The audience was shocked. Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize¯winning reporter, delivered a Princeton University lecture on the religious right so appalling that even his supporters were embarrassed. One university administrator apologized that Hedges was "so reductionist and offensive," promising that she wouldn’t have invited him had she known. A dean said Hedges’ "behavior was disappointing to everyone and did not reflect the intentions of the sponsors."
Maybe he was just having a bad day? He wasn’t. In his new book, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America , Hedges insists that today’s evangelical Christians are good old-fashioned fascists and Nazis reborn.
A former New York Times foreign correspondent, Hedges got some attention for War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning , a 2002 book drawn from his twenty years of field reporting on armed conflicts. Now, in American Fascists , he offers a critique of contemporary Christianity¯drawing, he tells the reader many times, on his own experience as a Christian and the son of a Presbyterian minister. In fact, he writes, it was while studying at Harvard Divinity School that he first learned American Christians are the Nazis’ modern "ideological inheritors." Bearing not "swastikas and brown shirts" but "patriotism and the pages of the Bible," these new fascists are led by a "theocratic sect" of Calvinism called Dominionism.
Hedges isn’t just name-calling; when he says "fascist," he means it. The Dominionist movement "shares prominent features with classical fascist movements." It has, "like all fascist movements, a belief in magic along with leadership adoration and a strident call for moral and physical supremacy of a master race." If Christian fascists win, then "labor unions, civil-rights laws and public schools will be abolished. Women will be removed from the workforce to stay at home, and all those deemed insufficiently Christian will be denied citizenship."
The key, Hedges claims, is the certainty of evangelical faith. Confidence, we are told, is a fascist ploy, while real Christians accept that we "do not understand what life is about . . . . Faith presupposes that we cannot know. We can never know." Those who take comfort in evangelical dogmas are fleeing what Hedges terms our "Culture of Despair"¯the social and economic conditions of modern industrialized America.
The religious right caused this despair in the first place, according to Hedges: Back in Ronald Reagan’s day, America’s Christians ruined the nation, so that, in George W. Bush’s day, they could take it over. Mostly they did it when they "sanctified a ruthless unfettered capitalism," which eroded community and security. And the whole idea of a "culture war" was merely the religious right’s useful attempt to create a mentality of "us vs. them." To keep their followers docile, Christian leaders have launched a "war on truth" (especially on evolution) and created pseudo-scientific organizations to provide a veneer of intellectual credibility. These, says Hedges, are the modern fascists’ propaganda machines.
Fascist, too, are the cults of personality surrounding televangelists and the structure of the "male-dominated authoritarian church." For Hedges, such "submission to church authority" is "a potent form of emasculation. It entails a surrendering of conscience and personal control and deadens emotions."
Of course, Hedges is drawing caricatures of evangelical spirituality, even at its worst. He certainly shows no sign of having grappled with serious Christian theology, much less intellectually rigorous conservative political thought. And it quickly becomes clear that Hedges’ real target isn’t Dominionism but any form of Christian orthodoxy¯and any orthodox Christian active in politics. On his own admission, his opponents extend beyond evangelicalism: Antonin Scalia is "steeped in this ideology," "right-wing Catholics have joined forces with the movement," and "the movement has seized control of the Republican Party."
If the traits he picks out from American evangelicalism make it a manifestation of fascism, then the entire classical tradition of Christianity is fascist, too. By understanding faith as "an intellectual act, its object truth, and its result knowledge," John Henry Newman must have been an anti-intellectual fascist, in Hedges’ definition. American Fascists contains an exposé of family members crying over their children’s salvation¯which makes St. Augustine’s mother, St. Monica, a fascist ahead of her time. And Hedges’ analysis of the "male-dominated authoritarian church" defines Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and many non-Christian faiths fascist from the start.
What really animates Hedges’ anger at religious conservatives, however, is their recent political power and success on the state level at banning same-sex marriage¯an issue that has been central to Hedges since his father made him start a gay-rights group at college. According to Hedges, the religious right demonizes homosexuals: "Gays and lesbians, like other enemies of Christ, are not fully human."
The truth, of course, is that Hedges is the one who is in the business of demonizing. How open is Hedges’ "open society" if it excludes evangelicals, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, and faithful Catholics from political debate? He protests, at one point, that "democracy keeps religious faith in the private sphere." Yet, a mere seven pages later, he praises the "acts of faith" of Cardinal Mahoney, the archbishop of Los Angeles, for his stand on immigration, Al Gore on global warming, and select "clergy and rabbis" on gay rights.
In fact, Hedges isn’t opposed to the presence of faith in politics. Faith and politics can meet¯if they’re Chris Hedges’ faith and Chris Hedges’ politics. This isn’t surprising, given Hedges’ admission of his own intolerance toward his opponents. As he sees it, "there arise moments when those who would destroy the tolerance that makes an open society possible should no longer be tolerated." That moment is now, and those people are the religious right¯who for Hedges "have no religious legitimacy." His contempt is clear: "Debate with the radical Religious Right is useless . . . . It cares nothing for rational thought and discussion."
It’s all so dated and banal. With dozens of books attacking the religious right already swamping the market, Hedges’ virulent assault comes well after its sell-by date, which means the book will likely get the attention it deserves¯little. At one point, Hedges thanks several Princeton students who "did tremendous and important research, especially under heavy time pressure." Indeed, this is how the book comes across: as a hurried and trite undergraduate diatribe. The organizers of his Princeton lecture ended up apologizing. His publishers should as well.
Ryan T. Anderson is a junior fellow at F IRST T HINGS .