Author Argues Christian Right Hurts Democracy
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
After a long career as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and other news organizations, including NPR, journalist Chris Hedges has written a series of provocative books and is certain to raise controversy with his latest from its title alone: "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America."
Hedges argues that a radical minority of evangelicals is actively working to create an American theocracy and to eliminate nonbelievers. Liberals, mainstream Christians and the media, he says, stand by and watch in the name of tolerance. There arise moments, he writes, when those who would destroy the tolerance that makes an open society possible should no longer be tolerated.
Later in the hour, we'll talk with New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall about who beat her up in Pakistan and why, and with a very happy filmmaker who just sold his movie at Sundance.
But first, Chris Hedges. If you want to challenge his argument or praise it, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Chris Hedges joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. And Chris, nice to talk to you.
Mr. CHRIS HEDGES (Author, "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America"): Nice to talk to you, Neal.
CONAN: You don't mince words with that title "American Fascists." You don't think you're overstating things a bit?
Mr. HEDGES: No. It was title that I spent a lot of time deliberating. I mean, it has historical connotations which conjure up images of sort of brown shirts and swastikas, but fascism as an ideology takes many forms. I spent a lot of time not only reading but speaking with writers such Robert O. Paxton, who wrote "Anatomy of Fascism," Fritz Stern's great book "The Politics of Cultural Despair."
And I begin the book by quoting a short series of points from Umberto Eco's small book called "Five Moral Pieces," where he writes about the 14 ways of looking at a black shirt or identifying what he calls eternal fascism. And I think that when we break down the ideology of, certainly, the radical wing of this movement known as dominionists, enough of its bigotry and intolerance and lust for violence and cult of masculinity fit generic forms of fascism.
CONAN: So what is dominionism?
Mr. HEDGES: Dominionism is a very radical mutation of - that comes out of the American evangelical movement as espoused by writers such as Rousas Rushdoony and Gary North. And it - I think when we use terms like evangelical or fundamentalist, we're using them incorrectly because traditional fundamentalists always called on relievers - believers to remove themselves from the contaminants of secular society, to shun politics. Traditional evangelical leaders like Billy Graham called on followers to be very wary of getting too close to power, and of course he was manipulated and badly burned and used by Richard Nixon.
This is a new movement. This is a movement as espoused by people like Pat Robertson that calls about taking political power, creating what they define as a Christian state. And that is markedly different from every other religious revival that we've seen within our country.
CONAN: In a sense, you do call them heretics. You also, from your description of that - this is treason, isn't it? If they want to overthrow the Constitution?
Mr. HEDGES: I think that much of what they do is seditious. There is no place in their very narrow view of what America should be for people who do not submit to their - not only their ideology and their belief system, but these male figures who claim to speak on behalf of God. I mean, look closely at the kinds of things they say, for instance, about gays and lesbians or about people they define as secular humanists. In a Christian state, these people are only worthy of conversion or extinction.
CONAN: You also - how dangerous is it? Is this just a fringe group? People like Pat Robertson seemingly have less and less influence.
Mr. HEDGES: It is a fringe group. It's a small number. I mean, people who are hardcore dominionists, certainly it's in the, you know, single percentages. We don't know exactly - seven percent, 10 percent. And what they do is they count on the sympathy of the 80 to 100 million Americans who define themselves as born again and as committed Christians.
But the importance of this movement is, one, that it receives funding from right-wing organizations and large corporations - Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, etc. - and secondly, it's a ruthless and sophisticated network that is virtually taking control of all Christian radio and television. It also has take over denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention. And if we go back and look, for instance, at this power-grab that took over in 1980 - that took over the Southern Baptist Convention - those who did not buy into this political agenda were ruthlessly thrust aside, even if they supported many of the sort of conservative or hot-button issues such as opposing abortion and homosexuality.
CONAN: We're talking with Chris Hedges. His new book is "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America." If you'd like to join our conversation, our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com. And let's see if we can get Jim on the line. Jim's calling us from Charlotte, North Carolina.
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CONAN: Jim, are you there?
JIM (Caller): Yes. Yes, I am. I needed to ask the author - I mean, I myself am a Christian, but I wouldn't even somewhat agree with Pat Roberts. But the author stating that you need to restrict someone's free speech just for mere words, he's advocating - I mean, what he's advocating is fascism, is he (unintelligible)?
Mr. HEDGES: Well...
JIM: I mean you can't - you cannot be the moral judge of the world. I mean, if you want to go all the way back to U.S. history, look in the early 1800s with the Great Awakening. I mean, should we have stopped it then?
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Mr. HEDGES: I think that, you know, in a democratic society, people don't have a right to preach the extermination of others, which has been a part of this movement of - certainly in terms of what should be done with homosexuals. You know, Rushdoony and others have talked about 18 moral crimes for which people should be executed, including apostasy, blasphemy, sodomy, and all - in order for an open society to function, it must function with a mutual respect, with a respect...
Mr. HEDGES: ...for other ways to be and other ways to believe. And I think that the fringes of this movement have denied people that respect, which is why they fight so hard against hate crimes legislation - such as exist in Canada - being made law in the United States.
CONAN: But Chris, to be fair, aren't you talking about violating their right to free speech, their right to religion as laid out in the First Amendment?
Mr. HEDGES: Well, I think that when you preach - or when you call for the physical extermination of other people within the society, you know, you've crossed the bounds of free speech. I mean, we're not going to turn a cable channel over to the Ku Klux Klan. Yet the kinds of things that are allowed to be spewed out over much of Christian radio and television essentially preaches sedition. It preaches civil war. It's not a difference of opinion. With that kind of rhetoric, it becomes a fight for survival.
JIM: OK, the last comment I have to make - and I'll leave and I'll take the comment off the air - is I mean, surely, there has to be a middle ground somewhere. I mean, if I disagree with you, does that mean I'm in the wrong?
Mr. HEDGES: No.
JIM: Does that mean I'm an extremist?
Mr. HEDGES: No. But if you believe that I'm a demonic force of Satan, you know, manipulated by a secular humanist ideology and I must be silenced in order to create a Christian America, that's something else. I think that the beauty of an open society - or a democratic state - is that we are free to disagree with each other. We are free to have other ways of being and other forms of faith and other forms of faith and other forms of expression. But this is a movement that does not recognize that legitimacy.
JIM: But even within a free society...
CONAN: Jim, you promised to...
JIM: ...your rights are limited.
CONAN: All right, Jim, thanks very much....
JIM: Thank you.
CONAN: We wanted to give other people a chance, but we want to thank you for the call. Let's see if we can get - this is Paul. Paul's with us from Dayton, Ohio.
PAUL (Caller): Yeah, thanks for taking my call.
PAUL: I was wondering if your guest could comment on the similarities and differences between militant political Islam and militant political Christianity, both in terms of their scope and how successful they've been in their methods.
CONAN: Beginning I guess with the fact that they see themselves as being at war with each other. But go ahead, Chris.
PAUL: Yeah, that's a little subtext to it.
Mr. HEDGES: Well, I think in many ways they're the mirror image of each other, and of course these radical, apocalyptic movements - and remember that, you know, one of the engines of this movement is the belief that catastrophic, apocalyptic violence will be a cleansing agent on the Earth - that's something they share with radical Islam - and that of course believers in this kind of strange, spiritual Darwinism will be saved and the rest of us who have not submitted to this belief system, along with the rest of the Earth, will be destroyed.
I mean this is really in both cases a theology of despair, which is what I believe these movements draw upon. It draws on people who suffer deep personal or economic despair. And it is the distortions that we've created in American society - I mean look at what's happened to the American working class, many of whom come from my own family. You know, they - there is no longer a possibility in many of these former manufacturing centers for communities to function. I mean the downtowns are boarded-up wrecks, the streets are potholed, people can't get health insurance, wages have plummeted from $50 an hour with benefits to $16 an hour without benefits. And it's that dislocation, that despair, that loss of hope, that destruction of community, with all of the social ills that it's brought - you know, domestic abuse, alcoholism, broken homes, and on and on and on - that this movement has effectively, like all radical utopian movements, played upon, because it has removed believers - and this is again something it shares with radical Islam - from the reality-based world into a world of magic, into a world where God has a plan for you, where there are angels and miracles and where Jesus not only takes care of you but ultimately will assure you of material success.
That's what creationism itself is about. It is the destruction of dispassionate, honest, intellectual inquiry and replacing it with a lying world of consistency that is more in tune with these - this despair and this human yearning than it is with reality itself, so that - you know, I covered the war in Yugoslavia for three years for the New York Times, and you saw in a figure like Franjo Tudjman, the dictator in Croatia - and who lead the Croatian nationalists movement, a kind of mirror image of Slobodan Milosevic, who led the Serbian nationalists movement in Belgrade. And in many ways these two figures needed each other and played off of each other, because the first thing they have to do is destroy the moderate center within their own societies by appealing to that kind of fear. And I think that radical Islam and the radical Christian right are kind of evil twins that use each other to play off of each other and to destroy the centers of their own society.
PAUL: Do you think either -
CONAN: Paul, I'm afraid we've got to go to a break, but thanks very much for the call. We're talking today with Chris Hedges. His new book is "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America." If you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after a short break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
Chris Hedges is our guest. He's a journalist and graduate of the Harvard Divinity School. We're talking about his new book "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America." If you'd like to take a closer look at the book, you can read the first chapter online. Just visit our Web site at npr.org/talk. And of course you're invited to join the conversation. If you want to challenge his argument or agree, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's turn to Sean. Sean's with us from Quincy, California.
SEAN (Caller): Yes, thank you very much. While I don't want to challenge or agree with the premise, I would like an example of who these people are. Who are they? You keep referring to they, and also an example of how they may be influencing American culture, politics, and the like.
Mr. HEDGES: James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Benny Hinn. You know, there's - there are a group of people who are quite open about transforming American society. D. James Kennedy would be another. I spent a week in his Evangelism Explosion seminar at Coral Ridge. Tim LaHaye...
CONAN: Author of the...
Mr. HEDGES: The "Left Behind" series.
CONAN: "Left Behind" series, yes. Are you talking about people - you say at one point, Chris, that this movement has taken control of the Republican Party.
Mr. HEDGES: Yeah. I mean it's certainly forced out, you know, moderate, so-called Rockefeller Republicans. There's not much place left for them. We certainly see what happened to John McCain when he stood up against them when he first ran for president, calling Falwell and Robertson agents of intolerance. And he's of course now down giving commencement speeches at Bob Jones University and courting the Christian - the radical Christian right - because he knows he can't be a candidate unless he gets them behind him.
CONAN: But control the Republican Party?
Mr. HEDGES: Largely. I think the control is - you know, they have taken over a lot of state committees. There's certainly - you know, you have pockets of the Republican Party, for instance, in New Jersey and other places, which have remained free. But in much of the country, they've become a potent political force. Remember, these people are pretty well funded. Tim LaHaye has done a pretty job of going around and getting right-wing think tanks, DeVores(ph) and Sam's Club and Wal-Mart, all these people behind it, because of course, you know, as we see the creation of an American oligarchy - we already we live in a country where the top one percent of the nation controls more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, propelling, you know, a middle class or a lower class, working class, into a belief system of magic is great because you don't need healthcare, you don't need good schools. Your job's outsourced and sent overseas, but you can get right with Jesus, you'll be taken care of.
And there's been a kind of unholy marriage between corporatists - corporatism of course being a fundamental component of fascism; many people call it the corporate state - and the Christian right, which has given a kind of popular appeal to this raw capitalism. And you know, the movement talks a lot about acculturating American society with Christian values. I think in fact - and that's why I do call them heretics - what they've done is acculturate the Christian religion with the worst elements of American imperialism and American capitalism.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Another point: in part of your conversation, you identify Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court justice. Is Antonin Scalia a fascist?
Mr. HEDGES: I wouldn't go that far. And I think that one has to be careful about those kinds of labels on individuals. You know, it's more the belief system that they propel forward. And as we know from radical movements, often times people who push these radical agendas through become their victims. In many cases, many of them become their victims. And you know, making a book of lists that sort of insults people - I mean, you know, and they've done that against liberals and the left - is not where I'm going. I mean the idea is to look at the core values of this belief system, its war on truth, its cult of masculinity, that final aesthetic of violence.
And of course I write - you know, I graduated from seminary, I grew up in the church, my father was a minister, I'm a believer, and I think there's a certain amount of anger in the book at how I - and because I'm biblically literate, I think I'm a little more sensitive to how grossly they have distorted and misused the Bible to promote what I see as an ideology of exclusion, intolerance, hatred, and ultimately violence. And these End Time series that we mentioned by Tim LaHaye are pornographic, virtually, in the descriptions of violence within its pages.
CONAN: Sean, thanks very much for the phone call.
SEAN: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Paul in Columbus, Ohio. Would your guest be able to comment on control of information, be it access to the word of God, current events, scientific theory, et cetera, and how controlling such information makes religious fascism possible?
Mr. HEDGES: Well, this is an extremely important point because what this movement has done very effectively is set up hermetic, closed information systems through Christian radio and broadcasting so that people - believers - can get their news, their entertainment, their health and beauty tips, their spiritual guidance, all fed to them through this ideological prism, without any kind of outside, you know, any kind of criticism, any kind of alternative viewpoints. And that has become incredibly effective in terms of indoctrinating and pushing forward this movement and keeping tens of millions of Americans essentially cut off from mainstream society.
One of the other things that's very interesting about this movement, which again I think is a sort of classical element of totalitarian movements, is the way that they have taken words, both within the Christian faith and words that are pivotal words for American democracy, and sort of hollowed them out, made them to mean things that they no longer mean. Words like truth, wisdom, death, liberty, life, love - they don't mean what they mean to us outside the movement.
Life and death, for instance, means life in Christ, or death to Christ, and that's used to signal belief or unbelief in the risen Lord. Wisdom doesn't have anything to do with human wisdom but refers to the level of commitment and obedience to this system of belief. Liberty's not about freedom, but liberty that's found when one accepts Jesus Christ and is liberated from the world to obey him. And I think one of the most pernicious distortions comes from the use of the word love, which of course is what many of these people are seeking, it's what's used to lure many of them in the movement. And it's - love is distorted within the movement to mean an unquestioned obedience to those who claim to speak for God in return for the promise of everlasting life.
And when I would attend these events, it had a kind of schizophrenic quality where they would talk about a loving God and a caring God, and then, you know, a minute later talk about the way that nonbelievers would be completely destroyed and suffer torments if they weren't right with Christ. And they would ask the question, do you know for sure that tomorrow you're going to heaven? And then they would swing back and talk about love again. And by the end of the day, even though I didn't buy into the belief system, I was just spinning. It had a kind of - it just knocked you off balance. And I think we have to look closely at the language they use and how they define the words they use to uncover what the movement is about.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Kendal, Kendal with us from San Rafael in California.
KENDAL (Caller): Yes, hi. Good morning. I had a question - or good afternoon. I had a question for your guest about what seems to be really confusing, where Pat Robertson and his ilk seem to have this unending support for Israel. And I was wondering, seemingly disparate interests seem to be together on that. I was just wondering what his - if he found anything in relationship to this movement.
Mr. HEDGES: Yeah, and it took me a long time to figure it out. And I think that the ties between this movement unites messianic Jews and messianic Christians who believe that they have been given a divine or moral right to run the Middle East. Of course the End Time eschatology involves Israel, and you know, the worse the Palestinian-Israeli conflict becomes, the more the war deteriorates in Iraq, the better - the better it is, because the closer we get to Armageddon and the Rapture and the final cataclysmic battle that will destroy the Earth and when which believers naked will be lifted up into heaven and the rest of us will be destroyed. So that has been a convenient political alliance for many Israeli Jews.
But I think it's an alliance that's going to backfire on them, because I find a strong strain of anti-Semitism that runs through the movement. There is no legitimacy of the Jewish faith, at least as recognized by leaders of this movement. And when they talk about the End Times, I think it's 144,000 Jews will flee to Petra and they will convert and become Christians. But the rest of the Jewish - all other Jewish believers will be destroyed with the rest of us. And you know, there's - Jews are a kind of abstract entity in that final move towards the End Times, but a real respect and appreciation for the depth and power and religiosity of Judaism I don't find in the movement.
Let me just also add that, you know, these movements, these radical movements, need a period of prolonged instability in order to come to power, and we don't have that now. I mean they've made encroaching gains in the judiciary, in the federal government, received hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars from, in taxpayer money, from - in the tax-based initiative.
But it's going to take another catastrophic terrorist attack, an economic meltdown, a series of environmental disasters in order for these people to manipulate and play on the kind of fear and insecurity, and of course, push through their law and order agenda, which can only be carried out if we surrender what little rights we have left to go forward.
And without that period of instability, I don't think these people are a threat. But should we enter a period like that - and I spent a year of my life covering al-Qaida for The New York Times, there was not an intelligence chief I interviewed here or in Europe or anywhere else who didn't speak about that kind of an attack as inevitable. Should we enter a period like that, then I think this movement stands poised to reshape American society in ways that we have not seen since the nation's founding.
JIM: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. You argue a lot about the forces that are actually allowing this to proceed in the name of tolerance, mainstream Christians, the majority of fundamentalists or Evangelicals even, and liberals, and the media.
Mr. HEDGES: Yeah, I think, you know, there's, you know, I spent most of my life, as you know, Neal, working in the institutions where I think people come out of primarily secular traditions. And there's a, you know, I'm living in New York. I mean, there's a kind of disdain sometimes for the religiosity that very much formed my own life. A kind of believe that, you know, all religious people are, at their core are sort of yahoos.
And I think that that's allowed people to dismiss this movement, to sort of laugh at this movement. I mean, I was - I write about The Creation Museum in Kentucky, this $25-million museum - where, you know, they recreate the Garden of Eden, and they argue that dino - because as everything was created in 6 six days, according to the book of Genesis.
And dinosaurs were in the garden of Eden and they have saddles, so people could ride them, but they were plant-eaters because everybody got along before the fall. And it's explained that T. rex has big teeth because - he could - for opening coconuts. And there's a model of Noah's Ark, and it's explained that Noah managed to get the dinosaurs on the ark because he only put baby dinosaurs on the ark.
And there is a kind of laughable quality to it, at the absurdity of it, which I think - and because it is so far over the top, this disbelief system, I think a lot of people have a hard time understanding how deadly serious it is, and how for tens of millions of people in this country, that has become the way they see the world.
And you have pockets, urban pockets, you know - in New York, in L.A., in Washington - that I think have become very well, sort of cut off and cloistered from what's happening than in the rest of the country.
And having traveled around the country, and spent time in these churches or at events from, you know, Florida, to California, to Missouri, to Kansas, to Kentucky; I walked away really beginning to wonder whether I live in a liberal society anymore. And by liberal, I mean, a society that embraces and cares about the democratic core values that I think are, you know, that we have been blessed with, and that makes our country so unique.
CONAN: Chris Hedges is our guest. His new book is "American Fascists." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go to Nate. Nate's with us from Denver, Colorado.
NATE (Caller): Yes, thank you. I - I am an Evangelical Christian. I have a Lutheran perspective on society and how the church engages society, but I have a couple of comments, and they'll be brief.
I think his definition, the subtitle of the book or the title about Christian Right fails to do justice to what he now verbally says is finessing and a fringe. I consider myself a Christian Right in its general sense, but I do not consider myself a dominionizing Christian or a theonomist. And so, for the sake of stereotyping, I think it would be more correct to re-label his book.
Secondly, when he mentions the benchmark of a free society, when you call for the extermination of, and he said, homosexuals. And then he listed James Dobson - I haven't read anything by James Dobson where he calls for the extermination of the homosexuals. So I think that's a misrepresentation as well. A second comment has to do - this is a two-fold balance in a free society. Sweden put a preacher in jail for preaching against the morality, or lack thereof, of homosexual behavior.
And so I think I think this fascism also comes from the other side, the illegitimate, secular desire to control. So, maybe Chris could comment on that.
Mr. HEDGES: Well, you're right that Dobson has not called for the extermination of homosexuals, but he certainly believes that homosexuality is a disease and has no place in a Christian state, and he has advocated the stripping, essentially, of rights of American citizens because of their sexual orientation.
I think the second point that the caller makes is an important one, because the Christian right often uses this argument - that they preach bigotry and intolerance, and then when they're criticized, say that this is an attack against free speech. And I think that's completely convoluted.
When you get up and argue that people who live within your own country should become second-class citizens because they are atheists, or because they're Muslims, or because they are gay, then that is an assault on their freedoms. And I think it's important and incumbent upon those of us who care about the tolerant society, and believe it's worth fighting for, to fight back.
NATE: Well, then, Chris, then let's be honest and include Roman Catholicism, the whole worldwide movement, which says its legitimate moral concern is expressed in not legitimizing same-sex unions. So we're not talking just a fringe of dominionizing. We're talking the Roman Catholic Church, historically; the Lutheran church, so let's...
CONAN: And I'm not trying to cut you off, I just want to get a response, we're running out of time here.
Mr. HEDGES: Well, I think that the rhetoric, the incendiary rhetoric that is used - and we do have a dominionist calling for the execution of homosexuals, and citing Leviticus to argue that point - the rhetoric is very different from the Catholic Church. I would call the Catholic Church's stance towards gays and lesbians bigoted. I would call the stance of those within the radical Christian right or the dominionist movement who call for the execution of gays and lesbians because of the way God made them - fascist.
CONAN: Nate, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. Thanks very much for the call.
NATE: Bless you.
CONAN: I appreciate it. Chris, thank you very much. I appreciate your time today.
Mr. HEDGES: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Chris Hedges, author of "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America". He joined us today from the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California.
When we come back from a short break, Carlotta Gall of The New York Times describes her beating at the hands of Pakistani intelligence after she reported on its support for Taliban operations in Afghanistan.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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