of crisis.
How likely do you think a crisis is?
Very likely. The economy is not in healthy shape. I covered al-Qaida for a year for the New York Times. Every intelligence official I ever interviewed never talked about if, they only talked about when. They spoke about another catastrophic attack as an inevitability. The possibility of entering a period of instability is great, and then these movements become very frightening.
The difference between the 1930s and now is that we had powerful progressive forces through the labor unions, through an independent and vigorous press. I forget the figure but something like 80 percent of the media is controlled by seven corporations, something horrible like that. Television is just bankrupt. I worry that we don’t have the organized forces within American society to protect our democracy in the way that we did in the 1930s.
Since the midterm election, many have suggested that the Christian right has peaked, and the movement has in fact suffered quite a few severe blows since both of our books came out.
It’s suffered severe blows in the past too. It depends on how you view the engine of the movement. For me, the engine of the movement is deep economic and personal despair. A terrible distortion and deformation of American society, where tens of millions of people in this country feel completely disenfranchised, where their physical communities have been obliterated, whether that’s in the Rust Belt in Ohio or these monstrous exurbs like Orange County, where there is no community. There are no community rituals, no community centers, often there are no sidewalks. People live in empty soulless houses and drive big empty cars on freeways to Los Angeles and sit in vast offices and then come home again. You can’t deform your society to that extent, and you can’t shunt people aside and rip away any kind of safety net, any kind of program that gives them hope, and not expect political consequences.
Democracies function because the vast majority live relatively stable lives with a degree of hope, and, if not economic prosperity, at least enough of an income to free them from severe want or instability. Whatever the Democrats say now about the war, they’re not addressing the fundamental issues that have given rise to this movement.
But isn’t there a change in the Democratic Party, now that it’s talking about class issues and economic issues more so than in the past?
Yes, but how far are they willing to go? The corporations that fund the Republican Party fund them. I don’t hear anybody talking about repealing the bankruptcy bill, just like I don’t hear them talking about torture. The Democrats recognize the problem, but I don’t see anyone offering any kind of solutions that will begin to re-enfranchise people into American society. The fact that they can’t get even get healthcare through is pretty depressing.
The argument you’re now making sounds in some ways like Tom Frank’s, which is basically that support for the religious right represents a kind of misdirected class warfare. But your book struck me differently — it seemed to be much more about what this movement offers people psychologically.
Yeah, the economic is part of it, but you have large sections of the middle class that are bulwarks within this movement, so obviously the economic part isn’t enough. The reason the catastrophic loss of manufacturing jobs is important is not so much the economic deprivation but the social consequences of that deprivation. The breakdown of community is really at the core here. When people lose job stability, when they work for $16 an hour and don’t have health insurance, and nobody funds their public schools and nobody fixes their infrastructure, that has direct consequences into how the life of their community is led.
I know firsthand because my family comes from a working-class town in Maine that has suffered exactly this kind of deterioration. You pick up the local paper and the weekly police blotter is just DWIs and domestic violence. We’ve shattered these lives, and it isn’t always economic. That’s where I guess I would differ with Frank. It’s really the destruction of the possibility of community, and of course economic deprivation goes a long way to doing that. But corporate America has done a pretty good job of destroying community too, which is why the largest growth areas are the exurbs, where people have a higher standard of living, but live fairly bleak and empty lives.
In the beginning of the book, you write briefly about covering wars in Latin America, the Middle East and the Balkans. How did that shape the way you understand these social forces in America? What similarities do you see?
When I covered the war in the Balkans, there was always the canard that this was a war about ancient ethnic hatreds that was taken from Robert Kaplan’s “Balkan Ghosts.” That was not a war about ancient ethnic hatreds. It was a war that was fueled primarily by the economic collapse of Yugoslavia. Milosevic and Tudman, and to a lesser extent Izetbegovic, would not have been possible in a stable Yugoslavia.
When I first covered Hamas in 1988, it was a very marginal organization with very little power or reach. I watched Hamas grow. Although I came later to the Balkans, I had a good understanding of how Milosevic built his Serbian nationalist movement. These radical movements share a lot of ideological traits with the Christian right, including that cult of masculinity, that cult of power, rampant nationalism fused with religious chauvinism. I find a lot of parallels.
People have a very hard time believing the status quo of their existence, or the world around them, can ever change. There’s a kind of psychological inability to accept how fragile open societies are. When I was in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, at the start of the war, I would meet with incredibly well-educated, multilingual Kosovar Albanian friends in the cafes. I would tell them that in the countryside there were armed groups of the Kosovo Liberation Army, who I’d met, and they would insist that the Kosovo Liberation Army didn’t exist, that it was just a creation of the Serb police to justify repression.
You saw the same thing in the cafe society in Sarajevo on the eve of the war in Bosnia. Radovan Karadzic or even Milosevic were buffoonish figures to most Yugoslavs, and were therefore, especially among the educated elite, never taken seriously. There was a kind of blindness caused by their intellectual snobbery, their inability to understand what was happening. I think we have the same experience here. Those of us in New York, Boston, San Francisco or some of these urban pockets don’t understand how radically changed our country is, don’t understand the appeal of these buffoonish figures to tens of millions of Americans.
But don’t you feel like the tipping point is still quite a way off? Speaking personally, when I’ve read about totalitarian movements, I’ve always imagined that I’d know enough to pack up and go. That would seem to be a very premature thing to do here.
Well, most people didn’t pack up and go. The people who packed up and left were the exception, and most people thought they were crazy. My friends in Pristina had no idea what was going on in Kosovo until they were literally herded down to the train station and pushed into boxcars and shipped like cattle to Macedonia. And that’s not because they weren’t intelligent or perceptive. It was because, like all of us, they couldn’t comprehend how fragile the world was around them, and how radically and quickly it could change. I think that’s a human phenomenon.
Hitler was in power in 1933, but it took him until the late ’30s to begin to consolidate his program. He never spoke about the Jews because he realized that raw anti-Semitism didn’t play out with the German public. All he did was talk about family values and restoring the moral core of Germany. The Russian revolution took a decade to consolidate. It takes time to acculturate a society to a radical agenda, but that acculturation has clearly begun here, and I don’t see people standing up and trying to stop them. The Democratic policy of trying to reach out to a movement that attacks whole segments of the society as worthy only of conversion or eradication is frightening.
Doesn’t it make sense for the Democrats to reach out to the huge number of evangelicals who aren’t necessarily part of the religious right, but who may be sympathetic to some of its rhetoric? Couldn’t those people be up for grabs?
I don’t think they are up for grabs because they have been ushered into a non-reality-based belief system. This isn’t a matter of, “This is one viewpoint, here’s another.” This is a world of magic and signs and miracles and wonders, and [on the other side] is the world you hate, the liberal society that has shunted you aside and thrust you into despair. The rage that is directed at those who go after the movement is the rage of those who fear deeply being pushed back into this despair, from which many of the people I interviewed feel they barely escaped. A lot of people talked about suicide attempts or thoughts of suicide — these people really reached horrific levels of desperation. And now they believe that Jesus has a plan for them and intervenes in their life every day to protect them, and they can’t give that up.
So in a way, the movement really has helped them.
Well, in same way unemployed workers in Weimar Germany were helped by becoming brownshirts, yes. It gave them a sense of purpose. Look, you could always tell in a refugee camp in Gaza when one of these kids joined Hamas, because suddenly they were clean, their djelleba was white, they walked with a sense of purpose. It was a very similar kind of conversion experience. If you go back and read [Arthur] Koestler and other writers on the Communist Party, you find the same thing.
This is a question that I get all the time, and you’ve probably heard it too: Do you think Bush is a believer, or do you think he and his administration are just cynically manipulating their foot soldiers?
I think he’s a believer, to the extent that this belief system empowers his own arrogant sense of privilege and intellectual shallowness. When you know right and wrong, when you’ve been mandated by God to lead, you don’t have to ask hard questions, you don’t have to listen to anyone else. I think that plays into the Bush character pretty well.
I think there are probably other aspects or tenets of this belief system that he finds distasteful and doesn’t like. But in a real sense he fits the profile: a washout, not a very good family life — apparently his mother was a horror show — a drunk, a drug addict, coasted because of his daddy, reaches middle age, hasn’t done anything with his life, finds Jesus. That fits a lot of people in the movement.
What do you think of the argument, exemplified by David Kuo’s book, “Tempting Faith,” that this administration has duped the Christian right and hasn’t really given them much in exchange for their support?
It’s given them a lot of money. It’s given them a few hundred million dollars. I wouldn’t call that nothing.
Kuo’s argument is that Bush promised $8 billion for the faith-based initiative but that there was actually very little new funding. What’s missing in what he says, I think, is that while there was little new money, there was a massive effort to shift money that was already appropriated from secular social services to evangelical groups. But if you believe, as Kuo apparently did, that compassionate conservatism really meant helping the poor, then Bush hasn’t really done anything to further it.
Well, [Bush] never wanted to help the poor. That was just to sell us on a program — he didn’t have any intention of helping the poor.
Did you start out to research this book with the intellectual framework that comes from Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper in mind?
Yes. I studied a lot of Christian ethics, a lot of Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, that’s how I was formed, so when I covered conflicts as a foreign correspondent, the peculiarity of my education made me look at those conflicts a little differently. I was always very wary of utopian movements because I had it pounded into me that utopianism is a dangerous phenomenon, of the left or the right. I was very critical of liberation theology because it essentially endorsed violence to create a Christian society. The way that I articulated that was really through writers like Popper and Arendt. I needed Karl Popper and Hannah Arendt to get a lot of the despotic movements that I was covering, to give myself a vocabulary by which to explain these movements to myself. Even when I teach journalism classes I tend to make them read “The Origins of Totalitarianism” because I think it’s such an important book. I’ve read the book seven or eight times.
When did you see its relevance to the Christian right?
Because of my close coverage, or close connection with movements like Hamas or Milosevic, or even some of the despotic movements in Latin America like Eframn Rmos Montt in Guatemala, I’d already been conditioned to smell these people out. And then of course coming out the church and coming out of seminary, the combination was such that as soon as I came back from overseas, I had a sense of who these people were. There was a strange kind of confluence from my experience as a reporter and my academic background that came together and gave me a kind of sensitivity to the Christian right that maybe other people didn’t have immediately. I don’t know how much it’s apparent, but it’s an angry book.
That’s very apparent.
Good. My father remains the most important influence on my life, and he was a Presbyterian minister, a devout Christian. I quote H. Richard Niebuhr saying, “Religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.” I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly pious but I certainly would describe myself as religious. And when I see how these people are manipulating the Christian religion for personal empowerment and wealth and for the destruction of the very values that I think are embodied in the teachings of Jesus Christ, I’m angry.