As a novice back in the 1960s, a professor I know made the rookie mistake of holding open a door for a female student. Seeing his attempt at chivalry, she froze with indignation — face reddening, fists clenching — and shrieked: “Fascist!” Then she wheeled around on her heel and stomped away.
The reality behind this vignette persists even today: the shrill, quixotic paranoia of the activist in search of a grievance. It is evoked anew by the latest literary venture of Chris Hedges, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and leftist provocateur. His new book is called American Fascists — The Christian Right and The War on America, and, as the title suggests, subtlety is not its strong suit. The front cover bears an image of Jesus holding the American flag. The back cover launches straight into the Nazi comparison: It announces that the legions of “the Christian Right” — the “ideological inheritors” of the Third Reich — have “found a mask for fascism in patriotism and the pages of the Bible.” Inside, Hedges holds the line: Fanatical evangelicals are on the verge of seizing control of the U.S. government, dismantling our liberal democracy, and imposing a regime of theocratic fascism. This thesis is kept up for over 200 pages of hysteria that masquerades as a noble, sophisticated, principled defense of American liberty.
The obvious hurdle for Hedges to clear is the breathtaking outlandishness of his central claim. As he spouts one frantic line after another, the troublesome question leaps to mind: Is there really such a large and influential bloc of Americans who want to impose a political order that substantially resembles Nazism, or even some less murderous form of fascism? Is America’s liberal democracy really under such serious attack from within? Or is Hedges really as crazy as he sounds?
In an attempt to deflect this question, Hedges begins by defining the doctrine of “Dominionism” — a radical form of fundamentalism that contrasts sharply with his own, more enlightened, brand of Christianity. (He informs us at the outset that his own background is far from godless: His father was a Presbyterian minister, and he himself attended Harvard Divinity School — which, he fails to mention, has become the nation’s premier seminary for liberals who want to credential themselves as religious believers before heaping scorn on religion.) “Dominionism,” says Hedges, “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.” And this drags its adherents inexorably toward theocracy.
Getting down to political substance, Hedges declares that the dominionist movement “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.’” (Is he really suggesting that opposing gay marriage is a totalitarian position?) He also warns that, if the dominionists have their way, “Women will be removed from the workforce to stay at home, and all those deemed insufficiently Christian will be denied citizenship. . . . The only legitimate voices in this state will be Christian. All others will be silenced.”
Hedges ventures that “traditional evangelicals” — “true dominionists” of the totalitarian stripe — probably account for between 7 and 12.6 percent of the American population. He reminds us, of course, that “only a tiny minority” of Christians support “this darker vision of an intolerant, theocratic America.” But when he wants to sound dire about the scope of the threat, he puffs up the rhetoric: “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.” These proto-fascists have already “seized control of the Republican party,” and now hold 186 seats in Congress.
So this is what Hedges has concluded from his survey of the American political scene: The Republican party has been hijacked by religious fanatics who want the government to censor and deny citizenship to non-Christians, bar women from the workplace, do away with democracy, and replace it with some sort of Christian totalitarianism. For good measure, he even tosses in a bit of gratuitous moral equivalency: “The Christian Right and radical Islamists, although locked in a holy war, increasingly mirror each other.”
Now, what is most striking about this view is not its utter incredibility (though I’ll grant it’s a close call). More remarkable is that this thoroughly distorted vision of American politics is being espoused by such a solidly mainstream journalist. Chris Hedges worked for 15 years at the New York Times. He has won a Pulitzer Prize, and is now a bestselling author. He’s considered a respected writer and thinker in the liberal cocktail set on both coasts. And here he has written an entire book that is premised on delusion, riddled with paranoia, and positively dripping with sensationalism.
But of course, this is nothing new. All this dire talk about the ascendancy of theocracy and fascism in America is not Hedges’s invention. It’s an echoing old banality that has grown dull and tired with age, but has nonetheless been getting louder lately. Surely there is some explanation for this odd feature of the Left, so mindless and angry and eager to smear religious conservatives as aspirant theocrats.
Part of the obsession can be understood in terms of intellectual reassurance. Either because they legitimately can’t understand how any clear-headed person could disagree with them, or because they hunger to feel more secure about their own political beliefs, many on the left are anxious to dismiss their ideological opponents as irrational fanatics who have been seduced by superstition and power-lust. It has long been standard practice for liberals to say that their politics merely reflect objective rationality, so that only an ideologue could disagree with them.
This is evident in Hedges’s book when, in his typically measured tone, he says that traditional evangelicals are fighting “to crush and silence the reality-based world.” As it turns out, of course, “the reality-based world” is exactly that which conforms to the progressive social and political arrangements that Hedges favors. Because fundamentalist Christians focus so much on the afterlife, he says, their worldly politics are hopelessly irresponsible: “These believers can ignore their own social responsibility for inadequate inner-city schools, for the 18 percent of American children who don’t get enough to eat each day, for the homeless, for the mentally ill. They accept the curtailing of federal assistance programs and turn inward, assisting only within their exclusive Christian community and damning the world outside.”
In the first place, this claim about “damning the world outside” is flatly false. In fact, conservative Christians are among the most generous people in America today: Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks just released a book reporting that conservatives give 30 percent more than liberals to charity, and religious believers are 57 percent more likely than secularists to help the homeless.
Putting that inaccuracy aside, it is revealing that Hedges here characterizes opposition to “federal assistance programs” as being motivated primarily by fundamentalist religious impulses. Indeed, throughout his book, he consistently caricatures conservative ideas as the loopy offshoots of a fanatical religious movement, and thus avoids engaging them seriously. He utterly ignores the fact that there are compelling secular arguments for conservative positions on practically every major political issue today — gay marriage, stem-cell research, abortion, foreign policy, education, Social Security, etc. Rather than deal with these arguments, he chooses to stamp his foot and yell “Fascists!”
Perhaps this is why Hedges misses the obvious truth that no significant part of the conservative movement, much less the Republican party, has any active political interest in establishing a fascist state that would overturn American democracy or curtail basic individual freedoms. Maybe he, like so many other liberals, just does not want to confront the prospect that some people could be intelligent, well-intentioned, rational, and even non-religious, and still fundamentally disagree with progressive political views. The problem of conservatism becomes much less tractable for liberals if they admit that it is not a type of crypto-Nazism, or a disease resulting from some intellectual or emotional deficiency. And so we have these absurd little books being published that tell vicious lies about entire swaths of the American public, and, in the process, make fools of their authors.
– Anthony Dick is an NR associate editor.