American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, Chris Hedges, New York: The Free Press, 2006.

Reviewed by
Gregory Zucker

Chris Hedge’s new book joins a burgeoning library on the worrisome rise of the radical Christian right in the United States. It is partly a journalistic account of the movement and partly a warning of the grave dangers it poses. As the title makes clear, Hedges sees the Christian right as a direct ideological heir of 20th century fascism. Hedges’ argument rests on the thesis that the Christian right “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…” (p. 11) Given the fuzzy way that Hedges defines fascism  - his definition applies to any number of pre-fascist reactionary movements - the argument is hardly novel. Michele Goldberg’s recent Kingdom Coming draws similar parallels between the extreme Christian Right and totalitarianism. While providing a few insights and interesting anecdotes, he never moves beyond description into the realm of solid analysis.

Each chapter begins with a tone-setting quote from a political thinker on the appeal of fascism or else from a theologian espousing the Christian beliefs that Hedges argues represent the true essence of Christianity in contrast to its widespread right-wing perversion. Christian Dominionism, for a particularly malignant example, is a politicized manipulation of Christianity. Behind this distortion, Hedges finds, is a suffocating vision of America as an inhumanly Christian nation, perfecting intolerance and authoritarianism. The addled dominionists hope to make America what they imagine the far from reverent founders intended. But, Hedges notes, these contemporary zealots “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.” (p. 35) If the radical Christian right lacks “religious legitimacy” and seeks to impose a “frightening” new political order, what explains the strong appeal of the movement? Hedges’ answer: despair.  “The stories many in this movement tell are stories of failure – personal, communal and sometimes economic’ He writes. “They are stories of public and private institutions that are increasingly distant and irrelevant, stories of loneliness and abuse. Isolation, the plague of the modern industrial society, has torn apart networks of extended families and communities.” (p. 41) This intense experience of failure and of alienation (not Hedges’ word) engenders despair.

Hedges cites decreasing wages, higher unemployment, slaving to get by, and a loss of leisure time over the last few decades to explain why ordinary Americans have reason to feel hard done by; particularly since the assault from Reagan onward upon Keynesian economic policies and the social safety net. However, a socio-economic account alone hardly explains why members of the upper or middle class turn to ultra-conservative Christianity. For these people, Hedges argues, the problem is less material than existential. Although Hedges does not explicitly say so, what draws people to the movement – rich or poor – is their loss of certainty in the flux of the modern world (a very old ailment, by now). The people Hedges interviews frequently tell how economic woes and/or abuse made life too difficult to bear. They lost confidence in public life and even begin to blame personal problems on a vague socio-cultural malaise they are unable to pinpoint or understand. Before they joined the Evangelical movement they felt lost and hopeless. Modern life was cold and devoid of any comforting moral absolutes. These poor souls therefore become ripe for the picking by fundamentalist salesmen seeking “lonely sinners.” These missionaries offer a sense of community in the congregation and absolution from sin and guilt through conversion. Fundamentalist Christianity peddles the powerful illusion of certainty in an uncertain world.

Hedges’ treatment would have benefited greatly by bringing in Marx, Durkheim, Weber, or Freud, to name only a few preceding analysts of this sort of angst or anomie. These thinker understood that modernity decimates religion’s capacity to explain or ‘enchant’ the world. At the same time, modernity increases religion’s appeal as a shield should society fail to shield people from harmful repercussions. Unrestrained capitalism, social fragmentation, and bureaucratization are only a few of modernity’s products that, in the absence of social forces buffering their effects, might drive people back into the eager arms of the priest, rabbi, or mullah.

Any useful engagement with the revived phenomenon of Christian fundamentalism must begin with a reconsideration of the thinkers who addressed the role of religion in a modern world where “all that is solid melts in air.” To examine religion in any other way is to abstract the fundamentalist movement from its socio-historical context, making it impossible to explain how and why dogma answers social or psychological needs. This means that a critique of fundamentalism must be complemented by a critique of the modern world of which it is a product. Further, there must be a renewed commitment to the as yet unachieved socio-political promises of modernity - what Habermas has called the unfinished project of modernity. Hedges’ analysis, unfortunately, is not quite that ambitious. Hedges does not explain why some people choose the solutions provided by Christian Evangelicalism, as opposed to, say, political action or inertia. Ultimately, for him, despair is a feeling that some people are prey to and others are strangely immune.

Hedges takes a course that has by now become conventional among journalists who write on the subject of the Christian right. He describes how, within the movement, women are subjugated by a patriarchal hierarchy, persecution of homosexuals is encouraged, and science and reason are shunned. Without acknowledging his debt to Weber (whom he may not
have read), Hedges devotes a chapter to how capitalism nervously is crowbarred into Christian fundamentalist ideology. Wealth, conveniently enough, signifies God’s favor. Because God’s will is serendipitously expressed through the market, capitalist consumption is encouraged and blessed. Hedges notes that this “is the apotheosis of capitalism, the divine sanction of the free market, of unhindered profit and the most rapacious cruelties of globalization.” (p. 133) Hedges neglects to point out the sad irony that, through the alignment of capital and the religious right, the despair-ridden flock celebrates the achievements of those same guys who bear much of the responsibility for their socio-economic woes.

The final chapters explain how the Christian media industry exhorts its audience to defend themselves against moral degeneration. Hedges, however, closes with his own call for a crusade for democracy against authoritarianism, for tolerance against intolerance, for reason against blind faith, and for a renewed ethical Christianity. His book is most provocative when Hedges grounds popular discontent in economic developments or explains the odd alignment of interests between fundamentalist leaders and capitalist elites. But missing is an account of how Reagan allied with evangelical leaders to get formerly unmotivated fundamentalists to the polls. Also missing is an explanation why Christian fundamentalism enjoys growing recruitment while mainstream Christianity is rapidly losing adherents.

Rather than undertake a critique of religion, Hedges compares the religious right to non-religious movements. Equating Christian fundamentalism with fascism is spurious. Fascism, with its mainly secular vision (barring the cases in which dictators used religious leaders to further their programs), was a uniquely modern reaction against modernity. Indeed, fascists also blamed feminists, homosexuals, and scientists for destroying civilization, but those are merely superficial affinities. Christian fundamentalism’s roots lie in a much older authoritarian vision – the pre-Enlightenment world in which, as Kant put it, one cravenly turns to the local priest’s mystical and mythical answers rather than rely on the power of one’s own rationality.

Ironically, Hedges does argue for upholding the Enlightenment values that engendered modernity, but is unclear exactly what aspects of the Enlightenment need to be upheld. The religious right’s success is due in no small way to the fact that it embraced two legacies of the Enlightenment: capitalism and liberalism. It aligned itself with capital and used liberal language to defend the right of its flock to doctrinaire belief. What it vehemently opposes is the Enlightenment’s ethical vision and devotion, if that’s the word, to reason. These legacies are problematic for Hedges too since part of his program for confronting the religious right is a renewal of progressive Christianity. The rub is that the Enlightenment, and the modernity it helped usher in, poses a challenge to faith in general, not just to one specific politicized manifestation of it. Even formidable thinkers like Kant, who tried in vain to secure a separate sphere for religion outside of the realm of knowledge, failed at that endeavor.

Hedges is not only a journalist, but a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. So perhaps the book might offer an immanent critique of the movement. There is an argument to be made that modernity and faith can be reconciled, that is, if Hedges had given progressive theologians like Niebuhr more attention. But Hedges doesn’t bother to expose internal contradictions in evangelical arguments. Instead, he tells readers to accept that “God is inscrutable, mysterious and unknowable.” (p. 8) Recommended is the Christianity that Hedges’ says informed his father, a progressive pastor, in support of the Civil Rights Movement, homosexuals, and opposition to the Vietnam War. It is surely preferable that the Bible imbue its readers with a similar ethical sensibility, but the Good Book is infamously rife with ambiguities. R.J. Rushdooney, an intellectual forefather of today’s far-right, read the same book and came up with radically different saber-toothed opinions. Indeed, if the falling mainstream church attendance is any indicator, it is precisely Hedges’ tame Christianity that people have lost interest in.

Hedges is correct to fear the threat that the movement poses to democracy. But, sharing anecdotes and describing a few features of the movement does little to help. The real task is to provide viable solutions for confronting the movement, which Hedges fails to do. This cannot be done without more studies that explain why this socio-historical moment has produced a successful Christian fundamentalism and requires a multi-leveled analysis that engages the history, sociology, politics, and ideology of the movement. Of course, the most difficult part is providing reasons for why these faithful should embrace a progressive political alternative instead.