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Barbarians at the Gate: Chris Hedges on the Threat of the Christian Right

Another powerful, prophetic warning from Chris Hedges at TruthDig

Posted on Jun 7, 2010
Truthdig collage based on a White House photo by Pete Souza
Tens of millions of Americans, lumped into a diffuse and fractious movement known as the Christian right, have begun to dismantle the intellectual and scientific rigor of the Enlightenment. They are creating a theocratic state based on “biblical law,” and shutting out all those they define as the enemy. This movement, veering closer and closer to traditional fascism, seeks to force a recalcitrant world to submit before an imperial America. It champions the eradication of social deviants, beginning with homosexuals, and moving on to immigrants, secular humanists, feminists, Jews, Muslims and those they dismiss as “nominal Christians”—meaning Christians who do not embrace their perverted and heretical interpretation of the Bible. Those who defy the mass movement are condemned as posing a threat to the health and hygiene of the country and the family. All will be purged.
The followers of deviant faiths, from Judaism to Islam, must be converted or repressed. The deviant media, the deviant public schools, the deviant entertainment industry, the deviant secular humanist government and judiciary and the deviant churches will be reformed or closed. There will be a relentless promotion of Christian “values,” already under way on Christian radio and television and in Christian schools, as information and facts are replaced with overt forms of indoctrination. The march toward this terrifying dystopia has begun. It is taking place on the streets of Arizona, on cable news channels, at tea party rallies, in the Texas public schools, among militia members and within a Republican Party that is being hijacked by this lunatic fringe.
Elizabeth Dilling, who wrote “The Red Network” and was a Nazi sympathizer, is touted as required reading by trash-talk television hosts like Glenn Beck. Thomas Jefferson, who favored separation of church and state, is ignored in Christian schools and soon will be ignored in Texas public school textbooks. The Christian right hails the “significant contributions” of the Confederacy. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who led the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, has been rehabilitated, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is defined as part of the worldwide battle against Islamic terror. Legislation like the new Jim Crow laws of Arizona is being considered by 17 other states.
The rise of this Christian fascism, a rise we ignore at our peril, is being fueled by an ineffectual and bankrupt liberal class that has proved to be unable to roll back surging unemployment, protect us from speculators on Wall Street, or save our dispossessed working class from foreclosures, bankruptcies and misery. The liberal class has proved useless in combating the largest environmental disaster in our history, ending costly and futile imperial wars or stopping the corporate plundering of the nation. And the gutlessness of the liberal class has left it, and the values it represents, reviled and hated.
The Democrats have refused to repeal the gross violations of international and domestic law codified by the Bush administration. This means that Christian fascists who achieve power will have the “legal” tools to spy on, arrest, deny habeas corpus to, and torture or assassinate American citizens—as does the Obama administration.
Those who remain in a reality-based world often dismiss these malcontents as buffoons and simpletons. They do not take seriously those, like Beck, who pander to the primitive yearnings for vengeance, new glory and moral renewal. Critics of the movement continue to employ the tools of reason, research and fact to challenge the absurdities propagated by creationists who think they will float naked into the heavens when Jesus returns to Earth. The magical thinking, the flagrant distortion in interpreting the Bible, the contradictions that abound within the movement’s belief system and the laughable pseudoscience, however, are impervious to reason. We cannot convince those in the movement to wake up. It is we who are asleep.  
Those who embrace this movement see life as an epic battle against forces of evil and Satanism. The world is black and white. They need to feel, even if they are not, that they are victims surrounded by dark and sinister groups bent on their destruction. They need to believe they know the will of God and can fulfill it, especially through violence. They need to sanctify their rage, a rage that lies at the core of the ideology. They seek total cultural and political domination. They are using the space within the open society to destroy it. These movements work within the confining rules of the secular state because they have no choice. The intolerance they promote is muted in the public assurances of their slickest operators. Given enough power, and they are working hard to get it, any such cooperation will vanish. The demand for total control and for a Christian nation and the refusal to permit any dissent are on display within their inner sanctums. These pastors have established within their churches tiny, despotic fiefdoms, and they seek to replicate these little tyrannies on a larger scale.
Many of the tens of millions within the Christian right live on the edge of poverty. The Bible, interpreted for them by pastors whose connection with God means they cannot be questioned, is their handbook for daily life. The rigidity and simplicity of their belief are potent weapons in the fight against their own demons and the struggle to keep their lives on track. The reality-based world, one where Satan, miracles, destiny, angels and magic did not exist, battered them like driftwood. It took their jobs and destroyed their future. It rotted their communities. It flooded their lives with alcohol, drugs, physical violence, deprivation and despair. And then they discovered that God has a plan for them. God will save them. God intervenes in their lives to promote and protect them. The emotional distance they have traveled from the real world to the world of Christian fantasy is immense. And the rational, secular forces, those that speak in the language of fact and evidence, are hated and ultimately feared, for they seek to pull believers back into “the culture of death” that nearly destroyed them.
There are wild contradictions within this belief system. Personal independence is celebrated alongside an abject subservience to leaders who claim to speak for God. The movement says it defends the sanctity of life and advocates the death penalty, militarism, war and righteous genocide. It speaks of love and promotes fear of damnation and hate. There is a terrifying cognitive dissonance in every word they utter.
The movement is, for many, an emotional life raft. It is all that holds them together. But the ideology, while it regiments and orders lives, is merciless. Those who deviate from the ideology, including “backsliders” who leave these church organizations, are branded as heretics and subjected to little inquisitions, which are the natural outgrowth of messianic movements. If the Christian right seizes the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, these little inquisitions will become big inquisitions.
The cult of masculinity pervades the movement. Feminism and homosexuality, believers are told, have rendered the American male physically and spiritually impotent. Jesus, for the Christian right, is a muscular man of action, casting out demons, battling the Antichrist, attacking hypocrites and castigating the corrupt. This cult of masculinity, with its glorification of violence, is deeply appealing to those who feel disempowered and humiliated. It vents the rage that drove many people into the arms of the movement. It encourages them to lash back at those who, they are told, seek to destroy them. The paranoia about the outside world is stoked through bizarre conspiracy theories, many championed in books such as Pat Robertson’s “The New World Order,” a xenophobic rant that includes attacks on liberals and democratic institutions.
The obsession with violence pervades the popular novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. In their apocalyptic novel, “Glorious Appearing,” based on LaHaye’s interpretation of biblical prophecies about the Second Coming, Christ returns and eviscerates the flesh of millions of nonbelievers with the sound of his voice. There are long descriptions of horror and blood, of how “the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin.” Eyes disintegrate. Tongues melt. Flesh dissolves. The Left Behind series, of which this novel is a part, contains the best-selling adult novels in the country.
Violence must be used to cleanse the world. These Christian fascists are called to a perpetual state of war. “Any teaching of peace prior to [Christ’s] return is heresy…” says televangelist James Robinson.
Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, instability in Israel and even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are seen as glorious signposts. The war in Iraq is predicted, believers insist, in the ninth chapter of the Book of Revelations, where four angels “which are bound in the great river Euphrates will be released to slay the third part of men.” The march is inevitable and irreversible and requires everyone to be ready to fight, kill and perhaps die. Global war, even nuclear war, is not to be feared, but welcomed as the harbinger of the Second Coming. And leading the avenging armies is an angry, violent Messiah who dooms hundreds of millions of apostates to a horrible and gruesome death.
The Christian right, while embracing a form of primitivism, seeks the imprint of law and science to legitimate its absurd mythologies. Its members seek this imprint because, despite their protestations to the contrary, they are a distinctly modern, totalitarian movement. They seek to co-opt the pillars of the Enlightenment in order to abolish the Enlightenment. Creationism, or “intelligent design,” like eugenics for the Nazis or “Soviet” science for Stalin, must be introduced into the mainstream as a valid scientific discipline—hence the rewriting of textbooks. The Christian right defends itself in the legal and scientific jargon of modernity. Facts and opinions, once they are used “scientifically” to support the irrational, become interchangeable. Reality is no longer based on the gathering of facts and evidence. It is based on ideology. Facts are altered. Lies become true. Hannah Arendt called it “nihilistic relativism,” although a better phrase might be collective insanity.
The Christian right has, for this reason, its own creationist “scientists” who use the language of science to promote anti-science. It has fought successfully to have creationist books sold in national park bookstores at the Grand Canyon and taught in public schools in states such as Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. Creationism shapes the worldview of hundreds of thousands of students in Christian schools and colleges. This pseudoscience claims to have proved that all animal species, or at least their progenitors, fit on Noah’s ark. It challenges research in AIDS and pregnancy prevention. It corrupts and discredits the disciplines of biology, astronomy, geology, paleontology and physics.
Once creationists can argue on the same platform as geologists, asserting that the Grand Canyon was not created 6 billion years ago but 6,000 years ago by the great flood that lifted up Noah’s ark, we have lost. The acceptance of mythology as a legitimate alternative to reality is a body blow to the rational, secular state. The destruction of rational and empirically based belief systems is fundamental to the creation of all totalitarian ideologies. Certitude, for those who could not cope with the uncertainty of life, is one of the most powerful appeals of the movement. Dispassionate intellectual inquiry, with its constant readjustments and demand for evidence, threatens certitude. For this reason incertitude must be abolished.
“What convinces masses are not facts,” Arendt wrote in “Origins of Totalitarianism,” “and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system which they are presumably part. Repetition, somewhat overrated in importance because of the common belief in the masses’ inferior capacity to grasp and remember, is important because it convinces them of consistency in time.”
Augustine defined the grace of love as Volo ut sis—I want you to be. There is, he wrote, an affirmation of the mystery of the other in relationships based on love, an affirmation of unexplained and unfathomable differences. Relationships based on love recognize that others have a right to be. These relationships accept the sacredness of difference. This acceptance means that no one individual or belief system captures or espouses an absolute truth. All struggle, in their own way, some outside of religious systems and some within them, to interpret mystery and transcendence.
The sacredness of the other is anathema for the Christian right, which cannot acknowledge the legitimacy of other ways of being and believing. If other belief systems, including atheism, have moral validity, the infallibility of the movement’s doctrine, which constitutes its chief appeal, is shattered. There can be no alternative ways to think or to be. All alternatives must be crushed.
Ideological, theological and political debates are useless with the Christian right. It does not respond to a dialogue. It is impervious to rational thought and discussion. The naive attempts to placate a movement bent on our destruction, to prove to it that we too have “values,” only strengthens its legitimacy and weakness our own. If we do not have a right to be, if our very existence is not legitimate in the eyes of God, there can be no dialogue. At this point it is a fight for survival.
Those gathered into the arms of this Christian fascist movement are desperately struggling to survive in an increasingly hostile environment. We failed them; we owe them more: This is their response. The financial dislocations, the struggles with domestic and sexual abuse, the battle against addictions, the poverty and the despair that many in the movement endure are tragic, painful and real. They have a right to their rage and alienation. But they are also being used and manipulated by forces that seek to dismantle what is left of our democracy and abolish the pluralism that was once the hallmark of our society.
The spark that could set this conflagration ablaze could be lying in the hands of a small Islamic terrorist cell. It could be in the hands of greedy Wall Street speculators who gamble with taxpayer money in the elaborate global system of casino capitalism. The next catastrophic attack, or the next economic meltdown, could be our Reichstag fire. It could be the excuse used by these totalitarian forces, this Christian fascism, to extinguish what remains of our open society.
Let us not stand meekly at the open gates of the city waiting passively for the barbarians. They are coming. They are slouching toward Bethlehem. Let us shake off our complacency and cynicism. Let us openly defy the liberal establishment, which will not save us, to demand and fight for economic reparations for our working class. Let us reincorporate these dispossessed into our economy. Let us give them a reality-based hope for the future. Time is running out. If we do not act, American fascists, clutching Christian crosses, waving American flags and orchestrating mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, will use this rage to snuff us out.
This correlates with these comments from Noam Chomsky, quoted in Chris Hedges’ column for Truth Dig on April 19th, 2010:

“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Chomsky told me when I called him at his office in Cambridge, Mass. “The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.”

“The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen,” Chomsky went on. “Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response. What are people supposed to think if someone says ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’? There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens it will be more dangerous than Germany. The United States is the world power. Germany was powerful but had more powerful antagonists. I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election.”

“I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime,” Chomsky added. “I am old enough to remember the 1930s. My whole family was unemployed. There were far more desperate conditions than today. But it was hopeful. People had hope. The CIO was organizing. No one wants to say it anymore but the Communist Party was the spearhead for labor and civil rights organizing. Even things like giving my unemployed seamstress aunt a week in the country. It was a life. There is nothing like that now. The mood of the country is frightening. The level of anger, frustration and hatred of institutions is not organized in a constructive way. It is going off into self-destructive fantasies.”

Chris Hedges, who writes a column every Monday for Truthdig and who graduated from Harvard Divinity School, is the author of “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” He was a reporter for many years with The New York Times. His latest book is “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.”

6 Responses

  1. I’ve lived outside the US for almost thirty years now, so it’s difficult for me to know how seriously to take this prophetic warning from Chris Hedges. Exaggerated? Most of the 107 commentators to this article at Truth Dig seem to think so. Chomsky’s comments seem even more chilling, however, and the comparison to Weimar is apt, given the dismissive ridicule that greeted warnings of the Nazi threat. The heart of the article, however, lies in its dissection of the moral vacuum created by the failure of the ‘liberal class.’

    • Jayden, thank you for posting this. It’s a powerful article. If it’s exaggerated, it’s exaggerated in the rhetorical way a wake-up call has to be exaggerated, if people are going to realize the danger approaching.

      I think that something similar to this posted before the Nazis rose to power in Germany would have been dismissed with equal shrugs by most Germans of the pre-Nazi period. We don’t see–we don’t want to see–the tracks being laid through our town (even if only on planning charts), leading to Auschwitz.

      I’m struck by a number of themes here. First, Hedges makes us all complicit in what he sees happening–liberals above all. He notes that Christofascism appeals to the walking wounded precisely because the liberal dream of utopia has failed to draw these walking wounded into the social network. Liberalism has been “gutless,” devoid of the kind of values (and solidarity) required to heal the social wound from which this malignant growth of fascism is growing.

      We try to meet with reason and facts a belief system that has no recourse at all to facts, which is entirely emotion-based, and which is willing to incorporate gross inconsistencies already (e.g., support for the death penalty alongside fierce resistance to abortion). Pointing out the inconsistencies with reason, when you’ve been tagged one of the devil’s children, is going to get you nowhere, in dealing with these folks, Hedges points out.

      I’m struck, too, by Hedges’s analysis of the cult of masculinity that pervades this movement. And by his willingness to note that this movement relies on “perverted and heretical interpretations” of the bible and Christian tradition, while it decries Christians who don’t walk lock-step with it as unorthodox.

      Above all, I’m struck by Hedges’s insistence that, given our complicity–the complicity of all of us–in allowing whole groups of people to fall into a netherworld where the only hope for salvation they can see is this lurid apocalyptic, anti-modern notion of Christianity. As Hedges notes, the solution liberals should have moved towards long ago is one of solidarity: one that recognizes that these dispossessed fellow citizens are human like we’re human. That they need jobs, education, the advantages others have, if we’re to build a healthy society.

      I think, frankly, that the world we’ve entered at the start of the 21st century is an eyelash away from fascism, everywhere. I believe that we’ll see the rise of neofascist movements in most of the religious traditions of the world at this point in history. And, as Hedges notes, it would take very little to tip most societies in which these movements have begun to thrive over into overt fascism.

      If that happens, I suspect many Catholics tell themselves, we’ll be exemplary witnesses, the way we were when the Nazis came to power–witnesses to the sanctity of all human life. But the reality is, we weren’t exemplary witnesses at all. Not in any Catholic region where the Nazis held sway.

      We were willing accomplices. There is, deeply rooted in Catholicism and nurtured by the last pope and his successor, an infatuation with fascism. That infatuation accounts for the willingness to rehabilitate Bishop Williamson (while one theologian after another has been silenced by the ruthless operations of power). It accounts for the constant willingness not only to tolerate but to glorify movements like Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ, with their deep ties to the fascist regime of Franco’s Spain.

      • Thanks, Bill, for this very thoughtful reply. You’ve highlighted the compassion at the heart of Hedges’ prophetic statement. Instead of simply pointing blame, he rightly emphasizes that we are all complicit in this burgeoning phenomenon that offers ‘escape’ to the disenfranchised, a “social wound from which this malignant growth of fascism is growing.” Thanks as well for making the link to crypto-fascism within Catholicism.
        Here’s another powerful statement from Noam Chomsky:

        “Well, the world is too complex for history to repeat, but there are nevertheless lessons to keep in mind, and even memories. I’m just old enough to remember those chilling and ominous days of Germany’s descent from decency to Nazi barbarism, quoting the distinguished scholar of German history Fritz Stern, who tells us that he has the future of the United States in mind when he reviews what he calls “a historic process in which resentment against a disenchanted secular world found deliverance in the ecstatic escape of unreason.” If that sounds familiar, it is. This is one possible outcome of ‘collapse of the center’ when the radical imagination, which in fact was quite powerful at that time, nonetheless fell short”

    • Jayden,

      Another perspective from Mr. Lindsey’s.

      The prophetic warnings are not only exaggerated, but they are largely irrelevant for the “liberal class”.

      Hedges only hints at a “moral vacuum created by the failure of the ‘liberal class'”. I think it would be more fair to say that Hedges laments that liberals are unable to convince moral plebians that they should identify with the superior qualities of a liberal mindset. Specifically, the Christian right seems to have immense appeal, even though much of what they teach lacks reason and science.

      While Hedges makes a compelling case against the Christian right, one cannot automatically assume that someone against the Christian right has a more compelling case. I once heard it said that the only thing more foolish than believing that Christ rose from the dead is not believing.

      The Christian right captures a need for order in matters of spirituality. Its first cousin is Undifferentiated Pluralism. Undifferentiated Pluralism has no rules, no order, and no organizing principles – just an agreement that anything and everything spiritual is permissible, (except tolerating people who disagree with UP).

      Generally, I think the Christian right, while a powerful political force, does not carry much intellectual weight. Certainly, little is to be gained by lamenting how Christianity is being hijacked by the unthinking forces on the political right. A much productive approach would be for the UP’s to order their own house. While I cannot agree with the certainty of certainty of the Christian right, I can understand the appeal. On the other hand, the certainty of uncertainty in the UP’s leaves me with an joyless heart and an empty mind.

  2. They’re working on it.
    Brian McClaren for starters.
    BTY people want hope and faith, not intellectual justification dependent upon rules, order & organizing principles.

  3. *Hayes needs to step a little lighter when the use of phrases like “religious fantasy.” While labeling pseudo-religious apocalyptic nihilism a fantasy is justifiable, it will not do to reduce faith to pure fantasy, no, not even within the religious right. Too many of the liberal class he lambasts use just that argument to dismiss faith. To those who have hope in God – including mystics of every age and every religion – faith is more than mere wish-fulfillment (well, OK, that too, if one doesn’t want to discount our deepest impulses for meaning & fulfillment), but faith can be a response to mystery, the footprint in the sand, the glow in the dark, the foundation of compassionate response to the world.

    If we want to fight religious fascism, we have to rehabilitate – or at least represent – THAT face of faith. Which is represented in much religious artwork throughout the world, compassionate Buddha’s & Madonna’s & Christ’s images mirror the loving-kindness that genuine religion has always represented. The dark side of religion is not the whole story; part of responding to religious fascism is presenting the alternative message that has always been present.

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