Chris Hedges isn’t afraid to use the “f” word. In his new book, American Fascists, the veteran war correspondent and student of the Bible sounds an alarm exposing what the Christian right can do to America.
Hedges is the son of a late Presbyterian minister who fought for civil rights in a small upstate New York town. Before becoming a reporter, Hedges was on his way to becoming a minister himself. Fueled by a yearning to confront totalitarianism, Hedges went to El Salvador to cover the conflict there, which later sent him on a career covering war for The New York Times and other news outlets in Iraq, Sudan, Palestine, the Balkans and India. Now settled in the United States, he ended his two decade long wartime tenure with the book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.
The Christian right’s critics sometimes dismiss its antics. But when Hedges was studying in seminary, his mentor, James Luther Adams, who escaped from Nazi Germany, warned his students that one day they will fight Christian fascists in America. Hedges hasn’t forgotten this.
At present, one of the Christian right’s obsession is opposing gay rights. Hedges looks at how the Nazi movements first targeted institutions that embraced deviation from sexual norms. That was just the beginning, as the Nazi movement had a long list of social deviants, as does the Christian right, he says, which has tremendous lobbying and political power already.
Can it happen here? Hedges looks at how industrialists embraced Mussolini and how fascist and totalitarian movements grew during points of crisis in the United States. With the poor becoming poorer, especially in rural areas, the Christian right can always find followers. And if there is another terrorist attack or economic downturn, he insists, more people will be seduced, especially in a time when American liberalism has little to offer.
According to Hedges, history is starting to repeat itself. Perhaps the Christian right’s power won’t go as far as imposing genocide, like the Nazis did. But who is willing to wait and find out?
GNN: Is it really appropriate to equate the followers of Jeffrey Falwell with those of Franco and Mussolini?
Chris Hedges: I think that they share enough traits with what we would describe as classical fascist movements. Those traits being hatred of liberal democracy, belief in absolutes, cult of masculinity, obsession with apocalyptic violence as a way to cleanse the earth, a binary view of the world, a belief that theirs is the only legitimate way to speak and be, a complete disdain for those outside the nation or other faiths, a yearning for order, a belief in magic, a belief in a lineal progression of history that culminates in their rise to power.
GNN: Do the tenets of Christianity really line up with tenets of fascism?
CH: I come out of the church; I don’t see these people as Christian. The idea that Jesus wanted us to get rich and drive big cars and live in McMansions is just farcical for anyone who’s read the gospels. The idea that Jesus would bless the war in Iraq—I’m not a pacifist, but Jesus was clearly a pacifist. Not that there aren’t hateful passages in the Bible. There are.
They really ignore most of the gospels because Jesus’ one obsession was with the poor and the outcasts. They’re selective literalists. They’re using Christianity to promote an ideology that has its goal the destruction of our open society.
Fascist movements are always indigenous and they look for indigenous symbols. Hitler or Mussolini may seem exotic and strange to us but they didn’t to Germans and Italians. They built on Teutonic myths. In the case of Mussolini, harkening back to the age of Augustus and imperial Rome.
GNN: So what is really motivating these people?
CH: Power. And they run their little empires like despotic, Third World countries. There’s no questioning, they speak for God, they are surrounded by thuggy body guards, they fly around the country in Lear jets, they amass hundreds of millions of dollars and I think if you look closely at their organizations you see a microcosm of the kind of country they’d like to create.
GNN: Why is mainline Protestantism in decline in the country?
CH: They left the cities along with white flight and still thought they could speak on behalf of the oppressed and the poor from the sanctity of their little gardens in Westchester or Newton, Massachusetts. The hypocrisy of liberalism, the narcissism of it, the belief of spirituality being how it is with “me” killed the religion. It stopped standing and fighting for anything.
When one looks at despotic societies one of the prerequisites is the hollowness of liberal institutions that in the past were bulwarks for liberal democracy. The press would be another example or great research universities.
GNN: It all seems inconceivable.
CH: It’s always inconceivable. Every society that I’ve seen break down even in the process of disintegration people have an emotional inability to comprehend that their world can fall apart. I saw it in the Balkans. People would sit around in café society in Sarajevo and talk about how there wouldn’t be war.
GNN: So what do we do?
CH: Those people who preach intolerance in a civil society have to be silenced. Just as we don’t allow people to call for public lynching or the reinstatement of the slave trade. I don’t think we should allow people to use their closed information system to call for the eradication of gays and lesbians, and all people they define as non-believers, people like myself they would define as nominal Christians. You know, there are tens of millions of people in this country who get their news, entertainment, spiritual guidance, health tips all from Christian radio or television, which has become a form of indoctrination. And that’s why this group is fighting against hate crimes legislation because they know if it is passed it can be used potentially to blunt the hate talk they spew out over the airwaves.
All the conflicts I covered began with poisoning the civil discourse. When you get people to speak in a language of violence they will employ violence. I believe in an open society there are things you cannot say. All criticism must include mutual respect for the dignity and worth of the other. When that is denied it’s no longer a difference of opinion, it’s a fight of survival.
We saw proto-fascist movements in the 1930s with Father Coughlin and Fortune magazine praising Mussolini. But we don’t have progressive forces like the labor unions to blunt these corporatists and fanatics on the religious right. The mainstream press has been rendered impotent by corporate ownership. If we enter a moment of crisis, I wonder who is going to stand up and fight them.