Ten winters ago, Chris Hedges authored a book bearing the unsubtle, positively hysterical title “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” It was published not by some obscure fringe outfit one step removed from the mimeograph but by Simon & Schuster, which in the book’s marketing copy advertised its terror that Christians of Pat Robertson’s ilk presented “a very real threat to our freedom and our way of life.” The book was reviewed respectfully, though not always positively, everywhere from the New York Times to O: The Oprah Magazine, which is no celebrity vanity project but a valuable part of the Hearst publishing empire. Hedges, a product of Loomis Chaffee School, Colgate, and Harvard, went on to win a Pulitzer prize as part of the New York Times team covering international terrorism.
The book’s argument — that a secretive movement of authoritarian Christians organized along the lines of the great totalitarian movements of the 20th century was on the verge of seizing power through violence — was preposterous, pure conspiracy-theory nonsense of the Bilderberg and Bohemian Grove variety. But that was not of interest to Francine Prose (real name!) of O, who wrote that Hedges had uncovered nested conspiracies “that pose a clear and present danger to our precious and fragile republic.”
“Clear and present danger” was an interesting choice of phrase — it is the formulation the Supreme Court used to determine when the federal government might violate liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment or other civil rights. Prose is not (merely) some left-wing conspiracy kook: She is today a visiting professor at Bard College and the former president of PEN American Center. She surely was not so ignorant as to be unaware that she was glancingly making an argument for censorship, the violation of religious liberties, and the suspension of civil rights in response to an anti-American conspiracy that, viewed from a decade down the road, kinda sorta seems to not quite exist, much less to present a “clear and present danger to our precious and fragile republic.” Publishers Weekly took a similarly sympathetic view of attacking the political rights of an unpopular religious minority, citing “a democratic society’s suicidal tolerance for intolerant movements” that constitute “a serious and growing threat to the very concept and practice of an open society.”
Rick Perlstein of the New York Times considered the same evidence and found reason to doubt Hedges’s apocalyptic certitude, faulting the author for leaning so heavily upon the “supposed imminence of mass violence” when “he can’t point to any actual existing violence among the people he’s reporting on.” But as Perlstein is excruciatingly well positioned to appreciate, there is no penalty in American intellectual circles for being wildly, grotesquely wrong about conservative Christians.
The Left characterized George W. Bush’s modest pro-life activism as the institution of a “Christian Taliban” (American progressives have never managed to get their heads around the fact that Islamic law is notably liberal on the question of abortion), with Stephen Pizzo, writing on Alternet, quoting Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry on contraception and adding: “The [Bush] administration moved quickly to install similarly-minded Christian fundamentalists to positions of authority and influence over all matters relating to reproductive and sexual health.” That never actually happened — if you want to know how many Republicans are minded similarly to Randall Terry, consider his 7 percent showing in his primary-election bid for a House seat from New York State — but never mind. The Left believes that there really should be a Christian Taliban, whether one actually exists or doesn’t.
Consequently, The American Interest wrote breathlessly of a “Christian Taliban” at West Point, while Daily Kos uncovered a “Christian Taliban” at the Air Force Academy. Ah, but that was then; it’s also now: In July 2016, Sirius XM host Thom Hartmann claimed that a “Christian Taliban” had taken over the Republican party . . . which was on the cusp of nominating the thrice-married, socially liberal, pro-gay, pro-abortion-until-five-minutes-ago Donald Trump as its standard-bearer.
Needless to say, the “global Christian empire” sustained by “a mass movement fueled by unbridled nationalism and a hatred for the open society” — Simon & Schuster’s florid and perfervid description of the villains of American Fascists — did not come to pass. Embarrassing for Chris Hedges, sure, but it wasn’t just one dotty crank with a day job at the New York Times. Similar books had preceded his, with titles such as “Eternal Hostility: The Struggle between Theocracy and Democracy.” The author of that book spelled out the secret Christian agenda, which would
replace democracy with a theocratic elite that would govern by imposing their interpretation of “Biblical Law.” Reconstructionism would eliminate not only democracy but many of its manifestations, such as labor unions, civil rights laws, and public schools. Women would be generally relegated to hearth and home. Insufficiently Christian men would be denied citizenship, perhaps executed. So severe is this theocracy that it would extend capital punishment beyond such crimes as kidnapping, rape, and murder to include, among other things, blasphemy, heresy, adultery, and homosexuality.
What actually happened was something close to the opposite.
Ten years ago, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were on record as opponents of homosexual marriage, and Elena Kagan argued that there was no constitutional right to homosexual marriage. But homosexual marriage is today the law of the land. In 2003, one could, in theory, go to jail for homosexual acts; today, one can go to jail for refusing to participate in the public consecration of such acts, sexual outlaws having been replaced by nonconformist bakers and fundamentalist flower arrangers in our national rogues’ gallery. No one is being executed for using contraception — quite the contrary: The Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns, has had to go all the way to the Supreme Court seeking some relief from the Obama administration’s insistence that the group of elderly celibates must provide birth control to its members, who do not wish to use it and who in fact consider the forced purchase of it a violation of their consciences and their First Amendment rights.
There is, in fact, almost no evidence that the vast conspiracy of Christian theocrats plotting to overthrow the republic ever existed as anything other than after-eight talk among a couple of cranky Calvinist theologians. More generally, there is very little evidence that the so-called Christian Right — which is in fact not especially Christian or conservative as those terms are conventionally understood — has much meaningful influence on public policy. A few textbook reviewers in Texas might get froggy over evolution from time to time, but they react similarly to controversial topics that have nothing to do with Sunday-school lessons, notably global warming.
That isn’t Christian fundamentalism in action — it is populism in action.
Much has been made of purported Evangelical support for the candidacy of Donald Trump, under headlines that have a familiar Chris Hedges flavor, e.g., Heather Digby Parton’s “Evangelicals Love Donald Trump . . . Why It’s So Scary.” Another left-wing writer described Trump’s rise as a consequence of “GOP evangelical narcissism.” These are a funny kind of Christian fundamentalist, though: As all those late-primary think pieces on Evangelicals and Trump were being written, nobody was paying any attention to the polls, which consistently found that churchgoing Evangelicals supported Trump at half the level of unchurched voters. Trump is popular in Appalachia and the Rust Belt, among people J. D. Vance describes in his recent memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: people who may describe themselves as Christian hardliners but whose lives, habits, and real-world religious practice belie that claim. Once, they were a counter-counterculture, and today they are closer to a simple counterculture. Like all countercultures, they are suspicious of authority and claims of authority: They may scoff at global warming as a scam and a conspiracy, the conventional account of evolution as contrary to the plain evidence of their eyes, etc., but they are just as likely to believe that quantitative easing is a conspiracy organized by a gentlemen’s club in Monte Rio, Calif., and that the moon landings were faked. They are not members of a Christian Taliban — if there were such a thing, they would be Exhibit A in its indictment of secular, materialistic, consumerist, hedonistic American society.
But there isn’t a Christian Taliban. One might generously call the diagnosis of Hedges et al. an exaggeration, but in practical terms it is closer to an invention. The widespread movement, the federal agencies larded with covert Christian operatives, the nation on the precipice of civil unrest — none of this actually exists. Not in the real world.
But political rhetoric is not the real world. The Left is selling an odd and ambitious agenda: turning the United States into a Scandinavian welfare state, not as those exist today (after decades of reform largely at the hands of center-right parties) but as they existed in the 1970s, American society as one big public utility administered by one big DMV in Washington. That’s a tough sell, and tough sells need enemies. Choosing to make an unpopular religious minority the face of all that is wrong with a society isn’t exactly unprecedented, nor is alternating those attacks with related aggression against hated economic minorities. The socialist world has shown itself perfectly capable of scapegoating Jews and Kulaks in tight series. The United States is not on the verge of a Stalinist terror, but the mechanics are roughly the same.
We — we Americans, not conservatives alone — must be clear-eyed and clear-headed about what is happening in our politics right now. The Right certainly has its problems as Trump’s vapid populism encounters the jackboot dreams of his worst followers. But the picture for the Left is in the long run much more worrisome: The Democratic party already has conducted a Senate vote to repeal free-speech guarantees of the First Amendment in order to suspend the political activities of hated political rivals, or at least to smother them with federal regulation. Hillary Rodham Clinton has made a very high-profile promise to pursue that goal, which makes sense: The fundamental issue at question in Citizens United was whether the federal government might censor a political film critical of none other than Mrs. Clinton, and the Clintons’ pursuit of self-interest always has been remarkably linear.
Ten years ago, the largely imaginary conservative Christian bogeymen were presented as a “clear and present danger” to the United States, which is to say as enemies of the state, by the progressive intellectual class and its cultural organs. The Left dreamed of overriding the Bill of Rights to silence its rivals through prosecution then, and that dream has become more grandiose in the decade since. New bogeymen will be invented, and new criminal cases against them will be invented, too: Witness the current investigation and prosecution by Democratic attorneys general of institutions promoting dissident ideas about global warming, or the criminalization of certain kinds of counseling for unhappy homosexuals, or the ongoing project to follow directly in the Soviet example and declare the conservative political temperament a form of mental illness.
There is indeed an American fascism at work, but not where Chris Hedges imagined it.