Twenty-five years ago, when Pat Robertson and other radio and televangelists first spoke of the United States becoming a Christian nation that would build a global Christian empire, it was hard to take such hyperbolic rhetoric seriously. Today, such language no longer sounds like hyperbole but poses, instead, a very real threat to our freedom and our way of life. In American Fascists, Chris Hedges, veteran journalist and author of the National Book Award finalist War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, challenges the Christian Right’s religious legitimacy and argues that at its core it is a mass movement fueled by unbridled nationalism and a hatred for the open society.
Hedges, who grew up in rural parishes in upstate New York where his father was a Presbyterian pastor, attacks the movement as someone steeped in the Bible and Christian tradition. He points to the hundreds of senators and members of Congress who have earned between 80 and 100 percent approval ratings from the three most influential Christian Right advocacy groups as one of many signs that the movement is burrowing deep inside the American government to subvert it.
The movement’s call to dismantle the wall between church and state and the intolerance it preaches against all who do not conform to its warped vision of a Christian America are pumped into tens of millions of American homes through Christian television and radio stations, as well as reinforced through the curriculum in Christian schools. The movement’s yearning for apocalyptic violence and its assault on dispassionate, intellectual inquiry are laying the foundation for a new, frightening America.
American Fascists, which includes interviews and coverage of events such as pro-life rallies and weeklong classes on conversion techniques, examines the movement’s origins, its driving motivations and its dark ideological underpinnings. Hedges argues that the movement currently resembles the young fascist movements in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, movements that often masked the full extent of their drive for totalitarianism and were willing to make concessions until they achieved unrivaled power.
The Christian Right, like these early fascist movements, does not openly call for dictatorship, nor does it use physical violence to suppress opposition. In short, the movement is not yet revolutionary. But the ideological architecture of a Christian fascism is being cemented in place. The movement has roused its followers to a fever pitch of despair and fury.
All it will take, Hedges writes, is one more national crisis on the order of September 11 for the Christian Right to make a concerted drive to destroy American democracy. The movement awaits a crisis. At that moment they will reveal themselves for what they truly are — the American heirs to fascism. Hedges issues a potent, impassioned warning. We face an imminent threat. His book reminds us of the dangers liberal, democratic societies face when they tolerate the intolerant.
I grew up in a small farming town in upstate New York where my life, and the life of my family, centered on the Presbyterian Church. I prayed and sang hymns every Sunday, went to Bible school, listened to my father preach the weekly sermon and attended seminary at Harvard Divinity School to be a preacher myself. America was a place where things could be better if we worked to make them better, and where our faith saved us from despair, self-righteousness and the dangerous belief that we knew the will of God or could carry it out. We were taught that those who claimed to speak for God, the self-appointed prophets who promised the Kingdom of God on earth, were dangerous. We had no ability to understand God’s will. We did the best we could. We trusted and had faith in the mystery, the unknown before us. We made decisions — even decisions that on the outside looked unobjectionably moral — well aware of the numerous motives, some good and some bad, that went into every human act. In the end, we all stood in need of forgiveness. We were all tainted by sin. None were pure. The Bible was not the literal word of God. It was not a self-help manual that could predict the future. It did not tell us how to vote or allow us to divide the world into us and them, the righteous and the damned, the infidels and the blessed. It was a book written by a series of ancient writers, certainly fallible and at times at odds with each other, who asked the right questions and struggled with the mystery and transcendence of human existence. We took the Bible seriously and therefore could not take it literally.
There was no alcohol in the manse where I grew up. Indeed, my father railed against the Glass Bar, the one bar in town, and the drinking in the VFW Hall. We did not work on Sunday. I never heard my father swear. But coupled with this piety was a belief that as Christians we were called to fight for justice. My father took an early stand in the town in support of the civil-rights movement, a position that was highly unpopular in rural, white enclaves where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most hated men in America. A veteran of World War II, he opposed the Vietnam War, telling me when I was about 12 that if the war was still being waged when I was 18, he would go to prison with me. To this day I carry in my head the rather gloomy image of sitting in a jail cell with my dad. Finally, because his youngest brother was gay, he understood the pain and isolation of being a gay man in America. He worked later in life in the gay-rights movement, calling for the ordination and marriage of gays. When he found that my college, Colgate University, had no gay and lesbian organization, he brought gay speakers to the campus. The meetings led gays and lesbians to confide in him that they felt uncomfortable coming out of the closet to start an open organization, a problem my father swiftly solved by taking me out to lunch and informing me that although I was not gay, I had to form the organization. When I went into the dining hall for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the checker behind the desk would take my card, mark off the appropriate box, and hand it back, muttering, “Faggot.” This willingness to take a moral stand, to accept risk and ridicule, was, he showed me, the cost of the moral life.
The four Gospels, we understood, were filled with factual contradictions, two Gospels saying Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, while Luke asserted that John was already in prison. Mark and John give little importance to the birth of Jesus, while Matthew and Luke give differing accounts. There are three separate and different versions of the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20, Exodus 34, and Deuteronomy 5). As for the question of God’s true nature, there are many substantive contradictions. Is God a loving or a vengeful God? In some sections of the Bible, vicious acts of vengeance, including the genocidal extermination of opposing tribes and nations, appear to be blessed by God. God turns on the Egyptians and transforms the Nile into blood so the Egyptians will suffer from thirst — and then sends swarms of locusts and flies to torture them, along with hail, fire and thunder from the heavens to destroy all plants and trees. To liberate the children of Israel, God orders the firstborn in every Egyptian household killed so all will know “that the Lord makes a distinction between the Egyptians and Israel” (Exodus 11:7). The killing does not cease until “there was not a house where one was not dead” (Exodus 12:30). Amid the carnage God orders Moses to loot all the clothing, jewelry, gold and silver from the Egyptian homes (Exodus 12:35-36). God looks at the devastation and says, “I have made sport of the Egyptians” (Exodus 10:2). While the Exodus story fueled the hopes and dreams of oppressed Jews, and later African Americans in the bondage of slavery, it also has been used to foster religious chauvinism.
A literal reading of the Bible means reinstitution of slavery coupled with the understanding that the slavemaster has the right to beat his slave without mercy since “the slave is his money” (Exodus 21:21). Children who strike or curse a parent are to be executed (Exodus 21:15, 17). Those who pay homage to another god “shall be utterly destroyed” (Exodus 22:20). Menstruating women are to be considered unclean, and all they touch while menstruating becomes unclean (Leviticus 15:19-32). The blind, the lame, those with mutilated faces, those who are hunchbacks or dwarfs and those with itching diseases or scabs or crushed testicles cannot become priests (Leviticus 21:17-21). Blasphemers shall be executed (Leviticus 24:16). And “if the spirit of jealousy” comes upon a man, the high priest can order the jealous man’s wife to drink the “water of bitterness.” If she dies, it is proof of her guilt; if she survives, of her innocence (Numbers 5:11-31). Women, throughout the Bible, are subservient to men, often without legal rights, and men are free to sell their daughters into sexual bondage (Exodus 21:7-11).
Hatred of Jews and other non-Christians pervades the Gospel of John (3:18-20). Jews, he wrote, are children of the devil, the father of lies (John 8:39-44). Jesus calls on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for their persecutors (Matthew 5:44), a radical concept in the days of the Roman Empire. He says we must never demean or insult our enemies. But then we read of Jesus calling his enemies “a brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34).
The Book of Revelation, a crucial text for the radical Christian Right, appears to show Christ returning to earth at the head of an avenging army. It is one of the few places in the Bible where Christ is associated with violence. This bizarre book, omitted from some of the early canons and relegated to the back of the Bible by Martin Luther, may have been a way, as scholars contend, for the early Christians to cope with Roman persecution and their dreams of final triumph and glory. The book, however, paints a picture of a bloody battle between the forces of good and evil, Christ and the Antichrist, God and Satan, and the torment and utter destruction of all who do not follow the faith. In this vision, only the faithful will be allowed to enter the gates of the New Jerusalem. All others will disappear, cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14-15). The Warrior’s defeat of the armies of the nations, a vast apocalyptic vision of war, ends with birds of prey invited to “gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great” (Revelation 19:17-18). It is a story of God’s ruthless, terrifying and violent power unleashed on nonbelievers:
The fourth angel poured his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch men with fire; men were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God, who had power over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory. The fifth angel poured his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was in darkness; men gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores, and did not repent of their deeds. (Revelation 16:8-11)
There is enough hatred, bigotry and lust for violence in the pages of the Bible to satisfy anyone bent on justifying cruelty and violence. Religion, as H. Richard Niebuhr said, is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.3 And the Bible has long been used in the wrong hands — such as antebellum slave owners in the American South who quoted from it to defend slavery — not to Christianize the culture, as those wielding it often claim, but to acculturate the Christian faith.
Many of the suppositions of the biblical writers, who understood little about the working of the cosmos or the human body, are so fanciful, and the accounts so wild, that even biblical literalists reject them. God is not, as many writers of the Bible believed, peering down at us through little peepholes in the sky called stars. These evangelicals and fundamentalists are, as the Reverend William Sloane Coffin wrote, not biblical literalists, as they claim, but “selective literalists,” choosing the bits and pieces of the Bible that conform to their ideology and ignoring, distorting or inventing the rest. And the selective literalists cannot have it both ways. Either the Bible is literally true and all of its edicts must be obeyed, or it must be read in another way.
Mainstream Christians 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. Church leaders must denounce the biblical passages that champion apocalyptic violence and hateful political creeds. They must do so in the light of other biblical passages that teach a compassion and tolerance, often exemplified in the life of Christ, which stands opposed to bigotry and violence. Until this happens, until the Christian churches wade into the debate, these biblical passages will be used by bigots and despots to give sacred authority to their calls to subjugate or eradicate the enemies of God. This literature in the biblical canon keeps alive the virus of hatred, whether dormant or active, and the possibility of apocalyptic terror in the name of God. And the steady refusal by churches to challenge the canonical authority of these passages means these churches share some of the blame. “Unless the churches, Protestant and Catholic alike, come together on this, they will continue to make it legitimate to believe in the end as a time when there will be no non-Christians or infidels,” theologian Richard Fenn wrote. “Silent complicity with apocalyptic rhetoric soon becomes collusion with plans for religiously inspired genocide.”
As long as scripture, blessed and accepted by the church, teaches that at the end of time there will be a Day of Wrath and Christians will control the shattered remnants of a world cleansed through violence and war, as long as it teaches that all nonbelievers will be tormented, destroyed and banished to hell, it will be hard to thwart the message of radical apocalyptic preachers or assuage the fears of the Islamic world that Christians are calling for its annihilation. Those who embrace this dark conclusion to life can find it endorsed in scripture, whether it is tucked into the back pew rack of a liberal Unitarian church in Boston or a megachurch in Florida. The mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches, declining in numbers and influence, cannot hope to combat the hysteria and excitement roused by these prophets of doom until they repudiate the apocalyptic writings in scripture.
The writers of Genesis, as the Reverend William Sloane Coffin has pointed out, who wrote about the creation of the world in seven days, knew nothing about the process of creation. They believed the earth was flat with water above and below it. They wrote that God created light on the first day and the sun on the fourth day. Genesis was not written to explain the process of creation, of which these writers knew nothing. It was written to help explain the purpose of creation. It was written to help us grasp a spiritual truth, not a scientific or historical fact. And this purpose, this spiritual truth, is something the writers did know about. These biblical writers, at their best, understood our divided natures. They knew our internal conflicts and battles; how we could love our brother and yet hate him; the oppressive power of parents, even the best of parents; the impulses that drive us to commit violations against others; the yearning to lead a life of meaning; our fear of mortality; our struggles to deal with our uncertainty, our loneliness, our greed, our lust, our ambition, our desires to be God, as well as our moments of nobility, compassion and courage. They knew these emotions and feelings were entangled. They understood our weaknesses and strengths. They understood how we are often not the people we want to be or know we should be, how hard it is for us to articulate all this, and how life and creation can be as glorious and beautiful as it can be mysterious, evil and cruel. This is why Genesis is worth reading, indeed why the Bible stands as one of the great ethical and moral documents of our age. The biblical writers have helped shape and define Western civilization. Not to know the Bible is, in some ways, to be illiterate, to neglect the very roots of philosophy, art, architecture, literature, poetry and music. It is to fall into a dangerous provincialism, as myopic and narrow as that embraced by those who say everything in the Bible is literally true and we do not need any other kind of intellectual or scientific inquiry. Doubt and belief are not, as biblical literalists claim, incompatible. Those who act without any doubt are frightening.
“There lives more faith in honest doubt,” the poet Alfred Tennyson noted, “believe me, than in half the creeds.”
This was my faith. It is a pretty good summary of my faith today. God is inscrutable, mysterious and unknowable. We do not understand what life is about, what it means, why we are here and what will happen to us after our brief sojourn on the planet ends. We are saved, in the end, by faith — faith that life is not meaningless and random, that there is a 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. We are not fully human if we live alone. These small acts of compassion — for they can never be organized and institutionalized as can hate — have a power that lives after us. Human kindness is deeply subversive to totalitarian creeds, which seek to thwart all compassion toward those deemed unworthy of moral consideration, those branded as internal or external enemies. These acts recognize and affirm the humanity of others, others who may be condemned as agents of Satan. Those who sacrifice for others, especially at great cost, who place compassion and tolerance above ideology and creeds, and who reject absolutes, especially moral absolutes, stand as constant witnesses in our lives to this love, even long after they are gone. In the gospels this is called resurrection.
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.
I have seen enough of the world over the past two decades — for although I graduated from seminary I was not ordained, and instead worked in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans as a foreign correspondent — to grasp that men and women of great moral probity and courage arise in all cultures, all nations and all religions to challenge the oppressor and fight for the oppressed. I also saw how the dominant religions of these nations were often twisted and distorted by totalitarian movements, turned into civic religions in which the goals of the movement or the state became the goals of the divine. The wars I covered were often fought in the name of one God or another. Armed groups, from Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the Serbian nationalists in the former Yugoslavia, were fueled by apocalyptic visions that sanctified terrorism or genocide. They mocked the faiths they purported to defend.
America and the Christian religions have no monopoly on goodness or saintliness. God has not chosen Americans as a people above others. The beliefs of Christians are as flawed and imperfect as all religious beliefs. But both the best of American democracy and the best of Christianity embody important values, values such as compassion, tolerance and belief in justice and equality. America is a nation where all have a voice in how we live and how we are governed. We have never fully adhered to these values — indeed, probably never will — but our health as a country is determined by our steadfastness in striving to attain them. And there are times when taking a moral stance, perhaps the highest form of patriotism, means facing down the community, even the nation. Our loyalty to our community and our nation, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “is therefore morally tolerable only if it includes values wider than those of the community.”
These values, democratic and Christian, are being dismantled, often with stealth, by a radical Christian movement, known as dominionism, which seeks to cloak itself in the mantle of the Christian faith and American patriotism. Dominionism takes its name from Genesis 1:26-31, in which God gives human beings “dominion” over all creation. This movement, small in number but influential, departs from traditional evangelicalism. Dominionists now control at least six national television networks, each reaching tens of millions of homes, and virtually all of the nation’s more than 2,000 religious radio stations, as well as denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention. Dominionism seeks to redefine traditional democratic and Christian terms and concepts to fit an ideology that calls on the radical church to take political power. It shares many prominent features with classical fascist movements, at least as it is defined by the scholar Robert O. Paxton, who sees fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cultures of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
Dominionism, born out of a theology known as Christian reconstructionism, seeks to politicize faith. 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. It also has, like fascist movements, an ill-defined and shifting set of beliefs, some of which contradict one another. Paxton argues that the best way to understand authentic fascist movements, which he says exist in all societies, including democracies, is to focus not on what they say but on how they act, for, as he writes, some of the ideas that underlie fascist movements “remain unstated and implicit in fascist public language,” and “many of them belong more to the realm of visceral feelings than to the realm of reasoned propositions.”
“Fascism is…a kind of colonization,” the Reverend Davidson Loehr noted. “A simple definition of ‘colonization’ is that it takes people’s stories away, and assigns them supportive roles in stories that empower others at their expense.” The dominionist movement, like all totalitarian movements, seeks to appropriate not only our religious and patriotic language but also our stories, to deny the validity of stories other than their own, to deny that there are other acceptable ways of living and being. There becomes, in their rhetoric, only one way to be a Christian and only one way to be an American.
Dominionism is a theocratic sect with its roots in a radical Calvinism. It looks to the theocracy John Calvin implanted in Geneva, Switzerland, in the 1500s as its political model. It teaches that American Christians have been mandated by God to make America a Christian state. A decades-long refusal by most American fundamentalists to engage in politics at all following the 1925 Scopes trial has been replaced by a call for Christian “dominion” over the nation and eventually over the earth itself. Dominionism preaches that Jesus has called on Christians to build the kingdom of God in the here and now, whereas previously it was thought that we would have to wait for it. America becomes, in this militant biblicism, an agent of God, and all political and intellectual opponents of America’s Christian leaders are viewed, quite simply, as agents of Satan. Under Christian dominion, America will be no longer a sinful and fallen nation but one in which the 10 Commandments form the basis of our legal system, creationism and “Christian values” form the basis of our educational system, and the media and the government proclaim the Good News to one and all. Labor unions, civil-rights laws and public schools will be abolished. Women will be removed from the workforce to stay at home, and all those deemed insufficiently Christian will be denied citizenship. Aside from its proselytizing mandate, the federal government will be reduced to the protection of property rights and “homeland” security. Some dominionists (not all of whom accept the label, at least not publicly) would further require all citizens to pay “tithes” to church organizations empowered by the government to run our social-welfare agencies and all schools. The only legitimate voices in this state will be Christian. All others will be silenced.
The racist and brutal intolerance of the intellectual godfathers of today’s Christian Reconstructionism is a chilling reminder of the movement’s lust for repression. The Institutes of Biblical Law by R. J. Rushdoony, written in 1973, is the most important book for the dominionist movement. Rushdoony calls for a Christian society that is harsh, unforgiving and violent. His work draws heavily on the calls for a repressive theocratic society laid out by Calvin in Institutes of the Christian Religion, first published in 1536 and one of the most important works of the Protestant Reformation. Christians are, Rushdoony argues, the new chosen people of God and are called to do what Adam and Eve failed to do: create a godly, Christian state. The Jews, who neglected to fulfill God’s commands in the Hebrew scriptures, have, in this belief system, forfeited their place as God’s chosen people and have been replaced by Christians. The death penalty is to be imposed not only for offenses such as rape, kidnapping and murder, but also for adultery, blasphemy, homosexuality, astrology, incest, striking a parent, incorrigible juvenile delinquency, and, in the case of women, “unchastity before marriage.” The world is to be subdued and ruled by a Christian United States. Rushdoony dismissed the widely accepted estimate of 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust as an inflated figure, and his theories on race often echo those found in Nazi eugenics, in which there are higher and lower forms of human beings. Those considered by the Christian state to be immoral and incapable of reform are to be exterminated.
Rushdoony was deeply antagonistic toward the federal government. He believed the federal government should concern itself with little more than national defense. Education and social welfare should be handed over to the churches. Biblical law must replace the secular legal code. This ideology, made more palatable for the mainstream by later disciples such as Francis Schaeffer and Pat Robertson, remains at the heart of the movement. Many of its tenets are being enacted through the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, currently channeling billions in federal funds to groups such as National Right to Life and Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing, as well as to innumerable Christian charities and organizations that do everything from running drug and pregnancy clinics to promoting sexual abstinence-only programs in schools.
While traditional fundamentalism shares many of the darker traits of the new movement — such as a blind obedience to a male hierarchy that often claims to speak for God, intolerance toward nonbelievers, and disdain for rational, intellectual inquiry — it has never attempted to impose its belief system on the rest of the nation. And it has not tried to transform government, as well as all other secular institutions, into an extension of the church. The new radical fundamentalisms amount to a huge and disastrous mutation. Dominionists and their wealthy, right-wing sponsors speak in terms and phrases that are familiar and comforting to most Americans, but they no longer use words to mean what they meant in the past. They engage in a slow 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.
“The goal must be God’s law-order in which alone is true liberty,” wrote Rushdoony in Institutes of Biblical Law:
Whenever freedom is made into the absolute, the result is not freedom but anarchism. Freedom must be under law or it is not freedom…. Only a law-order which holds to the primacy of God’s law can bring forth true freedom, freedom for justice, truth, and godly life.Freedom as an absolute is simply an assertion of man’s “right” to be his own god; this means a radical denial of God’s law-order. “Freedom” thus is another name for the claim by man to divinity and autonomy. It means that man becomes his own absolute. The word “freedom” is thus a pretext used by humanists of every variety…to disguise man’s claim to be his own absolute…. If men have unrestricted free speech and free press, then there is no freedom for truth, in that no standard is permitted whereby the promulgation or publication of a lie can be judged and punished.
As the process gains momentum — with some justices on the Supreme Court such as Antonin Scalia steeped in this ideology — America starts to speak a new language. There is a slow and inexorable hijacking of religious and political terminology. Terms such as “liberty” and “freedom” no longer mean what they meant in the past. Those in the movement speak of “liberty,” but they do not speak about the traditional concepts of American liberty — the liberty to express divergent opinions, to respect other ways of believing and being, the liberty of individuals to seek and pursue their own goals and forms of happiness. When used by the Christian Right, the term “liberty” means the liberty that comes with accepting a very narrowly conceived Christ and the binary world view that acceptance promotes.
America’s Providential History, by Mark A. Beliles and Stephen K. McDowell, published in 1989, is the standard textbook on American history used in many Christian schools. It is also a staple of the home-schooling movement. In this book, authors Beliles and McDowell define the term “liberty” as fealty to “the Spirit of the Lord.” The work of “liberty” is an ongoing process, one mounted by Christians, to free a society from the slavery imposed by “secular humanists.” This process frees, or eradicates, different moral codes and belief systems, to introduce a single, uniform and unquestioned “Christian” orientation. Liberty, in a linguistic twist worthy of George Orwell, means theocratic tyranny:
The Bible reveals that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17)…. When the Spirit of the Lord comes into a nation, that nation is liberated. The degree to which the Spirit of the Lord is infused into a society (through its people, laws and institutions) is the degree to which that society will experience liberty in every realm (civil, religious, economic, etc.).
The Global Recordings Network, a missionary group striving to bring “the Name of Jesus” to “every tribe and tongue and nation,” gives close attention to the meaning of “liberty” in their teachings. A tape of a missionary lesson plays: “I want to make you understand this word ‘liberty.’ It is written in God’s book: ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.’ Some say there is not enough liberty in this land, but if that is true, it is because there is not enough of the Spirit of the Lord. What do you think yourselves? Do people do as God commands them? Do they love each other? Do they help each other? Do they speak the truth? Do they flee from fornication and adultery? You know there are those who steal, who lie, who kill, and who worship things that are not God. These things are not of the Spirit of God, but of the spirit of Satan. Then how can there be true liberty?”
The “infusion” of “the Spirit of the Lord” into society includes its infusion into society’s legal system. Liberty is defined as the extent to which America obeys Christian law. When America is a Christian nation, liberty becomes, in this view, liberation from Satan. This slow, gradual and often imperceptible strangulation of thought — the corruption of democratic concepts and ideas — infects the society until the new, totalitarian vision is articulated by the old vocabulary. This cannibalization of language occurs subtly and stealthily. The ghoulish process leaves those leading the movement mouthing platitudes little different from the bromides spoken by those who sincerely champion the open, democratic state.
These tactics, familiar and effective, have often been used by movements that assault democracies. This seemingly innocent hijacking of language mollifies opponents, the mainstream and supporters within the movement who fail to grasp the radical agenda. It gives believers a sense of continuity and tradition. Radical logocides paint themselves as the defenders of an idealized and more virtuous past. Most revolutionary movements, from those in Latin America to those shaped by Islamic militancy in the Middle East, root their radical ideas in what they claim are older, purer traditions.
While the radical Christian movement’s leaders pay lip service to traditional justice, they call among their own for a legal system that promotes what they define as “Christian principles.” The movement thus is able to preserve the appearance of law and respect for democracy even as its leaders condemn all opponents — dismissed as “atheists,” “nonbelievers” or “secular humanists” — to moral and legal oblivion. Justice, under this process of logocide, is perverted to carry out injustice and becomes a mirage of law and order. The moral calculus no longer revolves around the concept of universal human rights; now its center is the well-being, protection and promotion of “Bible-believing Christians.” Logocide slowly and stealthily removes whole segments of society from the moral map. As Joseph Goebbels wrote: “The best propaganda is that which, as it were, works invisibly, penetrates the whole of life without the public having any knowledge of the propagandistic initiative.”
Victor Klemperer, who was dismissed from his post as a professor of Romance languages at the University of Dresden in 1935 because of his Jewish ancestry, wrote what may have been the first literary critique of National Socialism. He noted that the Nazis also “changed the values, the frequency of words, [and] made them into common property, words that had previously been used by individuals or tiny troupes. They confiscated words for the party, saturated words and phrases and sentence forms with their poison. They made language serve their terrible system. They conquered words and made them into their strongest advertising tools [Werebemittel], at once the most public and the most secret.”
And while all this took place, he points out, most Germans never noticed.
“The language and symbols of an authentic American fascism would, of course, have little to do with the original European models,” Robert O. Paxton wrote in Anatomy of 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.
There are at least 70 million evangelicals in the United States — about 25 percent of the population — attending more than 200,000 evangelical churches. Polls indicate that about 40 percent of respondents believe in the Bible as the “actual word of God” and that it is “to be taken literally, word for word.” Applied to the country’s total population, this proportion would place the number of believers at about 100 million. These polls also suggest that about 84 percent of Americans accept that Jesus is the son of God; 80 percent of respondents say that they believe they will stand before God on the Day of Judgment. The same percentage of respondents say God works miracles, and half say they think angels exist. Almost a third of all respondents say they believe in the Rapture.
American fundamentalists and evangelicals, however, are sharply divided between strict fundamentalists — those who refuse to grant legitimacy to alternative views of the Christian tradition — and the many evangelicals who concede that there are other legitimate ways to worship and serve Christ. Evangelicals, while they often embrace fundamentalist doctrine, do not always share the intolerance of the radical fundamentalists. While a majority of Christian Americans embrace a literal interpretation of the Bible, only a tiny minority — among them the Christian dominionists — are comfortable with this darker vision of an intolerant, theocratic America. Unfortunately, it is this minority that is taking over the machinery of U.S. state and religious institutions.
In a 2004 study, the political scientist John Green identifies those he calls “traditional evangelicals.” This group, which Green estimates at 12.6 percent of the population, comes “closest to the ‘religious right’ widely discussed in the media.” It is overwhelmingly Republican; it is openly hostile to democratic pluralism, and it champions totalitarian policies, such as denying homosexuals the same rights as other Americans and amending the Constitution to make America a “Christian nation.” Green’s “traditional evangelicals” can probably be called true dominionists. There are signs that this militant core may be smaller than even Green suggests, dipping to around 7 percent of the population in other polls, such as those conducted by George Barna. But the potency of this radical movement far exceeds its numbers. Radical social movements, as Crane Brinton wrote in The Anatomy of Revolution, are almost always tiny, although they use the tools of modern propaganda to create the illusion of a mass following. As Brinton noted, “the impressive demonstrations the camera has recorded in Germany, Italy, Russia and China ought not to deceive the careful student of politics. Neither Communist, Nazi, nor Fascist victory over the moderates was achieved by the participation of the many; all were achieved by small, disciplined, principled, fanatical bodies.” These radicals, Brinton went on, “combine, in varying degrees, very high ideals and a complete contempt for the inhibitions and principles which serve most other men as ideals.” They are, he said, “practical men unfettered by common sense, Machiavellians in the service of the Beautiful and the Good.” And once they are in power, “there is no more finicky regard for the liberties of the individual or for the forms of legality. The extremists, after clamoring for liberty and toleration while they were in opposition, turn very authoritarian when they reach power.”
Traditional evangelicals, those who come out of Billy Graham’s mold, are not necessarily comfortable with the direction taken by the dominionists. And the multitude of churches, denominations and groups that do lend their support in varying degrees to this new movement are diverse and often antagonistic. While right-wing Catholics have joined forces with the movement, many of the movement’s Protestant leaders, including D. James Kennedy, disdainfully label the Catholic Church a “cult.” These variances are held in check by the shared drive for political control, but the disputes simmer beneath the surface, threatening to tear apart the fragile coalitions. And those few evangelicals who challenge the dominionist drive for power are ruthlessly thrust aside, as the purges of the old guard within the Southern Baptist Convention three decades ago illustrate.
It is 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. In the megachurches, there are worshippers and preachers who focus exclusively on the gospel of prosperity — centered on the belief that God wants Christians to be rich and successful — and who have little interest in politics. There are strict fundamentalists who view charismatics — those who speak in tongues — as Satan worshippers. There are small clusters of left-wing evangelicals, such as Jim Wallis’s Sojourner movement and Ron Sider’s Evangelicals for Social Action, who believe the Bible to be the literal word of God but embrace social activism and left-wing politics. There are evangelicals who focus more on what they can do in their communities as Christians than on what God’s army can do to change the course of American history. And there are old-style evangelists, such as Luis Palau, who still tell Christians to keep their hands clean of politics, get right with Jesus and focus on spiritual and moral renewal.
But within this mass of divergent, fractious and varied groups is this core group of powerful Christian dominionists who have latched on to the despair, isolation, disconnectedness and fear that drives many people into these churches. Christian dominionist leaders have harnessed these discontents to further a frightening political agenda. If they do not have the active support of all in the evangelical churches, they often have their sympathy. They can count on the passive support of huge numbers of Christians, even if many of these Christians may not fully share dominionism’s fierce utopian vision, fanaticism or ruthlessness. The appeal of the movement lies in the high ideals its radicals preach, the promise of a moral, Christian nation, the promise of a renewal. Its darker aims — seen in calls for widespread repression of nonbelievers; frequent use of the death penalty; illegalization of abortion, even in case of rape and incest; and the dismantling of public education — will, if achieved, alienate many who support them. But this combination of a disciplined, well-financed radical core and tens of millions of Americans who, discontent and anxious, yearn for a vague, revitalized “Christian nation,” is a potent new force in American politics. 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 move to reconfigure the political system. Such a crisis could unleash a public clamor for drastic new national security measures and draconian reforms to safeguard the nation. Widespread discontent and fear, stoked and manipulated by dominionists and their sympathizers, could be used by these radicals to sweep aside the objections of beleaguered moderates in Congress and the courts, those clinging to a bankrupt and discredited liberalism, to establish an American theocracy, a Christian fascism.
The movement has sanctified a ruthless unfettered capitalism. In an essay in Harper’s magazine titled “The Spirit of Disobedience: An Invitation to Resistance,” Curtis White argued that “it is capitalism that now most defines our national character, not Christianity or the Enlightenment.” Although the values of capitalism are antithetical to Christ’s vision and the Enlightenment ethic of Kant, the gospel of prosperity — which preaches that Jesus wants us all to be rich and powerful and the government to get out of the way — has formulated a belief system that delights corporate America. Corporations such as Tyson Foods — which has placed 128 part-time chaplains, nearly all evangelicals or fundamentalists, in 78 plants across the country — along with Purdue, Wal-Mart, and Sam’s Wholesale, to name a few, are huge financial backers of the movement.
White concludes that “ours is a culture in which death has taken refuge in a legality that is supported by both reasonable liberals and Christian conservatives.” This “legality” makes the systematic exploitation of human workers — paying less than living wages, while failing to provide adequate health care and retirement plans — simply a “part of our heritage of freedom.” White goes on to excoriate our nationalist triumphalism and our unleashing of “the most fantastically destructive military power” the world has ever known in the course of “protecting and pursuing freedom.” Among the resultant diseases of culture, he lists the “grotesque violence of video games and Hollywood movies,” the “legality of abortions [which] at times covers over an attitude toward human life that subjects life to the low logic of efficiency and convenience,” meaningless work, mindless consumerism, a distorted sense of time, housing developments where houses are “coffins” and neighborhoods are “shared cemeteries” and, “perhaps most destructively, the legality of property rights [which] condemns nature itself to annihilation even as we call it the freedom to pursue personal property.”
The power brokers in the radical Christian Right have already moved from the fringes of society to the executive branch, the House of Representatives, the Senate and the courts. The movement has seized control of the Republican Party. 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. Tom Coburn, elected in 2004 as senator from Oklahoma, called for a ban on abortion in his campaign, going so far as to call for the death penalty for doctors who carry out abortions once the ban went into place. Senator John Thune is a creationist. Jim DeMint, senator from South Carolina, wants to ban single mothers from teaching in schools. The 2004 Election Day exit polls found that 23 percent of voters identified themselves as evangelical Christians; Bush won 78 percent of their vote. A plurality of voters said that the most important issue in the campaign had been “moral values.”
The Bush administration has steadily diverted billions of dollars of taxpayer money from secular and governmental social-service organizations to faith-based organizations, bankrolling churches and organizations that seek to dismantle American democracy and create a theocratic state. The role of education and social-welfare agencies is being supplanted by these churches, nearly all of them evangelical, and the wall between church and state is being disassembled. These groups can and usually do discriminate by refusing to hire gays and lesbians, people of other faiths and those who do not embrace their strict version of Christianity. Christian clinics that treat addictions or do pregnancy counseling (usually with the aim of preventing abortion) do not have to hire trained counselors or therapists. The only requirement of a new hire is usually that he or she be a “Bible-believing Christian.” In fiscal year 2003, faith-based organizations received 8.1 percent of the competitive social-service grant budget. In fiscal year 2004, faith-based organizations received $2.005 billion in funding — 10.3 percent of federal competitive service grants. The federal government awarded more than $2.15 billion in competitive social-service grants to faith-based organizations in fiscal year 2005, 11 percent of all federal competitive service grants. Faith-based organizations are consistently winning a larger portion of federal social-service funding, a trend that has tremendous social and political consequences if it continues. The Bush administration has spent more than $1 billion on chastity programs alone. Thirty percent of American schools with sex-education programs teach abstinence only. Not only is there little accountability, not only are these organizations allowed to practice discriminatory hiring practices, but also, as research shows, while abstinence-only programs can sometimes get teenagers to delay sex, they also leave young men and women unprepared for sexual relations, resulting in higher rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
It is perhaps telling that our closest allies in the United Nations on issues dealing with reproductive rights, one of the few issues where we cooperate with other nations, are Islamic states such as Iran. But then the Christian Right and radical Islamists, although locked in a holy war, increasingly mirror each other. They share the same obsessions. They do not tolerate other forms of belief or disbelief. They are at war with artistic and cultural expression. They seek to silence the media. They call for the subjugation of women. They promote severe sexual repression, and they seek to express themselves through violence.
Members of the Christian Right who have been elected to powerful political offices have worked in several instances to exclude opponents and manipulate vote counts. The current Republican candidate for governor of Ohio, Kenneth Blackwell, a stalwart of the Christian Right, was the secretary of state for Ohio as well as the co-chair of the state’s Committee to Re-Elect George Bush during the last presidential election. Blackwell, as secretary of state, oversaw the administering of the 2004 presidential elections in Ohio. He handled all complaints of irregularities. He attempted to get the state to hand over all election polling to Diebold Election Systems, a subsidiary of Diebold Incorporated, a firm that makes electronic voting machines and has close ties with the Bush administration. By the time of the elections he had managed to ensure that Diebold ran the machines in 35 counties. In an August 14, 2003, fund-raising letter, Walden O’Dell, CEO of Diebold, told Republicans that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.” O’Dell and other Diebold executives and board members are supporters of and donors to the Republican Party
Blackwell, an African American, oversaw a voting system in which African Americans, who vote primarily Democratic in national elections, found polling stations in their districts, especially in heavily Democratic areas such as Cleveland, grossly understaffed. There were in these polling stations long lines with delays that sometimes lasted as long as 10 hours, sending many potential voters home in frustration. Aggressive poll monitors questioned and often disqualified new voters because of what the monitors claimed was improper registration. Blackwell banned photographers and reporters from polling places, making irregularities and harassment harder to document. The Diebold machines recorded record high turnouts — 124 percent in one of the precincts — where Bush won overwhelming victories and low voter turnout in districts that went for Democratic Senator John Kerry. Kerry campaign workers reported numerous irregularities, including the discovery of a machine that diverted votes from Kerry to Bush. Ray Beckerman, part of the Kerry campaign, said that he found that touch-screen voting machines in Youngstown were registering “George W. Bush” when people pressed “John F. Kerry” during the entire day. Although he reported the glitch shortly after the polls opened, it was not fixed. All reports of irregularities, including complaints about precincts where votes were counted without the presence of election monitors, passed through Blackwell’s office. Nothing was ever done. Indeed, Blackwell went on after the elections to issue to county boards of elections a demand that voter registration forms be printed on “white, uncoated paper of not less than 80-pound text weight,” a heavy card-like stock. This allowed his office to disqualify registrations because the paper was not thick enough. The ruling has, his critics say, jeopardized the right of tens of thousands of would-be voters to participate in the next elections. As the Christian Right gains control of state offices throughout the country, it is being tarred by opponents with similar accusations.
Followers in the movement are locked within closed systems of information and indoctrination that cater to their hates and prejudices. Tens of millions of Americans rely exclusively on Christian broadcasters for their news, health, entertainment and devotional programs. These followers have been organized into disciplined and powerful voting blocs. They attend churches that during election time are little more than local headquarters for the Republican Party and during the rest of the year demand nearly all of their social, religious and recreational time. These believers are encased in a hermetic world. There is no questioning or dissent. There are anywhere from 1.1 million to 2.1 million children, nearly all evangelicals, now being home-schooled. These children are not challenged with ideas or research that conflict with their biblical worldview. Evolution is not taught. God created the world in six days. America, they are told, was founded as a Christian nation and secular humanists are working to destroy the Christian nation. These young men and women are often funneled into Christian colleges and universities, such as Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, Pat Robertson’s Regent University, and a host of other schools such as Patrick Henry University. They are taught, in short, to obey. They are discouraged from critical analysis, questioning and independent thought. And they believe, by the time they are done, a host of myths designed to destroy the open, pluralist society.
Most of America’s fundamentalist and evangelical churches are led by pastors who embrace this non-reality-based belief system, one that embraces magic, the fiction of a “Christian nation” in need of revitalization, and dark, terrifying apocalyptic visions. They preach about the coming world war, drawing their visions from the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation. They preach that at the end of history Christians will dominate the earth and that all nonbelievers, including those who are not sufficiently Christian, will be cast into torment and outer darkness. They call for the destruction of whole cultures, nations and religions, those they have defined as the enemies of God.
As American history and the fundamentalist movement itself have changed, so have the objects of fundamentalist hatred. Believers were told a few decades ago that communists were behind the civil-rights movement, the antiwar movement and liberal groups such as the ACLU. They were racist and intolerant of African Americans, Jews and Catholics. Now the battle against communism has been reconfigured. The seat of Satan is no longer in the Kremlin. It has been assumed by individuals and institutions promoting a rival religion called “secular humanism.” The obsession with the evils of secular humanism would be laughable if it were not such an effective scare tactic. The only organized movement of secular humanists who call themselves by that name is the American Humanist Association (AHA), which has about 3,000 members and whose credo was published in the 1933 Humanist Manifesto I and the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II. Its Humanist Magazine has a minuscule circulation. In terms of influence, as Barbara Parker and Christy Macy wrote, “these humanists rank with militant vegetarians and agrarian anarchists, and were about as well known — until the Religious Right set out to make them famous.” But it is not important who is fingered as Satan’s agent, as long as the wild conspiracy theories and paranoia are stoked by an array of duplicitous, phantom enemies that lurk behind the scenes of public school boards or the media. As the movement reaches out to the African American churches and right-wing Catholics, it has exchanged old hatreds for new ones, preferring now to demonize gays, liberals, immigrants, Muslims and others as forces beholden to the Antichrist while painting themselves as the heirs of the civil-rights movement. The movement is fueled by the fear of powerful external and internal enemies whose duplicity and cunning is constantly at work. These phantom enemies serve to keep believers afraid and in a heightened state of alert, ready to support repressive measures against all who do not embrace the movement. But this tactic has required the airbrushing out of past racist creeds — an effort that, sometime after 1970, saw Jerry Falwell recall all copies of his earlier sermons warning against integration and the evils of the black race. The only sermon left in print from the 1960s is called “Ministers and Marchers.” In the sermon Falwell angrily denounces preachers who engage in politics, specifically those who support the civil-rights movement. The effort to erase the past, to distort truth and reinvent himself as a past supporter of civil rights, is a frightening example of how, if a lie is broadcast long enough and loud enough, it becomes true. Distortions and lies permeate the movement, which fends off criticism by encasing its followers in closed information systems and wrapping itself in Christian vestments and the American flag.
The movement is marked not only by its obsessions with conspiracy theories, magic, sexual repression, paranoia and death, but also by its infatuation with apocalyptic violence and military force. On its outer fringes are collections of odd messianic warriors, those ready to fight and die for Christ. These include American Veterans in Domestic Defense, a Texas group that transported former Alabama Supreme Court justice Roy Moore’s 2.6-ton 10 Commandment monument by truck around the country. Moore, who graduated from the U.S. military academy at West Point, lost his job as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court after he defied a judge’s order to remove his monument from the Montgomery judicial building. He and his monument instantly became celebrities for those preaching that Christians were under siege, that there was an organized effort to persecute all who upheld God’s law. These carefully cultivated feelings of persecution foster a permanent state of crisis, a deep paranoia and fear, and they make it easier to call for violence — always, of course, as a form of self-defense. It turns all outside the movement into enemies: even those who appear benign, the believer is warned, seek to destroy Christians. There are an array of obscure, shadowy paramilitary groups, such as Christian Identity, the members of which, emboldened by the rhetoric of the movement, believe they will one day fight a religious war. Military leaders who stoke this belief in a holy war are lionized. After leading American troops into battle against a Somalian warlord, General William Boykin announced: “I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his God was an idol.” General Boykin belongs to a small group called the Faith Force Multiplier, whose members apply military principles to evangelism in a manifesto summoning warriors “to the spiritual warfare for souls.” Boykin, rather than being reprimanded for his inflammatory rhetoric, was promoted to the position of deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence. He believes America is engaged in a holy war as a “Christian nation” battling Satan and that America’s Muslim adversaries will be defeated “only if we come against them in the name of Jesus.”
These visions of a holy war at once terrify and delight followers. Such visions peddle a bizarre spiritual Darwinism. True Christians will rise to heaven and be saved, and all lesser faiths and nonbelievers will be viciously destroyed by an angry God in an orgy of horrific, apocalyptic violence. The yearning for this final battle runs through the movement like an electric current. Christian Right firebrands employ the language of war, speak in the metaphors of battle, and paint graphic and chilling scenes of the violence and mayhem that will envelop the earth. War is the final aesthetic of the movement.
“Now, this revolution is not for the temperate,” the Ohio pastor Rod Parsley shouted out to a crowd when I heard him speak in Washington in March of 2006. “This revolution — that’s what it is — is not for the timid and the weak, but for the brave and strong, who step over the line out of their comfort zone and truly decide to become disciples of Christ. I’m talking about red-blooded men and women who don’t have to be right, recognized, rewarded or regarded…. 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,” he says to laughter. “Man your battle stations! Ready your weapons! They say this rhetoric is so inciting. I came to incite a riot. I came to effect a divine disturbance in the heart and soul of the church. Man your battle stations. Ready your weapons. Lock and load!”
BattleCry, a Christian fundamentalist youth movement that has attracted as many as 25,000 people to Christian rock concerts in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Detroit, uses elaborate light shows, Hummers, ranks of Navy SEALs and the imagery and rhetoric of battle to pound home its message. Ron Luce, who runs it, exhorts the young Christians to defeat the secular forces around them. “This is war,” he has said. “And Jesus invites us to get into the action, telling us that the violent — the ‘forceful’ ones — will lay hold of the kingdom.” The rock band Delirious, which played in the Philadelphia gathering, pounded out a song with the words: “We’re an army of God and we’re ready to die…. Let’s paint this big ol’ town red…. We see nothing but the blood of Jesus….” The lyrics were projected on large screens so some 17,000 participants could sing along. The crowd in the Wachovia sports stadium shouted in unison: “We are warriors!”
The use of elaborate spectacle to channel and shape the passions of mass followers is a staple of totalitarian movements. It gives to young adherents the raw material for their interior lives, for love and hate, joy and sorrow, excitement and belonging. It imparts the illusion of personal empowerment. It creates comradeship and solidarity, possible only as long as those within the movement do not defy the collective emotions of the crowd and willingly devote themselves to the communal objective, in this case creating a Christian America and defeating those who stand in the way. It gives meaning and purpose to life, turning a mundane existence into an epic battle against forces of darkness, forces out to crush all that is good and pure in America. And it is very hard for the voices of moderation to compete, for these spectacles work to shut down individual conscience and reflection. They give to adherents a permissiveness, a rhetorical license to engage in acts of violence that are normally taboo in a democratic society. It becomes permissible to hate. The crowds are wrapped in the seductive language of violence, which soon enough leads to acts of real violence.
Apocalyptic visions inspire genocidal killers who glorify violence as the mechanism that will lead to the end of history. Such visions nourished the butchers who led the Inquisition and the Crusades, as well as the conquistadores who swept through the Americas hastily converting en masse native populations and then exterminating them. The Puritans, who hoped to create a theocratic state, believed that Satan ruled the wilderness surrounding their settlements. They believed that God had called them to cast Satan out of this wilderness to create a promised land. That divine command sanctioned the removal or slaughter of Native Americans. This hubris fed the deadly doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Similar apocalyptic visions of a world cleansed through violence and extermination nourished the Nazis, the Stalinists who consigned tens of thousands of Ukrainians to starvation and death, the torturers in the clandestine prisons in Argentina during the Dirty War, and the Serbian thugs with heavy machine guns and wraparound sunglasses who stood over the bodies of Muslims they had slain in the smoking ruins of Bosnian villages.
The ecstatic belief in the cleansing power of apocalyptic violence does not recognize the right of the victims to self-preservation or self-defense. It does not admit them into a moral universe where they have a criminal’s right to be punished and rehabilitated. They are seen instead through this poisonous lens as pollutants, viruses, mutations that must be eradicated to halt further infection and degeneration within society and usher in utopia. This sacred violence — whether it arises from the Bible, Serbian nationalism, the dream of a classless society, or the goal of a world where all “subhumans” are eradicated — allows its perpetrators and henchmen to avoid moral responsibility for their crimes. The brutality they carry out is sanctified, an expression of not human volition but divine wrath. The victims, in a final irony, are considered responsible for their suffering and destruction. They are to blame because, in the eyes of the dominionists, they have defied God.
Those who promise to cleanse the world through sacred violence, to relieve anxiety over moral pollution by building mounds of corpses, always appeal to our noblest sentiments, our highest virtues, our capacity for self-sacrifice and our utopian visions of a purified life. It is this coupling of fantastic hope and profound despair — dreams of peace and light and reigns of terror, self-sacrifice and mass murder — that frees the consciences of those who call for and carry out the eradication of fellow human beings in the name of God.
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. They lead us closer and closer toward our own annihilation, in the delusion that once the dogs of war, even nuclear war, are unleashed, God will protect Christians; that hundreds of millions will die, but because Christians have been blessed they alone will rise in triumph from the ash heap. Those who seek to do us harm will soon have in their hands cruder versions of the apocalyptic weapons we possess: dirty bombs and chemical or biological agents. Those who fervently wish for, indeed, seek to hasten the apocalypse and the end of time, who believe they will be lifted up into the sky by a returning Jesus, force us all to kneel before the god of death.
If this mass movement succeeds, it will do so not simply because of its ruthlessness and mendacity, its callous manipulation of the people it lures into its arms, many of whom live on the margins of American society. It will succeed because of the moral failure of those, including Christians, who understand the intent of the radicals yet fail to confront them, those who treat this mass movement as if it were another legitimate player in an open society. 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. 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. And the movement has targeted the last remaining obstacles to its systems of indoctrination, mounting a fierce campaign to defeat hate-crime legislation, fearing the courts could apply it to them as they spew hate talk over the radio, television and Internet. Despotic movements harness the power of modern communications to keep their followers locked in closed systems. If this long, steady poisoning of civil discourse within these closed information systems is not challenged, if this movement continues to teach neighbor to hate neighbor, if its followers remain convinced that cataclysmic violence offers a solution to their own ills and the ills of the world, civil society in America will collapse.
“Hope has two beautiful daughters,” Augustine wrote. “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.”
Anger, when directed against movements that would abuse the weak, preach bigotry and injustice, trample the poor, crush dissent and impose a religious tyranny, is a blessing. Read the biblical prophets in First and Second Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and Amos. Liberal institutions, seeing tolerance as the highest virtue, tolerate the intolerant. They swallow the hate talk that calls for the destruction of nonbelievers. Mainstream believers have often come to the comfortable conclusion that any form of announced religiosity is acceptable, that heretics do not exist.
The mainstream churches stumble along, congregations often mumbling creeds they no longer believe, trying to peddle a fuzzy, feel-good theology that can distort and ignore the darker visions in the Bible as egregiously as the Christian Right does. The Christian Right understands the ills of American society even as it exploits these ills to plunge us into tyranny. Its leaders grasp the endemic hollowness, timidity and hypocrisy of the liberal churches. The Christian Right attacks “cultural relativism,” the creed that there is no absolute good and that all value systems have equal merit — even as it benefits, in a final irony, from the passivity of people who tolerate it in the name of cultural relativism.
The most potent opposition to the movement may come from within the evangelical tradition. The radical fundamentalist movement must fear these Christians, who have remained loyal to the core values of the Gospel, who delineate between right and wrong, who are willing to be vilified and attacked in the name of a higher good and who have the courage to fight back. Most liberals, the movement has figured out, will stand complacently to be sheared like sheep, attempting to open dialogues and reaching out to those who spit venom in their faces.
Radical Christian dominionists have no religious legitimacy. They are manipulating Christianity, and millions of sincere believers, to build a frightening political mass movement with many similarities with other mass movements, from fascism to communism to the ethnic nationalist parties in the former Yugoslavia. It shares with these movements an inability to cope with ambiguity, doubt and uncertainty. It creates its own “truth.” It embraces a world of miracles and signs and removes followers from a rational, reality-based world. It condemns self-criticism and debate as apostasy. It places a premium on action and finds its final aesthetic in war and apocalyptic violence.
The pain, the dislocation, alienation, suffering and despair that led millions of Americans into the movement are real. Many Americans are striking back at a culture they blame for the debacle of their lives. The democratic traditions and the values of the Enlightenment, they believe, have betrayed them. They speak of numbness, an inability to feel pain or joy or love, a vast emptiness, a frightening loneliness and loss of control. The rational, liberal world of personal freedoms and choice lured many of these people into one snake pit after another. And liberal democratic society, for most, stood by passively as their communities, families and lives splintered and self-destructed.
These believers have abandoned, in this despair, their trust and belief in the world of science, law and rationality. They eschew personal choice and freedom. They have replaced the world that has failed them with a new, glorious world filled with prophets and mystical signs. They believe in a creator who performs miracles for them, speaks directly to them and guides their lives, as well as the destiny of America. They are utopians who have found rigid, clearly defined moral edicts, rights and wrongs, to guide them in life and in politics. And they are terrified of losing this new, mystical world of signs, wonders and moral certitude, of returning to the old world of despair. They see criticism of their belief system, whether from scientists or judges, as vicious attempts by Satan to lure them back into the morass. The split in America, rather than simply economic, is between those who embrace reason, who function in the real world of cause and effect, and those who, numbed by isolation and despair, now seek meaning in a mythical world of intuition, a world that is no longer reality-based, a world of magic.
Those in the movement now fight, fueled by the rage of the dispossessed, to crush and silence the reality-based world. The dominionist movement is the response of people trapped in a deformed, fragmented and disoriented culture that has become callous and unforgiving, a culture that has too often failed to provide the belonging, care and purpose that make life bearable, a culture that, as many in the movement like to say, has become “a culture of death.” The new utopians are not always wrong in their critique of American society. But what they have set out to create is far, far worse than what we endure. What is happening in America is revolutionary. A group of religious utopians, with the sympathy and support of tens of millions of Americans, are slowly dismantling democratic institutions to establish a religious tyranny, the springboard to an American fascism.
This excerpt is copyright © 2006 by Chris Hedges
Author: Chris Hedges
Published by: Free Press, January 2007
Hardcover, 272 pages
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