on 22 May 2009
I read this book after thoroughly enjoying Chris Hedges' `Why I Don't Believe In Atheists`. However, I didn't find `American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America' as engaging or thought provoking- but that may simply be down to the fact it made me reassess my own atheism. Furthermore, `American Fascists' didn't say anything that I didn't already suspect about the Christian Right in America.
As the blurb of the book says, it is at times a very anthropological study on the Religious Right in America. Hedges often quotes from, and devotes a fair amount of space to, the numerous Baptist Ministers, followers, TV Evangelists which he has spent time interviewing and observing. While it serves its purpose well in demonstrating their `extreme' opinions, it can be immensely boring. Many say the same thing and as a result Hedges has the tendency to repeat himself and his argument, albeit slightly differently, over and over again; they hate gays, they hate liberals, they hate Muslims, they hate liberal-Christians, they hate the Democrats. We get the picture, they hate. It got to the point that I had to force myself to finish the last two/three chapters as Hedges was just repeating himself.
Essentially, Hedges' argument is that the success of the Religious Right is down to a lack of sustainable and universal quality of living, which breeds uncertainty, a loss of identity and purpose. Many Americans are fearful of the future and the Religious Right has been able to profit from this. It is no small coincidence that the Religious Right has only come into its own as a large scale political and social movement in the past forty years (i.e. with the development of globalisation). The out sourcing of many manufacturing jobs to countries with cheaper wage labour has dealt a significant blow to many working class Americans, while the back drop of social and economic decay all help to reinforce this sense of desperation and uncertainty. As a result, many Americans (Hedges cites many ex-manufacturing workers in Ohio as an example) who are, and who were, working in this area of the economy (there are other areas as well) are increasingly apprehensive about their futures and are turning to fundamentalist Christianity as an antidote. The movement offers community, purpose, direction and above all certainty. The Religious Rights' solution is an extremely powerful and intoxicating escapism which absolves its members of having to make decisions or to plan for the future. The obvious question is then, why do people choose such extremes over more `liberal' churches who still offer them the same solution? This is where the Religious Right and it's particularly intense and insidious (or as Hedges would claim `fascist') methods of conversion come in use. They rely on their converts being fearful of the future, (I won't go into great detail, read the book), and they reinforce this by incessantly bombarding them with apocalyptic prophecies while dividing society into those who are `saved' and `unsaved' with total submission to the Gospel and God as the only means of salvation. The reduction of a person to such a fearful and isolated state strips the individual of their rational senses and thus they can be reconstructed, fully indoctrinated, into a world totally cut off from reality and rationality. Economic crises, 9/11 and the paranoia surrounding terrorism only help to reinforce and confirm people's worst fears.
However, their ultimate aim, and this is what makes them distinctly fascist, is their inherent desire for power. The movements is unambiguously political, with clear goals and policies, they have strong ties to the political elite, especially those in the Republican Party, and large corporations. Ultimately, the Religious Right is attempting a coup, to overthrow American democracy and replace it with a Fundamentalist Christian theocracy.
However, there is a tendency for Hedges to lapse into some fairly paranoid and sensationalist claims himself and given his powerful and impassioned argument it's easy to get swept along by the tide. Another criticism was his lack of counter argument. In the chapter `The War on Truth' (where he examines the pseudo-science that the Religious Right use to validate, explain and justify their arguments on matters of science such as creation, Dinosaurs, Adam and Eve and so on) he repeatedly says that they are wrong, which may well be entirely true, but he gives no evidence as to how or why they are wrong. He simply states they are wrong. I accept that Hedges is not a man of Science, and maybe this part is best left to Dawkins, but I am sure he could have got someone at Princeton to help...
As an interesting comparison to Hedges claims of the Religious Right's hard line stances on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, I attended a talk given by Dr Cynthia Burack of Ohio State University, who has written about, and is currently writing a new book on, the Religious Right in America and Sexuality. Dr Burack's argument was interesting to juxtapose against Hedges, since she is arguing that the Religious Right is maturing in America and is developing a greater sense of `compassion' in its social conservatism(more hate the Sin love the Sinner type stuff). That is not to say that it is becoming more moderate, but that its tactics have evolved to include a greater sense of compassion for the sinner. For example, while they still denounce abortion just as much as before, believe that it is murder and lobby strongly against it, they are now calling for what they call `post-abortive' (instead of child killer) women to come and repent their sins and that their son or daughter is waiting for them in heaven (Hedges identifies this himself and even cites the same example). From this perspective it appears that the Religious Right is changing its attitude towards such issues and I'd be intrigued to know what Hedges' thoughts are on this new development of the Religious Right.